Hoping to speed the deployment of cable-modem services,
major cable Internet-service providers moved last week to dramatically update how they
install and market their product.
The most aggressive move may have been by Road Runner,
which announced initial, limited deployment of an auto-provisioning system enabling
customers to subscribe and activate their service entirely online.
At the same time, Excite@Home Corp. announced a
less-extensive online-subscription initiative, plus a deal with Dell Computer Corp. to
bundle high-speed Internet-access services with Dell's made-to-order PCs.
Those announcements were among a spate of developments
signaling that cable is moving closer to its Holy Grail of customer self-installation of
Besides speeding up and cutting the cost of installs,
auto-provisioning and self-installation are vital elements in creating a true retail
market for cable modems and service -- making it easy for customers to pluck them from the
shelves of mainstream electronics stores, plug them into home computers and get online.
"It's been a complicated process to get us to where we
are, but now that we're here, we're very excited," Road Runner vice president of
provisioning and systems engineering Ron Dobes said. "This really opens the door to
The Road Runner self-provisioning platform -- being used
initially in MediaOne Group Inc.'s Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) market -- features
customer prequalification technology by Multiflow Technologies Inc. and an activation
system Road Runner developed with Cisco Systems Inc.
Dobes said customers who get cable-modem and installation
software from MediaOne -- which will eventually hand that task to retailers -- respond to
questions on a Road Runner Web site such as their addresses, their credit quality and the
configuration of their computers.
Rather than creating a number of interfaces to account for
the myriad different systems used by Road Runner's cable affiliates, the company defined a
software protocol that essentially relays the customer information gathered and evaluated
by the local cable affiliate to Road Runner for service activation.
"We don't know how the affiliate does credit
checks," Dobes said. "We don't care, because the affiliate owns the customer and
the billing. We just ask, 'Is this guy good?'"
To qualify their computers, customers either go through an
online checklist or download an applet that determines their machines' configuration and
indicates if upgrades are needed, possibly for memory or to add an Ethernet card to link
to the cable modem.
Customers then select the services they want, and that
information gets passed to their local affiliates, which then update their customer-care
and billing databases.
Dobes said service is activated when the customer reboots
the computer, with the Cisco platform -- rather than a customer-service representative --
handling the management and assignment of Internet-protocol addresses and verification of
the cable modem's MAC (media-access control).
By cutting the need for live service-rep interaction and
truck rolls to each installation -- using as many as two technicians each time --
operators see significant savings in costs and time per install.
"Any shift to self-provisioning immediately lifts one
of the heaviest cost weights of all for Road Runner's affiliates, and that's the install
cost," Paul Kagan Associates Inc. senior broadband analyst Leslie Ellis said.
Ellis estimated that Road Runner could cut the roughly
$150-per-home cost of installation in half, while possibly quintupling its national weekly
installations to 50,000, once auto-provisioning is fully ramped-up next year.
MediaOne plans to use auto-provisioning only in systems
where it is deploying standards-based Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification
modems and headends, with Road Runner indicating that this will happen rapidly.
"As quickly as we can next year, we're going to spread
this thing out everywhere and anywhere," Dobes said.
Excite@Home's online-subscription initiative does not yet
include auto-provisioning, but it still represents a significant savings in time and
money, according to director of business development Paul Salzinger.
Customers can use the company's Web site to qualify their
addresses for service, to choose service plans, to enter billing information and to
schedule preferred installation dates.
Once orders are confirmed on-screen, they are sent in real
time to the appropriate cable affiliates, where CSRs log them into their billing systems,
determine the closest installation times to the customers' requests and order the truck
"The actual provisioning takes place once the
installer gets to the house," Salzinger said, "but for the first time, the MSO
didn't have to do anything to get that sub set up."
Excite@Home is also working on an auto-provisioning
solution, but Salzinger said the company was not ready to release details yet.
The Dell deal represents another significant source of
potential subscription sales and install-cost savings. The nation's biggest direct
retailer of PCs will give customers living in Excite@Home affiliate markets the option of
ordering cable Internet-access subscriptions when they configure and buy their computers.
Operators at Dell will use an online tool developed by
Excite@Home to determine if the service is actually available to customers, then take
orders for service and installation.
Dell also will install at the factory Ethernet
network-interface cards to link PCs to cable modems, while cable operators will sell
modems to subscribers.
In addition, Dell and other original-equipment
manufacturers are already working with a variety of telcos to bundle
digital-subscriber-line modems with some computers.
"The installer now shows up at the home and has less
to do because the OEM has configured the machine properly already," Salzinger said.
Smaller cable ISPs are also taking steps to speed installs
by revamping their back-office processes or creating new retail models.
Englewood, Colo.-based High Speed Access Corp. is testing a
setup for what it calls "flow-through provisioning" of its turnkey
Internet-access service in Charter Communications' Marysville, Ill., cable system.
That system creates a single source of customer-care
information by connecting a billing system with those for all of the Internet services
being provisioned, enabling a single CSR to select a service, while automatically relaying
customer and modem information to other appropriate systems.
HSA vice president of administration Rich Pulley said the
system is an immediate improvement over current setups, in which billing systems typically
are not connected to any service-provisioning systems, requiring technicians or CSRs to
enter customer information on several systems. That adds to costs and increases potential
After field testing, HSA wants to roll its system out in
four to six cable markets per week, eventually enabling direct auto-provisioning by
"Not only is it a method to better service the
customer, but it does create tremendous efficiencies within our organization," Pulley
Another provider of turnkey cable-modem services, SoftNet
Systems Inc.'s ISP Channel, announced a retailing agreement last week with RadioShack, the
nation's largest electronics chain.
In markets where cable operators offer ISP Channel
Internet-access service, RadioShack stores will demonstrate and sell the service.
RadioShack has stores in about 80 percent of ISP Channel's service areas, which now
account for more than 6,000 subscribers and about 2.5 million homes passed.