Time Warner Cable's Road Runner Group last weekunveiled a new approach to high-speed-data operations in two New York markets that arelaunching shortly, which reflects how the business will function under thesoon-to-be-merged entity with MediaOne Express.
While the two companies are still working through thecomplex technical and management issues that must be resolved to allow them to deliverservices across a unified market base, the installation of the new Road Runnerinfrastructure in upstate New York marks a big step forward in the unification process,said Mario Vecchi, chief technical officer for Road Runner.
"What you can see here in New York State isessentially the blueprint for what we'd want to do across the country," he said.
The new infrastructure model, setting a facilities-basedline of demarcation between the network-operating responsibilities of the local cablesystem and those of the national data provider, is being used to support service launchesthis summer in Syracuse and Rochester, N.Y., officials said. The regional system employsdual OC-48 SONET (synchronous optical network) rings supplied by Fujitsu Network Systems,together with gigabit switch routers from Cisco Systems Inc., to providepacket-on-SONET-type (POS) connectivity between the two cities and, eventually,Binghamton, N.Y., where high-speed services are already in operation.
This regional architecture, matching the Cisco/POS approachrecently announced by MediaOne, supports the functionality at the local level that is keyto the new operational approach, Vecchi explained.
"In the regional model, the demarcation line is thedistribution-hub RF interface," he noted. "The system operator owns and operatesthe HFC [hybrid fiber-coaxial] plant and the modems, as well as all of the physical fiberplant. Road Runner owns and operates all of the IP [Internet-protocol] infrastructurebeyond the distribution hub."
Within this architecture, Road Runner layers the network sothat it can "assume responsibility for systems, applications, IP networking and aportion of the transport," Vecchi said. "This structure creates a hierarchy thatseparates functions and that keeps protocols isolated as we build a total system."
The new setup offers local system managers insight into howthey will work with the data-service operation in the future. In effect, Vecchi said, thelocal technical team "should have an easier time of it when it comes to working withthe data infrastructure."
Nationwide, regional infrastructures will be linked to 14regional data centers, which the new, still-unnamed joint entity will use to cache anddistribute traffic and to provide administrative functions. "This is a manageablearchitecture that will facilitate the integration of ever-evolving new technologies intoRoad Runner affiliates," Vecchi said.
Marketing, billing, provision of local content and theinitial handling of customer calls will be in the hands of the local system. But thetechnical architecture will allow the data-service providers more centralized andefficient control over the data side of the network and the provisioning of services andcustomer care, Vecchi said.
Functions controlled through this architecture by the dataprovider include day-to-day network and system management and monitoring; managing e-mail,network news feeds and Internet access; handling the technical side of customer care;providing billing interfaces, account management and security; and ensuring contentdistribution through seamless integration of national multimedia content with localcontent.
The new efficiencies associated with this architecture arereflected in how Road Runner will handle customer care, Vecchi noted. "We'vedeveloped a brand-new online-help system that is unique across the entire industry,including traditional ISPs [Internet-service providers], as well as cable," he said.
To initiate help, customers might call the local systemreps or directly reach Road Runner through an 800 number, depending on how the localsystem promotes customer care.
Queries requiring technical assistance go to Road Runnerrepresentatives, who can work with customers using a browser-based troubleshooting systemthat tracks the problem and provides a solution. In instances where the problem is new tothe system, the "trouble ticket" and resulting solution are automatically loggedas a permanent addition to the system for future reference. All users are linked to thenationwide troubleshooting database to ensure thorough handling of their requests, Vecchisaid.
Over time, legacy systems of Time Warner and MediaOne willbe folded into the new architecture, officials said. This will ensure availability of anew generation of services that both companies have been working on in conjunction withthe use of advanced routers and new software designed for all points in the system,including the new MCNS (Multimedia Cable Network System) modems that are coming onlinestarting late this year.
But much needs to be done to complete the merger, includingselection of the management team. "If you find out, let me know," Vecchi joked.
On the technical side, the two companies have many pointsof commonality, but there are areas where they are still sorting through differences andattempting to figure out which are best. For example, MediaOne uses Sun MicrosystemsInc.'s Solaris servers, which Time Warner also uses in some areas, but MediaOnedoesn't use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT, which Time Warner is also using invarious places.
While there are differences in time lines in the twocompanies' plans for introducing advanced services, both have targeted the sameservices. And both are pursuing identical approaches to presenting services, which shouldmake for a very smooth transition, Vecchi said.
The MSOs have also moved far enough along in upgrades toensure a large market base for the rollout of services on the two-way HFC platform thatboth prefer to work with in the data domain, noted David Fellows, chief technical officerat MediaOne Express. "We were 57 percent to 58 percent upgraded [to 750-megahertz,two-way plant] by the end of '97, and we will do another 20 percent this year, withcompletion in '99," he said.
Time Warner, he noted, has already passed the 50 percentmark, as well. These efforts, together with the aggressive upgrade projects at other topMSOs, ensure that the industry will be able to introduce advanced services such as IPtelephony and multimedia streaming on a national scale once MCNS modems are available tosupport a uniform approach to service delivery, Fellows noted.
Road Runner now has about 35,000 customers, with more than2 million homes passed in 17 cities, and it is signing up customers at a rate of around3,000 per week, said Sandy Colony, vice president of public affairs at Road Runner.
"We're going full-blast," sheadded.