See Me, Hear Me Via IP

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Time Warner Cable’s Austin, Texas, division has added a video-messenger application to its high-speed Internet service which allows subscribers to view full-frame video of the people on the other end of their telephone conversations.

The basic service is free to Road Runner subscribers. Time Warner Cable also is promoting a $4.95 a month service that allows four people to join one video session. Consumers must download the SightSpeed application and set up a Web cam for viewing.

The goal of SightSpeed Inc. is to provide broadband subscribers a way to attach a visual experience to traditional phone calls. “With SightSpeed, we can turn your PC into a video phone,” CEO Brad Treat said.

RETAIL, WHOLESALE

The company markets its service directly to consumers, but is also in talks with broadband partners.

The Austin market is an example of its first collaboration with a U.S. cable operator.

“Our typical customer is a grandmother, who just wants it to work,” Treat said. “We’ve done a lot of work around simplicity and performance.”

The company evolved from research conducted at Cornell University in the mid- to late 1990s, with an eye towards developing video communications for the PC and the public Internet, Treat said. The company patented several pieces of technology and gained venture-capital funding from a group of investors that also backed the search engine Ask Jeeves (www.ask.com).

The initial SightSpeed application debuted in August 2003, and an updated version of the software, now in use in Austin, hit the market in January 2004.

“The uptake is well above our expectations,” Treat said. Initial users have a 15-day free trial period and can use SightSpeed for free for 15 minutes a day thereafter.

Consumers also can sign up for the monthly unlimited-minutes plan that costs $4.95 a month.

The application provides full audio and video communications at 8 Kilobits per second, Treat said.

The product’s software can detect the processing power of a home PC , its connection speed and can adjust the video accordingly to provide the best experience possible, Treat said.

“We have the ability to dynamically adjust to network conditions,” he said. “We’ll adjust elements of video or audio stream to compensate.”

XP PREFERRED

The service works on both the Microsoft Corp. Windows and Apple Computer Corp. Mac OS X platforms, he said, with Windows 2000 and XP the preferred operating systems.

The application supports 95 different Web cams, Treat said.

In Austin, Time Warner offers bundled Web cam packages using gear from Creative and Logitech .

Treat wouldn’t disclose SightSpeed’s user base, but said half are outside the U.S. at the moment, primarily in Europe. More than 90% use Windows operating systems.

Treat said 95% of users have broadband connections. He believes cable operators will be interested in such applications to differentiate themselves in the high-speed data marketplace. “It’s an added benefit for being a Time Warner subscriber,” he said.

Other MSOs have tested the service, he said, but no other deals have been announced.

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