Startup May Roll Out Houston Fiber Net

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Time Warner Cable is about to get a challenger in Houston. Startup Optical Entertainment Networks is working with metro fiber-network operator Phonoscope on a platform that will provide 400 channels of TV and 10 Mbps of high-speed service to 1.6 million Houston homes.

OEN went public with its plan, dubbed Fision, last week during a fiber-to-the-home trade show in Las Vegas. The company is staffed with former DirecTV Inc. and Intertainer Inc. executives, including its CEO and co-founder, Thomas Wendt.

GROUNDWORK LAID

OEN was established a year ago with the goal of becoming a fiber-to-the-premises technology and programming provider to utilities, municipalities and developers that have laid fiber.

It signed with Phonoscope, a telecommunications provider in Houston that has some 8,000 miles of fiber in the ground, principally serving businesses, school districts and some planned communities. Phonoscope’s network already reaches about 200,000 household easements, and its plant is within 100 to 500 yards of the 1.6 million homes in six counties that OEN has targeted.

OEN has contracted with Nexums, based in Paris, to deliver fiber over the last 100 to 500 meters to the home.

Wendt said since OEN plans to supply an Internet-protocol television service, it won’t need a cable franchise. Wendt said OEN plans to begin offering service in the Cypress and Fairbanks areas of Houston later this month.

Wendt said OEN chose fiber because most of the services it wanted to deliver wouldn’t run copper.

“We set out to do everything on IP,” he said. “We’re the Internet on steroids.”

Wendt said OEN plans to offer more than 400 channels, including up to 50 in high-defintion. Wendt said many programming deals are done — The Outdoor Channel announced a pact with it last week — and others are awaiting a final audit on OEN’s conditional-access technology.

As for video on demand, OEN wants to cut deals with the Hollywood studios directly and deploy services from third-party companies like ViewNow.

“The networks have been phenomenally supportive,” Wendt said. “We have unlimited channel capacity, and some are looking at giving us custom packages.”

OEN is also in the process of building a satellite headend in Houston, Wendt said. Once the fiber is laid, OEN will place an optical network terminal on the side of the home to handle broadband traffic.

“It will have an 802.11g gateway, terminated with Gigabit Ethernet. We can break off as many 10/100 ports as we need,” he said.

The 802.11 gateway will handle connections with PCs and phones. OEN plans to run Category-5 wiring, capable of carrying 100 Mbits of data per second, to the Amino Communications standard-definition and HDTV set-tops.

Although Amino is building an MPEG-4 (Moving Picture Experts Group) set-top, OEN will deploy an MPEG-2 model. With the fiber build, there’s plenty of capacity to handle today’s MPEG-2 transmissions, he said.

That capacity also means OEN won’t be decoding or compressing signals.

“It will be the same quality we get off the satellite,” Wendt said.

OEN plans to start with DVR service using the Amino set-top, but will migrate to a network DVR service eventually, Wendt said. Copy protection will be imbedded in the conditional access system. Minerva is supplying the middleware for the OEN platform.

Wendt hopes to sell its TV and Internet services to other communities, at both wholesale and retail.

“Within 30 days, we’ll have a nationwide dark-fiber deal,” he said.

He said that of the nearly 400 fiber-to-the-premises communities, most don’t have a video service — a void OEN aims to fill.

Beyond video, OEN plans to “probably” offer a 10-Mbps symmetrical high-speed Internet service and an ad-supported phone service. “When you pick up the phone, the dialtone will be brought to you by a five-second commercial,” he said.

OEN’s plans calls for a soft-switch phone service, but it is also eyeing time-division multiplexing.

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