Study Up Now for New Services Later

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What's the first commandment for cable operators
contemplating a leap into the Internet and high-speed-data business? "Know thy
business," according to network managers.

Managing software-centric networks replete with complex new
billing systems, data-storage concerns and interactive technologies -- with few
technicians trained to do so -- is quickly becoming a top-of-mind issue and headache for
many cable operators.

Solutions to network-management issues are vague, and they
vary widely, yet most network-management providers and cable operators agreed on one
constant: Know what your business is today and what it will be in five years before you
begin expanding into Internet, high-speed data and other new services.

"That is thequestion," said Jim
Ludington, president of network-management firm INT2 Internetwork Integration. "It's
a decision, not a solution. And operators must understand what their business will be, and
if they want to manage it or sell it."

Whichever the case, managing complex new networks and the
technologies and software that accompany them is an issue more operators are struggling
with.

"With digital video, telephony and high-speed data,
they each have their own set of elements, along with network-management issues. How will
they be combined with a master network system on top of an existing analog system?"
Ludington asked.

Answers vary according to a system's architecture,
explained Mike Palazzi, CEO of DBAS/Codenoll Inc., a provider of fiber optic networking.

"The amount of network management needed really
depends on the plant's architecture," he said. "If there is digital service, an
operator probably already has what it needs with an MPEG-2 stream to digital cable. But if
it's analog, there's no delivery capability whatsoever."

The decision to deliver new services over an existing
network, Palazzi added, and the subsequent management required will dictate just what
equipment will be needed -- from headend to software, and from billing to phone service.
Yet to get to that point, a strategy for launching these new services is imperative.

Said Palazzi: "Operators need to know what business
they're in. Once they're into data distribution, for example, there will be some common
management issues, but their technical-support services will be much different."

The technical support included in the network-management
equation is crucial to the network's success, Palazzi noted. "There must be better
staffing support -- from back office to delivery to the home -- and services must be
divided into sectors."

Those sectors include digital, telephone business and
high-speed data on top of an existing analog system, and in the brave new world of network
management, each of those sectors will require close scrutiny.

"Previously, we could separate digital, telephone and
other technologies, and each had a different network-managing system. Now, MSOs have all
of these networks that must be pulled to a common platform, so the next step is to come to
a standard infrastructure," Ludington said.

Pulling together the dizzying number of new services and
managing them in an orderly fashion is no slam dunk. Even smaller operators -- which
historically lag behind larger MSOs in terms of entry into Internet and data services --
face the daunting task of blending new technologies and software with older equipment.

"The biggest difficulty is to organize your company to
handle all of the new services, and network management is a big issue," said Dean
Petersen, president of Southwest Missouri Cable, a 20,000-subscriber system. "We have
to get our arms around it by watching the larger MSOs and learning from them."

What operators need to learn first is how to integrate and
be proactive, said Mark Peterson, president of ComPath Inc., a leading systems integrator
in data-over-cable solutions.

"Network management is very foreign to cable
operators, and they must be proactive in integrating equipment that has been separately
managed in the past, like existing RF equipment," he explained.

Conventional wisdom suggests that an operator should bring
in a network-management team to integrate a system network and to train system employees
to eventually -- in about six to 12 months -- manage it themselves.

"It's a build-and-train approach. and it's probably
the most viable option. But how long until it moves in-house, and how many subscribers
will it generate? Those are two big questions," Peterson said.

There is no shortage of network-management questions,
experts agreed, and integrating a seamless strategy requires companywide diligence and
reliable network-operating centers. "All elements of the enterprise must be
involved," Ludington said, "marketing, accounting and other key areas of the NOC
included."

The five key areas of the NOC, network-management experts
said, are fault management (alarms, testing); accounting; security management; performance
management (logs for future traffic control); and configuration management.

Integrating those components into one smooth-sailing
network, however, will take both an attitude and operational adjustment by operators,
Peterson concluded.

"There's lots of work to be done," he said.
"In the past, if a system went down, it wasn't a big problem. Now, [with the addition
of Internet and data services], customers are paying for good, reliable, continuous
service, so operators must improve how they are viewed by customers."

For cable operators contemplating new services, though,
knowing exactly what those services are and what they're worth is paramount.

Said Ludington: "The Field of Dreams approach
to broadband services and technology isn't going to work."

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