Until now, the names of Time Warner Cable's technology partners in a multiple Internet-service provider trial in Columbus, Ohio, have been a closely kept secret.
Recently, the veil was pulled back far enough to reveal that the MSO has tapped AP Engines Inc. to handle the key provisioning portion of the pilot. That technical test, which presently involves 100 Time Warner Cable and CompuServe Inc. employees, will likely come to a conclusion by mid-2001, followed by an more expansive rollout to area customers, MSO spokesman Mike Luftman said.
After working with Time Warner Cable in stealth mode since February 2000, AP Engines said it is supplying the back-office elements for the MSO's open-access trial.
The back-office portion of multiple ISP access over a cable system offers the most daunting set of challenges, MSO vice president of network engineering Michael Adams said recently during his preconference tutorial at this year's Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers Communications' Conference on Emerging Technologies.
Open access is firmly on the MSO's agenda, especially after federal regulators attached a number of open-access conditions to approval of Time Warner Inc.'s merger with America Online Inc.
Time Warner Cable said it will use AP Engines' AP InterLink product, a software platform that sits inside the network and handles the electronic messaging that flows between the MSO and its high-speed ISP partners.
AP Interlink "ties the back-office systems in the network elements from an ISP to Time Warner's broadband network," company vice president of broadband business development Ragan Wilkinson said.
More specifically, Wilkinson said, Time Warner's trial is fully automated and can handle several components that can foster an open-access environment, such as cable-modem activation, data collection and tiered billing.
Wilkinson said AP Interlink can be distributed or centralized on a broadband network. Time Warner is using the centralized approach for the Columbus test.
"We're in discussions with Time Warner about using it both ways," Wilkinson said.
"Indications are that once we get through all of the mazes that [AP InterLink] will be rolled out enterprise-wide."
The AP Engines agreement with Time Warner is non-exclusive, he said.
Adams said Time Warner is talking to other players in the provisioning marketplace. "We're always looking for second sources," he said. "We're obviously much further along with AP Engines than with its rivals, and they've done a really good job and have been extremely responsive."
Adams noted that AP Engines is one of four or five "major" technology partners participating in the Columbus pilot. The others could be announced in the coming weeks.
For now, Time Warner Cable will try to stabilize the automated process and prepare to add more ISPs to the pilot. Presently, Road Runner, AOL and CompuServe are physically connected to the MSO's trial network. Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, EarthLink Inc. and RMI.net also have relationships with Time Warner Cable.
Adams said EarthLink would most likely be the next ISP to be linked to the trial.
"We're doing our first testing of the automated system that will allow us to grow the subscriber count," Adams said. "Once we've got our automated system really stable, then we can expand the number of subscribers.
"At some point, we'll take (the trial) to deployment in Columbus, but there's a lot of scaling to be done," he added.
AT&T'S DIFFERENT TACK
Though Time Warner Cable has started automating the open-access process in Columbus, the process for AT&T Broadband's "Broadband Choice" technical trial in Boulder is a more manual one at present.
AT&T Broadband will eventually automate such elements as billing when it moves beyond its technical pilot and starts to charge customers for the service, said MSO director of advanced products for high-speed data Carl Smith.
The customer interface each MSO uses for their respective trials is also very different. Time Warner Cable presently uses a Web-based interface that subscribers tap into to select their ISP and supply billing information. AT&T Broadband, for its part, uses a PC-based "Service Agent" software application that allows subscribers to select service tiers and ISPs on the fly.
Adams said Time Warner Cable is exploring both avenues, though the open-access paradigm and the customer experience would essentially remain unchanged no matter which method is in use. One advantage a local client has over a Web interface is that users would not lose the information they supplied were they suddenly disconnected from the network, Adams noted.
"We're definitely still looking at the idea of using a local client for support reasons," Adams said.
The differences in those approaches eventually could be ironed out at Cable Television Laboratories Inc., which is in the "early stages" of building open-access interoperability standards for cable operators and their technology partners, CableLabs senior vice president of communications Mike Schwartz said. David Reed, who was recently promoted to chief technology officer at CableLabs, is spearheading that effort.
Wilkinson said AP Engines has also joined in, having submitted its provisioning technology to CableLabs for evaluation.