Time Warner Communications in Memphis, Tenn., launched its
automated "SmartNet" interactive service last week, allowing customers to order
products without customer-service-representative interactions and, eventually, to
electronically pay for pay-per-view movies, monthly bills and other services.
Using CableData Inc.'s "Cyber CSR" billing
system as the framework, Time Warner is the first cable operator to directly link its
billing system to its Web site, executives said, while allowing for electronic commerce
and credit-card billing, too.
The new framework means that customers can click on a
SmartNet payment icon on Time Warner's new Web site to automatically transfer funds
through CableData's Cyber CSR billing system, which is connected to the Web site. The
payment-transfer component to SmartNet is expected to be in play this year.
"Customers can do business directly over their PCs
[personal computers] with our billing system," said Tom DeGloma, director of
management-information systems for Time Warner Communications' Mid-South division.
The arrangement in Memphis involves "our bank, our customers' banks and
CableData," DeGloma said.
SmartNet joins two other previous CableData software
modules, "SmartLink" and "SmartCall," to give Time Warner customers
the choice of patching through directly to the company's billing system or talking
with a CSR. SmartCall is currently routing 15 percent of customer calls directly to the
company's billing system, executives said.
Historically, Time Warner and CableData have offered no
more than a traditional billing procedure. With the launch of SmartNet, however, the two
companies have stepped up their move to interactive services "that position us for
electronic commerce," DeGloma said.
One reason why the Memphis system was chosen as the
SmartNet launch site is because the MSO's Road Runner high-speed-data service is
deployed there, DeGloma said.
"We've monitored the market test through our Road
Runner customers in Memphis. They've been the driving force, and SmartNet is the next
logical step," he added.
Although Road Runner is a separate service, many customers
are online, making Memphis a logical choice for the SmartNet launch. Access to SmartNet is
available with any Web browser. "We are a high-tech company, and we need to offer
high-tech choices to our customers," DeGloma added.
He noted that of 154,000 customers in the Memphis market,
103,000 homes are Road Runner- and SmartNet-ready, and the company's projection for
SmartNet customers is ambitious.
"We project that 100 percent of our Road Runner
customers will use the Web site and SmartNet, because they're already logged on, and
they can stay on 24 hours a day. We're trying to build something that's totally
interactive with our customers," DeGloma said.
Time Warner deployed the core CableData automation service
in 1995, to manage Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s 8600x, two-way converter box over a
fiber network that is nearly completed and that has the bandwidth to do cable and Road
Runner services at the same time.
Time Warner has now layered SmartCall and SmartNet around
the core SmartLink technology.
Once the MSO installed fiber in its Mid-South division,
Road Runner became a viable added service for the cable operator, and it opened a path for
deployment of interactive services such as SmartLink, SmartCall and now SmartNet, DeGloma
SmartNet also allows customers to view movie previews via
Time Warner's new Web site. Said DeGloma: "Pay-per-view vendors recognize the
importance of this technology, and they will bring electronic feeds of future movie
promotions to the site, so that when customers visit the site, they'll see
CableData considers the Memphis launch vital for the
company's future interactive-service business. "It's very important for us
to track this as a test case," said Bob McKenzie, vice president of marketing for
CableData, adding that the system was first deployed at Fundy Cable in Canada.
"This is cutting-edge and the channel of the future.
It's very leveragable to other MSOs, as well," he said.
McKenzie pointed to three key drivers that prompted
CableData's partnership with Time Warner's Memphis system: revenue, increased
operations efficiency and customer satisfaction.
"If a customer calls for a balance through the
Internet, SmartNet can include more movie and product promotions, so that the operational
efficiencies and revenues are expected to be greater. That's the next level,"
Once CableData assembles the necessary data generated from
the Memphis launch of SmartNet, its strategy is to deepen discussions with other MSOs and
to expand its Cyber CSR market.
Said McKenzie: "We are in discussions now with other
MSOs for 1998 rollouts. Our research tells us that more people are choosing to do business
over the Internet. So for that segment, they can interface with our system."
And SmartNet, concluded DeGloma, is the path that Time
Warner expects to lead it to revenue heaven, but not without some speed bumps.
"The complexity of this business is growing
exponentially, and this [SmartNet] is not a cheap system. It's taken lots of time to
develop, but we must have a service like this," he said.