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Texas company plans supercharged cable modems

Start-up Advent Networks thinks it has the answer for the cable modem industry's woes: speed, and far more of it.

An Austin, Texas, start-up thinks it has the answer for the cable modem industry's woes: speed, and far more of it.

Advent Networks, a company co-founded by former Time Warner cable technologist David Pangrac, says it can supercharge many existing cable networks to handle Internet speeds 20 to 50 times faster than what subscribers typically get from cable modems.

That would leave most consumer high-speed, or "broadband," Net access options in the digital dust--if Advent can deliver. The company hasn't yet set up its "Ultraband" technology inside a full-scale network, leaving some questions about the technology's viability. But many analysts say they are cautiously optimistic that the company can follow through on its promises.

Clearing the logjam
In a typical cable modem setup, users have to share from one stream, slowing connections down as more users access the network.
Advent's method uses the same cable, dedicating more network capacity to data by reserving a discrete channel for each user. This prevents customers from competing with each other for bandwidth.

"There may be hiccups along the way," said Mitch Shapiro, research director for Broadband Markets, a San Diego-based research firm. "But (the founders) have a proven track record."

Others sound a note of caution, however. The cable modem industry has already coalesced around a standard technology, and anyone offering something outside this is unlikely to win customers quickly among the large operators that dominate the business, the more skeptical analysts say.

Because Advent's technology requires cable operators to reserve more network capacity for Internet traffic rather than additional cable TV channels, the company is initially targeting competitive cable "overbuilders" that have newer, high-capacity systems. Major cable operators that still get most of their revenue from TV stations like HBO or ESPN aren't likely to sacrifice this space for data traffic soon, analysts say.

The cable Net business has lost some momentum in recent months, despite its once formidable lead over other consumer high-speed Net technologies like telephone companies' digital subscriber line (DSL) and satellite connections.

Industry standard-bearers Excite@Home and Road Runner, both owned by consortiums of cable TV giants, have had their futures clouded by a series of cable TV mergers and corporate stumbles in the past year. Telephone companies have meanwhile stepped up their own DSL marketing campaigns, highlighting cable modems' tendency to slow as more people in a neighborhood sign up for the service on the same network.

Enter Advent.

"You need a fat pipe to be able to deliver high-definition television on demand, or videoconferencing," said Advent chief executive Geoff Tudor. "But it has to be affordable, and it needs to be implemented on the existing infrastructure."

The Texas company says it's adopted an approach that satisfies both conditions, drawing from recent advances in high-speed fiber optics and DSL, which provides each subscriber with a dedicated connection from the home to the telephone's central office.

But where telephone subscribers have a physical pair of wires dedicated solely to their connections, Advent's cable modem subscribers would have a "virtual" wire. The company is using technology that can split a single High speed pipe dreams? cable wire into different channels, much in the way technology companies have been able to boost the capacity of fiber-optic networks substantially in recent years.

As a result, the company says, it can provide connections starting near 40 megabits per second--more than 700 times faster than a dial-up modem, or 100 times faster than a basic DSL connection.

"There's still a number of i's to be dotted and t's to be crossed, but as far as the technology goes, it's very solid," said Paul Palumbo, a research analyst with DFC Intelligence who has seen the company's trials.

The hunt for buyers
Some of those i's and t's lie in bringing the technology into cable companies, which are investing millions of dollars upgrading their networks to the most recent cable equipment advances.

Tudor said he's targeting the "overbuilders" first--the companies that are laying new cable networks to compete with the likes of AT&T and Time Warner.

Old network equipment, or "nodes," isn't quite advanced enough to support the Advent technology at full strength, he said. Under the prevailing system of serving about 500 homes from a single node, the network could support only about 3 percent of its customers with Ultraband connections.

New competing cable see story: Cashing in on fiber opticscompanies are building fiber-optic cables deeper into their networks, however, and this makes Advent's technology shine, Tudor said. The company plans to test its technology with an Austin company called Grande Networks later this year, with plans for commercial availability to other cable companies in the first quarter of next year.

Other companies also are interested. Advent has attracted investment from Southern Union, a utility that plans to use its rights-of-way to lay high-speed Internet lines.

Tudor said that once in production, the service could be offered at between $40 and $100 a month, or about the same prices as DSL service.

"The economics of the equipment is about the same as DSL," he said. "If you were to pull apart what we're doing...the actual materials are basically the same."

The major cable companies already are planning cable network upgrades, however. Last year, AT&T kicked off a trial project in Salt Lake City that involved bringing fast fiber-optic cable much closer to individual homes, increasing the capacity of its cable network. Skeptical analysts say these major operator initiatives are more likely to be the norm in the cable industry for some time.

"In the near term, it will be tough for any cable modem vendor going against the (dominant) standard," said Michael Harris, president of Kinetic Strategies, a broadband market research firm. "They can target the new players. But that's not a huge space."'s Corey Grice contributed to this report.