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High-speed companies tackle mass adoption

Dozens of high-tech companies are working to solve a major problem facing the adoption of high-speed technologies: installation.

Just because you ordered high-speed Net access doesn't mean you can get online.

Dozens of high-tech companies are working to solve a major problem facing the adoption of high-speed technologies: installation.

Consumers continue to complain that the ordering and installation process for high-speed, or "broadband," Net access technologies is lengthy and cumbersome, leaving some customers wondering why it often takes weeks or months to order cable modem or digital subscriber line (DSL) service and then hours more to install it.

As the high-speed services grow in popularity, the pressure mounts for broadband service providers to make the process easy enough that consumers can hook up the equipment and software themselves. Doing so will allow the market to blossom, rather than being held back by requisite "truck rolls," or in-home service visits by trained technicians, executives and analysts say.

Excite@Home, the nation's largest broadband provider, recently raised its subscriber projections and now believes it will finish the year with 3 million customers.

Market research firm Cahners In-Stat Group said worldwide digital modem shipments topped 2.2 million during the first quarter. DSL grew 46 percent and cable modems increased 38 percent over the fourth quarter, according to its report released this week.

The Cahners report indicates that "provisioning issues such as distance limitations and the need for technician-assisted installations are holding back the growth of DSL modem shipments."

Cashing in on setup
Analysts say broadband service providers have huge incentives to ease the installation process, namely saving money by having consumers rather than technicians perform the setup.

"Getting the installation costs down to an affordable level is integral to the first-year profitability of these services," said Cynthia Brumfield, an industry analyst and author of the "Broadband Intelligence" newsletter. "Right now it's taking anywhere from two-and-a-half hours to four hours to get an installation off the ground."

The ongoing broadband marketing battles, in which cable and phone companies have taken to TV airwaves and other means to attract customers to their new Internet services, has only served to increase the need for automatic, or self-provisioning, installations just to keep up with demand, some analysts say. For example, Pacific Bell is running a series of spots on the West Coast that characterizes cable modem subscribers as "Web hogs," though many other broadband ads abound.

"Cable guys are laying relatively low to avoid precisely this situation," Brumfield said. "On the DSL side of things, it's a little more competitive, so there's a lot of marketing going on. DSL installations are definitely on the upswing, and there's a backlog there."

Those backlogs make month-long waits for installation dates, which frustrates many consumers.

Do-it-yourself installation
Several companies are working on self-provisioning software. Some are in trials and hope to soon allow customers to install and configure their own high-speed services.

Road Runner, the cable modem service of Time Warner, MediaOne Group and High speed pipe dreams? others, is working with Cisco Systems and BroadJump, a self-provisioning software start-up. According to sources, BroadJump is also expected to announce later this year a deal under which its software will be bundled with 3Com cable modems.

Excite@Home is internally developing its own self-provisioning system. Byron Smith, Excite@Home's executive vice president of consumer broadband services, said the company expects to offer self-provisioning trials with some of its cable partners during the third quarter with limited commercial availability by the end of the year.

Smith said the company will reach its target of 3 million customers this year without the benefit of widespread self-provisioning systems in place, but he acknowledged that automatic installations are key to the cable industry's broadband Net access success.

"If you can cut your installation times in half, that's like doubling your staff of technicians," he said.

Since 1998, industry experts have touted a "cable modem Christmas," meaning the service will be widely available in stores and easy for consumers to install. Some analysts believe the promise is finally closer to reality.

Already, the majority of Cablevision Systems' Optimum Online cable modem service installations are performed by consumers, analyst Brumfield said. She noted the company's advantage of having a chain of retail stores in which to sell the installation kits.

"It will eventually be as easy as installing a 56K modem," she said.