Just when you thought entrepreneurialism had all but dried up and been blown off the dusty landscape of cable innovation, along comes Sunflower Broadband. A week ago, I wrote about a concept that knocked my socks off called the Geek Squad; Best Buy’s at-home computer delousing service couched in retro-nerd cool. I went on and on about how the cable industry should replicate the idea, given our newfound coziness to the PC and its user. Then a colleague pointed me in the direction of Lawrence, Kansas. Told me there was a small operator there doing that very thing; in fact, had been doing it for 7 or 8 years. True enough, I found Sunflower Broadband and its smart-as-a-whip GM, Patrick Knorr, a former IP guy who represents a generation of new-age system managers just as comfortable debating a digio-moxie solution vs. a media center solution, or discussing a dual-mode CDMA, as they are breaking bread at the local Rotary Club. I asked him about Sunflower’s Geek Squad, which is called Geeks on Wheels. The concept was conceived because the company saw the emergence of what Knorr calls the "video entertainment power user" – high-end customers who are 10% of its customer base. And while he says his company’s residential business is good, and there is a value to providing these people the very best service, it is its commercial accounts that constitute 80% of Sunflower’s pay-for-service business. In fact, the shift has so re-defined that portion of Sunflower’s business it no longer uses the Geek moniker with commercial customers. And while we talked about the computer-support business for a bit, we eventually drifted to larger themes. Knorr impressed me with his vision and his well-articulated views on our rapidly converging industry. For example: On the need for cable to come to grips with a more open environment: "Large operators have always operated under the model of controlling the technology in the home. And there are legitimate reasons to do that. But in a completely open interface, I don’t want to end up being a Microsoft support technician just to make all those services work. That scares me." On the changing distribution model in this industry: "The model of the cable provider providing all the hardware for these rich services is going away…From a financial standpoint, a cable company can’t afford to put $5,000 worth of equipment in a home…The control is shifting to the consumer." On the need for operators to work with the consumer electronics industry: "It is critical that this industry coordinate with the consumer electronics industry. Consumers want to buy their equipment, plug it in and have it work. Coordination is essential. In today’s world there are a lot of variables and not nearly enough standards." On the challenge of managing all the services converging in the home: "Cable operators can no longer be content to be the dumb pipe. What’s going to separate successful broadband providers from everyone else is the ability to make all this hardware and all these services work. You won’t be able to simply tell a customer, ‘The signal is hitting the side of the house fine. It’s not our problem." And finally, on Best Buy, the company’s whose Geek Squad led to our meeting: "I have a bone to pick with Best Buy, but not because of the Geek Squad. Someone should tell them that they should work with all cable companies; not just the big ones. We’ve tried to get meetings with them, but our footprint apparently isn’t big enough to interest them."

The Daily



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