With the stroke of a pen, Mediacom Communications gained what some MSOs have been working years to build: a fully operational Voice over IP (VoIP) network. The company recently inked a deal with Sprint to offer telephone service on top of its existing high-speed data network. Mediacom expects to begin rolling out VoIP to its 2.7 million customers in 23 states by early next year. In essence, Mediacom gains a sophisticated switched network plus back-office support, while Sprint gets a leg into the coveted local voice market without having to go through incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECS). "The advantage is time to market," says Mark Chall, director of service delivery for Sprint’s Cable Solutions Group. "They have an excellent high-speed data plant that’s been shown to be reliable and we have backoffice relationships with incumbent carriers." Build upon strengths The two companies have agreed to go with their respective strengths as far as service delivery goes. Mediacom will provide all of the "customer-facing" support, such as embedded multimedia terminal adapter (EMTA) provisioning and service fulfillment, while Sprint will handle communications with other networks. "We will pass the pieces relating to number portability and soft-switch programming to Sprint, and their backoffice system will do the switch provisioning and media gateway provisioning," says J.R. Walden, group vice president of IP services at Mediacom. "What we’ll need to do is build custom adapters between our BEA and Ceon platforms for real-time messaging with Sprint." Walden adds that the companies are looking to build synchronous optical network (SONET) connections to "seven to 12" Sprint point-of-presence (POP) locations to handle most of the communications between the two companies, although actual sites have not been disclosed. "We don’t want to lease circuits between the networks," he says. "We would rather build them." Seamless mobility? Sprint and Mediacom are also talking about wireless services, although plans are still tentative. Initially, Mediacom will simply sell wireless on Sprint’s behalf. But as new consumer technology hits the market, opportunities for more integrated approaches should present themselves. "We’re looking at the development of a combination phone that runs on a Sprint CMDA (code division multiple access) outside that home," says Mike Smith, director of business development at Sprint. "When the customer enters the home, it communicates with a WiFi-enabled modem, and the call is carried through the cable plant." Smith adds that such technology isn’t expected to be commercially available for another two years, with final deployment dependent on how actively Sprint and Mediacom plan to develop it. "It would require more technical integration between the two companies," he said. Be aggressive The deal puts Mediacom on par with companies like Time Warner, which has also teamed with Sprint for VoIP service. It also provides a wedge against ongoing cable customer erosion to satellite, according to Alan Bezoza, SVP of broadband cable research at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. "I wish they’d started voice rollouts a little earlier, " he says. "They need to be more aggressive, not less." —Art Cole A goal of the cable industry’s massive infrastructure rebuild of the past two decades is to create a platform flexible enough to roll out—and, if necessary, take down—new services. Time Warner’s Road Runner is doing just that by quietly introducing a video instant messaging service in the operator’s Austin, Texas system. SightSpeed Video Messenger—which for the time being is free—is available to the system’s 140,000 subscribers, says Time Warner corporate spokesman Keith Cocozza. "The increased speed of Road Runner allows us to look for ways to let customers take full advantage of today’s media-rich Internet. Video IM seems like it could be an interesting app, so we are going to trial it." SightSpeed founder, director and CEO Brad Treat was reluctant to speak about the Austin trial, but he did provide some details on how the technology works. The company, based in Berkeley, Calif., makes data-intensive video streaming possible by using compression to avoid transmitting data that would not be perceived by viewers. The system—which has its origins in research done over almost a decade at Cornell University—also has intellectual property in place that enables the transmissions to securely traverse firewalls in real time. Finally, the technology behind SightSpeed enables instantaneous recognition and reaction to changes in the quality of the network on which the signal is traveling. He said that the SightSpeed system works at 30 frames per second, which is the equivalent of analog video. All together now Treat says that SightSpeed has superior ease of use and quality to MSN, AIM (from AOL) and Yahoo! video products because it is a complete package. "The most important element is building a system from the top to bottom that delivers smooth motion and no latency," Treat says. "People look at an algorithm here and a computer technology there, but never brought it all together." The Austin offer is free for a limited time for individual use. For users who want the ability to run video IM sessions with two, three or four other individuals, the service is priced at $4.95 per month. Treat says that users in Austin can run video IM sessions with SightSpeed users anywhere in the world. Currently, anyone can download SightSpeed’s video IM client and use it free for 15 minutes a day. After a quarter-hour, the video portion drops out, though the audio remains operational. Half of SightSpeed’s customers are in the United States, though Treat declined to offer a count. —Carl Weinschenk

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