Freshman in a College Town—Suddenlink lost some of its Texas A&M customers after taking over Cox’s system. But the new brand in town has a long-term career goal: to be the trendsetter for the entire MSO. By Simon Applebaum August is rush time in Bryan-College Station, Texas, 95 miles north of Houston and 169 miles south of Dallas. The population of about 160,000 swells by 45,000, as students settle in for the fall semester at Texas A&M University. Returning students this time around have learned that there’s a new operator on and off campus—Suddenlink Communications. Previously, the local cable system was owned by Cox Communications. The Cequel III-owned Suddenlink (formerly Cebridge Connections) acquired the Bryan-College system in May as part of a purchase of small and mid-size systems from Cox and Charter. Since then, Suddenlink has been cramming for its entrance exam: convincing the 35,000 off-campus A&M students (10,000 live on campus) during rush time to commit to spending a portion of their extra cash on an unknown cable brand. Suddenlink’s August rush campaign consists of three main elements: Door-to-door visits by field reps at off-campus apartment buildings. On-campus product demonstrations of HDTV, high-speed and Xbox Live. Flyers distributed on campus. Lost in the transition from Cox to Suddenlink will be service to most Texas A&M on-campus dormitories; a university staff/student committee decided in late July to cancel service with Suddenlink and substitute programming from Campus TeleVideo, a Delaware-based vendor of satellite-delivered channels. Committee members told local reporters the decision to switch to Campus TeleVideo was based on fears that Suddenlink would impose a price increase next year and on a preference for Campus TeleVideo’s channel lineup. The contract with Campus TeleVideo does not cover off-campus dorms or a separate high-speed data partnership between Suddenlink and A&M. "We’re disappointed to lose that business," says Jim Ruel, regional VP of Suddenlink’s East Texas and Oklahoma systems. "We still expect the data relationship with A&M to continue, and at some point, maybe [the committee] will find some disadvantages in its decision and reconsider." Ruel did not provide details about the number of customers lost to Campus TeleVideo. AFTER RUSH: PRODUCT ROLLOUTS In September, Suddenlink will hold open-house events at its system offices. The system projects that it will sign up 10,000 A&M students, plus a few thousand from Blinn Community College, one of the state’s largest junior colleges, by the end of August. Rush also marks the end of Suddenlink’s three-month transition. Next come the rollouts: Bryan-College Station is designated to be the first stop on Suddenlink’s wave of new services, starting with digital telephony and video on demand in 2007. Before selling its Bryan-College system to Suddenlink, Cox completed a $12.5 million rebuild, upgrading 700 miles of plant from 550 MHz to 862 MHz. "In Cox’s world, Bryan was a small system in size," says Ruel. "In our world, it’s a star property. You’ve got a vibrant, upscale market here, with a large college student population and growing Latino and Asian communities. We’ll look to Bryan as the place where new services take off." Bryan-College’s local ad sales, high-speed Internet and business services offerings will set create the template for other Suddenlink systems to follow. Suddenlink will retain system initiatives developed under Cox in the past year, such as business services and seasonal local ad sales campaigns, adds Ruel, who joined Suddenlink earlier this year after 12 with Cox. Also continuing will be Cox’s initiative to install Ethernet connections in apartment buildings; residents in those buildings will be able to connect to their high-speed Internet service without a cable modem. About 5,000 buildings in the area have Ethernet connections. Ken Conner, VP, business, at the Bryan-College system, is talking to Suddenlink system managers elsewhere about testing Ethernet installations in apartment buildings, especially buildings near colleges and universities. Conner is also hyped about telephony prospects. "When we can make VoIP-driven telephony available to business customers, that will be a tremendous opportunity." Ruel says he’s unaware of plans by Verizon to build out a FiOS TV network in the area, despite its growing portfolio of overbuilds near Houston, Dallas and elsewhere in Texas. "But we’re acting like FiOS is here," Ruel says. "At some point they’ll see how lucrative this area can be, and we want to be nimble and ready when they do." SAME SOLID SERVICE, NEW NAME Cross-channel messages and commercials on broadcast and radio continue to highlight the system’s ownership change and promises of more offerings. The transition has been a smooth one so far, says Bryan-College operations director Tom Way. "Customers have not called with negative thoughts about who’s running things. To them, it’s been business as usual and a seamless process," he says. The majority of Bryan employees under Cox, including Way and the rest of his management team, have remained through the corporate transition. Cequel III CEO Jerry Kent encouraged Cox staffers to remain during a series of meetings last winter, which helped generate goodwill among customers and local government officials, says Suddenlink advertising VP Brent Skinner. "They came to see that the same people taking care of their business for years would still be there. The only thing changing immediately was the name," Skinner notes. For Way and other key Bryan employees, this is the second company transition in their cable careers. The first was in 2000, when Cox bought the system from TCA Cable. "At that time, although TCA was a good company, people believed they would get bigger and better things from Cox, given its solid service reputation," Way says. "I worry this time about people concluding that moving from Cox to Suddenlink—big MSO to smaller MSO—they would lose some services along the way. That didn’t happen." Suddenlink Bryan-College Station, Texas By the Numbers EMPLOYEES: 127
BASIC SUBS: 36,870
BASIC RATE: $16.99/MO.
HSD RATE: $24.99-54.95/MO.

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