There are two ways to reach Atlanta from Hartsfield-Jackson International, one of the nation’s biggest and busiest airports. One is renting a car and driving up some interstates. The other is spending $1.75 for passage on a Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority train. The interstates easily outnumber the MARTA subway lines, but given the bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hours, a leisurely MARTA ride feels faster than I-85. Stay on MARTA’s Northeast line until the next-to-last stop and you’ll arrive in Chamblee, about 10 minutes away from the main office of Comcast’s system for residents of three counties north of Atlanta—Cobb, Fulton and the southern half of Gwinnett. It’s there you’ll find some real speed demons, if rapidity of product deployment can be used as any kind of gauge. So far this year, the system has launched enhanced high-speed Web access operating at 3 Mpbs, including new video e-mail and photo display/storage features; wireless home networking; and digital video recorder functionality. More channels and video-on-demand content will be added to the digital package this fall, and Internet protocol-powered telephony is earmarked for spring 2005 deployment. By then, Comcast’s operation in North Atlanta could well be the site of an all-digital/IP service trial. The nation’s largest system owner is looking this suburban territory over, along with other locations nationwide, for one or more all-digital/IP prototype rollouts next summer or fall. Benefits of the Three-Way Split For years, more than 650,000 cable homes located within 5,000 square miles of the Atlanta metro area were part of a centralized infrastructure belonging to MediaOne and, later, AT&T Broadband. When Comcast assumed system operations following its merger with AT&T Broadband near the end of 2002, the nation’s leading operator inherited a host of technical issues, some associated with a rebuild from 550 to 750 MHz, which drove management batty and pushed many cable subs into DBS hands. Foremost among the problems Comcast inherited: All service calls for the Atlanta area were directed and handled out of one location, which created frequent backlogs in service. "The old methods we utilized under a silo-like centralization led to so many service delivery problems," acknowledges Greg Capranica, a general manager with AT&T, MediaOne and Insight Communications in various markets before taking the GM post for Comcast in Atlanta. "We had multiple technicians make calls on the same home at different times, either for digital or high-speed Internet," he says. "Installations were not completed when they should have been, and that led to all sorts of dispatching problems." Because individual households couldn’t have all their new service needs met with one phone call, far too many customers all over Atlanta were "inconvenienced," says North Atlanta tech operations director Steven Gitzen. "Consumers look for or anticipate one-stop shopping. You want to give customers a positive experience any time out, rather than handle just one facet of the job, and that wasn’t happening," he says. In response, Comcast split the Atlanta cluster into three separate systems in early 2003, each with its own management ("Good Things Really Do Come in Threes," April, 14, 2003, issue). Capranica, who looks every inch the troop commander in size and demeanor, and his team were assigned the North Atlanta suburbs, covering about 275,000 customers. Another management unit became responsible for Atlanta proper, along with nearby Fulton and DeKalb counties, and a third team became accountable for so-called "perimeter" counties, mostly in the southern, eastern and western portions of the Atlanta metro area. Back to the Books for Techs With Comcast determined to launch 750-MHz capacity in all three systems by the end of 2003—and reverse the customer gains DBS distributors were enjoying everywhere—the North Atlanta unit instituted several strategies within a few months. First, Gitzen launched a "Universal 3-Product Tech" training process, in which all technical employees were educated and then recertified in video, voice and high-speed data installs. The training also covered high-definition TV, digital video recorders and other possible advanced services coming down the pike. The majority of Comcast technicians were recertified within eight months. The service credo is now "one tech out, last tech out," Gitzen explains, so that any new service the subscriber wants is taken care of in one visit. Multiple service calls to one location has gone from being the norm to being the exception, Gitzen says. Good thing, too, because there’s a growing universe of homeowners living in Comcast’s Atlanta suburban territory who are early tech adopters and have more than one PC and TV in their homes—people easily turned off by repeated service calls, Capranica explains. There’s also a mushrooming population of mansion owners in the area, including pop diva Whitney Houston and hubby Bobby Brown, comedian Jeff Foxworthy (whose new Blue Collar TV sketchcom on The WB gets additional play on Comedy Central) and various Atlanta Braves and Falcons players. Cold Cash for Converts Multiculturalism has reached the North Atlanta suburbs: about 20% of the area’s population is African-American, 7% is Latino and 5% Asian-American. Targeting specific neighborhoods is much better for the customer, adds Capranica. "You serve a smaller area more productively, cut down on drive times and give techs more ability to handle day-to-day problems quicker." As the technical crews became more versatile, Comcast instituted a buyback program to win back DBS converts. Anyone ditching DirecTV or EchoStar’s Dish Network for digital service and HBO receives $400—paid out in $25 per-month installments over 16 months. Direct mail, radio and newspaper ad campaigns, overseen by system marketing director Elaine Barnes, touted the buyback deal. Capranica and Barnes say the buyback program is "going great." They say they’d normally be amenable to going beyond generalities, but Comcast’s corporate policymakers imposed guidelines last year that prevent them from releasing system stats on new services and DBS customer gains to journalists—despite the fact that the company is publicly traded. Nevertheless, DBS penetration in Cobb and Fulton counties stands at 21%, according to Media Business Corp. data. That’s 5% below the DBS population estimate for the Atlanta area from Scarborough Research. Barnes and her marketing team have also launched campaigns this year intended to woo current customers into taking more services and reach out to specific demographics. High-speed Internet access and wireless home networking are promoted regularly in Points North, a local monthly magazine with upscale appeal. Spanish-language newspaper promotions and community events tout high-definition TV channels and Selecto, the system’s digital Latino tier with 10 video and eight audio music channels, available for $22.99 per month with basic service. DJs Crow for Cable There’s ample opportunity for area citizens and visitors to sample system offerings up close any day of the week. Besides a trio of customer service centers that feature product demonstrations in Alpharetta, Grayson and Marietta, more than 180 stores display Comcast’s HDTV, digital and high-speed services. Participating retailers include national chains Best Buy, Circuit City and Staples, and Atlanta outlets H.H. Gregg and Big Screen Store. "We have signs all over the stores, and our people train their employees in how to demonstrate the services and handle any customer questions," Barnes says. "With all the competition, we have to be where customers roam and shop, and the effort so far has been very beneficial." Comcast also communicates its messages to commuters as they trek to and from Atlanta with what you might call it highway "roadblocking." As part of an agreement with a number of local radio stations, disk jockeys on the early morning/mid-afternoon shifts—otherwise known as drive time—regularly riff about the latest Comcast offerings they’ve tried out and enjoyed, from DVRs to high-speed access and VOD. (The DJs are paying customers of Comcast, although they get a break on installation fees.) On a given day, DJs at several stations will offer their Comcast endorsements at approximately the same time, whether the station is all-news, sports talk or pop tunes. "It’s more conversational, so the material comes over on a friendlier basis than a hard sell," says Barnes. "People in our area take 35 to 40 minutes to drive downtown with all the traffic. It’s a great opportunity to reach the most people you can." Life After Decentralization All local avail time in the three Comcast Atlanta systems is sold through Comcast Spotlight, which runs the area-wide interconnect known until last year as Cable Advertising of Metro Atlanta (CAMA). Adelphia, Charter and five other MSOs participate in the interconnect with Comcast, with some 1.2 million households in reach. "We changed the name last year to capitalize on Comcast’s presence in the market," says Spotlight VP/GM Jeff Stone, whose offices are next door to the system’s executive digs near Chamblee. "The steps they’ve taken to enhance service and customer relationships under decentralization affects our business for the better. The more customers you have, the more eyeballs you can sell." Stone wouldn’t go into specifics about how Spotlight is doing so far this year compared to last year. "We continue to experience steady growth," he says. Besides basic and digital network ad sales, Spotlight has sold long-form VOD featurettes to the likes of BMW and Sonic Restaurants. Long-form content launched six months ago, and so far for Stone, client reaction has been promising. His unit is also going after multiple-platform deals in which, along with 30- second avails, sponsors get banner ads on the system’s Comcast.net portal, space in bill stuffers and direct mail, and program guide pages. Spotlight wants to add avail time on 10 to 12 diginets later this fall. Stone hopes the system considers services targeting Asian-Americans, now that ImaginAsian TV is operating and other channels are in development. "It’s the fastest-growing market in the country," he says. (A premium net of Korean programming is running on the system.) The latest addition to Comcast’s digital lineup is NFL Network, which the system picked up a few weeks ago in a deal that included original content for VOD. More than 1,000 hours of programming runs on demand each month, 70% available at no charge to digital customers. College Sports Television and Gospel Music Channel are among the networks under review for premieres later this fall. In the long view, Capranica envisions voice-over IP as an element in his system’s next transformation. Centralization to decentralization came first; analog/digital to all-digital/IP is next. "I see things like e-mail, video telephony and other features [on-screen] as new opportunities for us [emerging from] voice-over IP.