Voice is "probably (the) biggest single growth business" for Time Warner Cable, a company executive said at the Internet Service Provider Conference (ISPCON) in Baltimore in May. As such, the MSO is taking steps to ensure its success through a variety of technology- and customer service-based steps. "On a per-subscriber basis, gross margin basis, it’s a pretty big number for us," said Michael Jablon, senior director of product marketing-digital phone, for Time Warner Cable, noting that the MSO now has more than 500,000 broadband telephony customers paying at least $39.95 per month for voice services. Speaking at a panel session on "Realities of VoIP Deployments" at the tenth annual ISPCON, Jablon outlined an approach to deploying voice that is relatively conservative in the context of the Internet service providers (ISPs) that typically attend this event. To start with, Time Warner doesn’t call the service voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) because even though it is packetized data running over IP transport, it never touches the public Internet. When a call leaves Time Warner’s private network—and an increasing number of calls are peer-to-peer between the MSO’s voice subscribers—it’s handled by a partner competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC). Those partners ( Sprint or MCI) then hand the call directly to the public switched telephone network (PSTN), he said. The Internet never comes into play. "Voice-over-broadband is primary line replacement. Most of our customers are porting their existing phone numbers," Jablon said. Roll truck, roll As such, the company must deal with the service differently than does a nonfacilities-based voice provider, Jablon said. Part of this approach is to call the service Digital Phone and develop a "perception that this is a digital service … a higher quality service," he said. And like a digital service, Time Warner takes steps to make certain the network is ready, including rolling a truck for every new subscriber. While not required, the truck roll guarantees correct installation and the network readiness, he said. "We tighten up the network, make sure the signal coming through the cable is sufficient," he said. Truck rolls run contrary to conventional wisdom about how self-installation saves money and time when deploying voice services. Most nonfacilities-based providers, in fact, don’t even have the resources to roll a truck for installation. "It’s pretty expensive to have trucks to roll," said David Montenaro, chairman-CEO of USA Datanet, a "nomadic service provider." Truck rolls, Montenaro said, speaking on the same panel as Jablon, are a "big issue if you don’t have a big support field support team. It costs a lot of money." Jablon countered that truck rolls can save actually save money because they reduce "customer service requirements on the back end" by clearing up any potential technical or custo mer problems during the installation process. Market disruption Time Warner, like every cable operator, will find itself in competition with VoIP providers who undercut the cable company’s monthly $40 charge while taking a free ride on the MSO’s broadband pipe. Technology-wise, Jablon emphasized, those competing providers will be on a level playing field once they get onto the pipe. "We don’t do anything to the quality of service," he said. "If a customer buys broadband, they’re getting broadband." The same customer then can order a cheaper VoIP service—the panelists tossed about $24.95 as a median price point. "Voice over IP has enabled new entry into a business that’s been around for a long time," Jablon conceded. Time Warner Cable’s approach is to make digital phone a part of its overall digital offering. It’s not VoIP, he said; it’s part of a package of services, he said, under a digital umbrella. -Jim Barthold

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