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TCI to offer Internet service through cable

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Cable means television to most people, but in the next few months in Springfield, cable could become a means of getting access to the Internet.

TCI of Springfield is working on upgrading its system to accommodate two-way communication, and it plans to start offering Internet access service in March of 1999, said Ross Summers, general manager. That date is tentative and is subject to change, he added, but the cable company has been working for the past few months on making its system compatible for two-way communication.

"In the past, cable has always been one-way. We send the image to the customer, but we don't have to worry about getting communication back from them. What we're doing now will allow us to integrate that two-way communication," Summers said.

The program, called TCI @Home, is already up and running in test markets, such as large TCI systems in California, Summers said. The Springfield market will have some beta testing before the full system is rolled out, and the southeast portion of town will be the first to get the service, mostly for geographic reasons, said Matt Mayhan, system engineer for TCI.

"We have five fiber trunks and we picked the one that was geographically close to our headquarters (the TCI office on Enterprise), and we have lots of customers in that area," Mayhan said.

TCI will commence Internet service in other areas of the city quickly after initial service begins, however, Summers added.

The beta testing for the Springfield @Home service is to begin in February.

The total Internet service project is to cost $3.5 million, Summers said.

In order to make way for two-way communication, the cable system is installing two-way equipment at each of its 4,500 amplifier locations, Mayan said. The company is also adding about 25 miles of coaxial cable for interconnections. The entire system will have to be balanced and tested before service begins, Mayhan added.

"The levels are critical. We've got to be sure we've got it all right before we start signing customers up," Mayhan said.

Though the company is not keeping a formal list of subscribers who are interested in the service, a number of people have called to inquire about when @Home will be available in Springfield.

"Lots of people are offering to be beta testers. We are getting a lot of interest in the program," Summers said.

Though the @Home project and the TCI-AT&T merger are not connected @Home is a TCI product the changes to the system will be beneficial when AT&T begins to offer local phone service in the market area.

"A lot of the guys working on the project call this the @Home project, but I remind them that this is simply making the system two-way; we don't know what might be on it ultimately," Mayhan said.

The TCI-AT&T merger is set to close in the early second quarter of 1999, Summers said.

Summers added that the two-way nature of the system will accommodate several forms of voice, data and video.

"The same technology that will operate the modems will make telephony work," Mayhan said.

The service will work with the cable that is already in the customer's home, and will require a special modem. Summers said the company is hoping this will eliminate the need for a second phone line in many households. Those who don't subscribe to cable can get the service without adding cable television service to their home.

The projected cost for the service will be $39.95 a month, plus a one-time installation fee of $150, which includes a network card installed in the customer's computer, Mayhan said. The cost may be adjusted for this particular market.

Any standard TCP/IP software will work with the network, but @Home has its own supported software, as well. @Home has its own Web browser, which is based on Netscape Navigator 4.0. The @Home network will work with Windows 95 or higher and a 486 or higher processor, plus at least 16 MB of RAM. The system will work with Macintosh MacOS 7.5.3 or higher with PowerPC or PowerMac with a minimum of 16 MB of RAM.

The speed of the @Home system is to be much faster than dial-up Internet service, Summers said. The maximum speed of transfer is 10 megabits per second, but actual speed is dependent on several factors, such as file size, congestion on the network, etc.

The @Home service is strictly for residential customers or those who have home-based businesses. Another product, @Work, is set to be rolled out for commercial customers in the next couple of years, Summers said.

Mayhan said the @Home system is "not just a pipeline, but has some intelligence built into it."

"The system has its own content, which makes it a little different from some others," Summer said.

Other cable systems are also getting into the modem business; Time-Warner's product, Roadrunner, is already available in some markets. TCI of Springfield will probably be the first market in Missouri to offer modem access through cable. Kansas City uses Time-Warner, but is not likely to get the modem service there anytime soon, Mayhan said. Columbia and Jefferson City, which also have TCI, will be getting @Home soon after Springfield, Summers said.

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