Is Cable Ready for Its Home Networking Close-Up?

Cable Industry Home Networking Serving the increasingly sophisticated wired and wireless home networking needs of subscribers is a good opportunity for cable operators to increase revenues. It also is important from the defensive point of view: Subscriber confusion over how to network all the shiny devices they bring home will lead to frustration and higher churn.

Though the company wouldn't release numbers, Cox says it's very satisfied with its initiative, which went live in the New England market late last year. Josh Schoenberg, the operator's director of adjacent growth strategy, reports that the strategy to this point is to focus on the PC, printers and other peripherals. The long-term game plan is to move beyond the PC to offer services throughout the house and to move the services to other regions. To date, Schoenberg says, computer security-related products and services have generated the most interest.

The industry has long had approach/avoidance issues with in home networking. The potential revenue and stickiness benefits are obvious. The challenges also are clear: The home can be something of a Pandora's box, increasing demand on field technicians, CSRs, training, billing and other departments, more truck rolls, and other complexities that accompany moving beyond subscribers' thresholds. Customer dissatisfaction -- whether or not the problem is the MSO's fault -- can be a problem once operators bill themselves as in-home specialists.

Been There Before

The industry has been at this point before. Indeed, Cox came up short in a move into home networking game in the in 2007. The company has taken the lessons learned then to heart. "Previously, there was inconsistency in terms of the business model and approach, Schoenberg explains. "Now we are aiming for a consistent deployment of services. We had a much higher level of truck rolls than we anticipated or needed. We really tried to focus on remote resolution, but wanted to do it in a way customers were comfortable with. Tunneling into a customer's PC did not have as high acceptance as it does today."

Offering in-home networking services is, of course, a natural for cable operators. What may be a difference now is that the operators are migrating to it in a more gradual and organic way. Becoming cable's version of the Geek Squad isn't easy and doesn't happen overnight.

Tom Gorman, vice president of field operations for Charter, sounds like the operator's offering is geared toward making sure that neglecting the home front doesn't cost the operator business.

The need is significant, Gorman notes. "Primarily, this is just taking the burden off customers having to manage their wireless networks. Many people don't understand wireless networks or the security needed to set it up properly and onboarding and off-boarding equipment."

Unlike Cox, Charter doesn't utilize software that enables techs to "take over" a PC from offsite. Charter's approach is to set the subscriber up with a truck roll. The initial setup is supplemented with non-product-specific software that can help connect devices and help integrate cable service with WiFi or wired home networking approaches such as that offered by the Multimedia Over Coax Alliance, better known as MoCA.

It is unrealistic, at this point, to try to offer all the answers, Gorman says. "Every day a new widget with Wi-Fi connectivity is released. Being able to provision, manage and connect to the network is a real challenge. As skill sets get better, we are able to connect more and more devices, but we haven't rolled out a service in which we connect everything all the time."

Gorman suggests that a more specialized service -- in which the company more proactively reaches out to the higher level subscribers -- likely will come later. "We've been looking at a white glove service-type environment for an added fee for a higher end level of service, with support for home networking and anything in the home," he says. "It has been discussed, but it is not something that we have in the hopper to be rolled out."

Clearly, the cable industry is intrigued by home networking and sees it as a beneficial and, indeed, necessary business. At the same time, it is clear that business models are just forming.

Jeff Heynen, Infonetics Research's directing analyst for broadband access, reports that the cable industry "definitely" is showing renewed interest in home networking. Heynen, who authored a report on home networking that was released last month, says the stimulus is the overall change in the cable industry's mission.

"I think it primarily is because cable operators really are becoming first and foremost broadband providers and secondarily television providers," he suggests. "Because of that, it's becoming more important to start looking at home networking services as an add-on to the broadband services they provide."

Heynan adds that a side benefit of home networking services are upsell opportunities based on more detailed information about what the customer is doing in the home. At the end of the day, however, the industry still is getting its arms around the issues. "It's very, very early," he explains.

Carl Weinschenk is a reporter for Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at .

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