Abdoulah's Happy Now, Running WideOpenWest

If you ask Colleen Abdoulah, bigger isn't necessarily better: The former AT&T Broadband executive vice president of wireline services has jumped back in the cable game after a two-year hiatus, taking over in August as president and chief operating officer at competitive cable provider WideOpenWest LLC.

Since then, she has helped shepherd the smaller, fledgling cable provider as it rolls out new data and digital TV services in its main Midwestern territory, in a less-than-friendly economic climate.

Running a smaller-scale cable operation does have distinct advantages, compared to her days at AT&T and predecessor Tele-Communications Inc.

"I am loving it. And though I'll never trash my days at TCI, because I learned so much and had so many jobs, at the time I left I knew it was time to go — the company had become so large, and I am not a big-company girl," she said.

That doesn't mean she faces less of a challenge at WOW, which has not escaped the telecom depression that's plagued fellow competitive broadband providers.

While it originally had aimed to finish a buildout of its Denver-area system and to start a new network build in Dallas, the economic winter forced it to scrap those plans.

WOW now is focusing its attention on the former Americast cable network it bought from SBC Communications Inc. in
December 2001. Those systems, centered in Michigan, Illinois and Cleveland and Columbus, had about 310,000 customers at the time of the purchase.

Although the hybrid-fiber-coax plant was two-way capable and built out to 750-megahertz capacity, SBC offered customers only analog TV. Since taking over, WOW has added high-speed Internet access and digital cable to the product lineup across all of its new markets.

Abdoulah acknowledged that 2002 was not a good year for the cable industry in general, but she said WOW made it through and finished on a strong point, generating solid increases in its subscriber base and a healthy response to its new digital-TV and data products.

As a privately held company, WOW is circumspect about releasing detailed subscriber counts, but Abdoulah did say "we feel good about our customer base."

WOW offers basic cable priced between $34 and $37.75 per month in Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio. It also offers tiered high-speed Internet service at 112 kilobits per second, 500 kbps and 1.5 megabits per second. When bundled with basic cable, the monthly rates as of Feb. 1 are $49.99, $54.99 and $59.99, respectively; when combined with digital cable the fees are $64.99, $69.99 and $74.99, respectively.

Unlike other cablers, voice does not figure into WOW's near-term plans. While it does offer an Internet-protocol voice service in its Denver footprint, WOW will not expand that to its Midwestern territories anytime soon. It instead prefers to develop its existing services.

Similarly, the company is taking a cautious look at video-on-demand and high-definition TV technology.

"We are open to and are obviously looking at a variety of market tests for VOD and HDTV, but it would only be at that level for this year — and that is small-market tests," she said. "We really are focusing on the fundamentals, the blocking and tackling of offering services day to day."

While she may not be able to control the foundering economy or its impact on WOW, Abdoulah said she is in a better position to drive the company's philosophy and direction compared to her previous cable stints.

"It helps to be president and COO because I can make the decisions I am really passionate about," she said.

That extends to dealing with the competition. WideOpenWest is hunting for subscribers in markets with heavy-hitter MSO rivals, including Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp. and Adelphia Communications Corp.

But Abdoulah is quick to say WOW does not obsess on what its competition does, unlike many other broadband players.

"To me, the best way to compete is to not focus a lot of attention on the competition, but rather focus on the customer," she said. "You so quickly take your eye off the target when you do that, and you do things that might impact the customer.

"Remember that you are here to serve the customer, not the competition."

Without that competition paranoia, Abdoulah hopes to create a more levelheaded company culture at WOW.

"I just want it to be a place where the people who work with us or for us enjoy coming into work every damned day," she said. "The whole thing about this that I love is keeping a perspective on it — we are not brain surgeons. Just do it and have fun. Everyone we work with has a healthy perspective about what we do."