Building Out Broadband

In AT&T Broadband's new-technology chain of command, the broadband buck stops with Susan Marshall.

From the moment AT&T Corp. set up its cable operations (after its 1998 purchase of Tele-Communications Inc.), Marshall has been charged with building a universe of cable subscribers connected to high-speed Internet access, telephony and other enhanced services.

Most recently, she's had to deal with the sudden shift of over 850,000 AT&T Broadband high-speed customers from bankrupt Internet-service provider Excite@Home Corp. to the MSO's hastily constructed transmission backbone, as well as AT&T's decision to merge its cable unit with Comcast Corp.

No matter how the pending merger proceeds, Marshall said: "You'll see a lot of effort around high-speed [this year], especially with multiple ISP rollouts. We'll keep rolling out telephony.

"Admittedly, we haven't gone fast and furious on video-on-demand and interactive TV, but we're doing some trials that will help us set the focus for rollouts there," she added. "We haven't been hyping initiatives in the latter two areas, but real work has been done. The cable industry is on the leading edge of technology, and that's what I'm focused on. There's a lot to be excited about every day you wake up, because there's a lot of cool tech to deploy."

But some of the cool tech that many expected Broadband to deploy for VOD and ITV rollouts last year — such as Motorola Inc. DCT-5000 advanced digital set-tops powered by Microsoft Corp. operating systems — were pushed to the side, first due to technical glitches and later because of fiscal concerns.

Now, AT&T must consider what to do with Motorola and Microsoft, and when to do it. Meanwhile, Marshall and her broadband squad let ITV fly in a few places, most notably Tacoma, Wash. That's where WorldGate Communications' service was coupled with an NDS Group-supplied interactive photo album feature that allows subscribers to watch family snapshots on TV.

After Excite@Home Corp. bondholders demanded that MSOs make increasingly higher payouts to maintain cable-modem service, Marshall walked away and ordered the transfer of customers to AT&T's own backbone network. That process was expected to take two weeks but was handled in less than one, with more than 300 technicians working around the clock.

Despite the quick window, and some widely reported instances of poor transmission or electronic-mail losses when subscribers were reconnected, most customers were switched with little or no problem.

"This was a stare down," said Marshall. "We were going to be held hostage by the bondholders, so we had to be willing to put our money where our mouth was and not give in.

"This switch became the No. 1 priority. We knew it could be pulled off, but we didn't know how long it would take. Originally, the thinking was 15 days, and that was the most aggressive we could get."

Marshall was not unfamiliar with the need to make fast, tough decisions. After graduating from the University of Maryland, her first jobs were on software-engineering projects at the U.S. Strategic Air Command and the Pentagon. Technology-industry consulting assignments followed, and then, in 1990, she entered the cable industry via TCI's ITV-development initiative.

She served as senior vice president of technology and operations at Zing Systems, a TCI-funded interactive venture. Zing fell apart, but Marshall's affection for the cable industry didn't.

"Start-ups are a heck of a lot of fun," she said. "The expectations, the camaraderie, the ability to roll up your sleeves, get dirty and wear lots of hats is tremendous.

"In environments like that, you learn there are lots of folks that can rise to an occasion when you least expect them, or can achieve in areas they're not necessarily educated about. For myself, Zing showed me how not to pigeonhole folks and not put them in boxes, myself included."

Marshall is still excited about ITV's possibilities, though she's cautious.

"We need to crawl, walk, run here — let ITV be customer-run as a marketplace, rather than tech-pushed with lots of money thrown its way."

She's also bullish on Internet-protocol networks and home networking.

"These networks will be built to handle video, voice and data, and within a decade, we'll see these networks carry VOD and similar streamed video programming," she said. "Home networking will, at some point, be as big as high-speed data, and cable, using home networks, will enable all of these unique services to happen."

Women shouldn't let the intricacies of technology stop them from moving into a technical or advanced-services role, Marshall advised. She knows of no other MSO with a female senior tech exec, and attributes that to women being too cautious in pursuit of such jobs.

You don't need a deep education in engineering to be a leader in the field, she insisted.

"What you need is a good business head on your shoulders and the ability to understand how to implement tech for the public's benefit," she said. "Technology is more about how you execute it than how to design it.

"Women are very good on understanding consumer needs, and I'd like to see more women be more tech-involved, as the translation point between engineering and consumer marketers."