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MSOs Differ on Non-DOCSIS Modems

They're not dead yet: A version of that line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
could apply to legacy modems put into service before the cable industry adopted the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification.

While some operators have initiated programs to replace these older modems with new, features-hip DOCSIS units, others are content to keep them going — for now.

Recently, AT&T Broadband announced a program to replace legacy modems at no charge to subscribers. Plans are to switch off the last legacy modems in AT&T territories sometime in 2003.

Merger partner Comcast Corp. has already reached that point. It escorted all of the legacy modems from its network as of last week, according to vice president of operations and technical support Mitch Bowling. Legacy-modem customers accounted for about 6 percent of Comcast's customer base.

"To us, this is something we wanted to do, to provide our customers the ability to take advantage of new services as they are developed, and that can really be done on the DOCSIS platform," Bowling said.

Comcast won't divulge the total cost of the project, though it did involve sending each legacy customer a modem free of charge. Comcast also offered a technical support line for customers who ran into problems while installing the new equipment.

"The effort for the customer was minimal — simply unscrew one modem and connect the other — and we provided them a number to call if they needed to," Bowling noted. As a result, "we've had very little, almost nonexistent issues."

Going forward, Comcast's system chiefs will make the call on what to do with the freed-up channel.

"It is a local-market decision," Bowling said. "Depending on those markets, it could be used for video services, it could be used for future growth of [high-speed-data] services. Quite frankly, there is not a standard, cookie-cutter answer for that question."

Replacing legacy modems also is underway in Charter Communications Inc.'s territories. Legacy modems make up about 4 percent of the MSO's base of high-speed installations, mostly in acquired territories or systems once served by defunct Internet-service provider High Speed Access Corp., according to spokesman Andy Morgan.

But other MSOs are in no hurry to yank out the legacy modems, particularly in an economy that favors making the most of existing infrastructure. That includes Time Warner Cable, which has about 175,000 to 180,000 legacy Motorola Inc. modems among its 2.3 million cable-modem homes, according to spokesman Mark Harrad.

The MSO migrated to the DOCSIS platform about two and a half years ago, and has bought only DOCSIS modems since then. There are still legacy modems in a handful of TWC's 34 divisions, though.

While the legacy modems are being gradually phased out, in some cases the older modems may still be in use to conserve capital, according to Harrad.

Another operator not looking to eliminate existing legacy modems from its systems is Cox Communications Inc. While the MSO won't say how many legacy modems it feeds, they still play a role for the Atlanta-based company, according to director of marketing for residential data service Steve Gorman.

"The reality of it is, as we think about leveraging the capital dollars that have already been deployed, this is a perfect place to do it," he said. "They will remain in the field for as long as they are viable, or [until] we can put together some sort of incremental logic to bring them out."

For instance, a modem would be swapped if a customer wanted to upgrade to a future DOCSIS-dependent service, such as IP telephony. But for now, some Cox systems are still handing out legacy modems to new customers as part of a package of bundled services, Gorman noted.

Each Cox system can make its own call as to whether to retain legacy gear or upgrade to a DOCSIS-only system, said Gorman. In many cases, it's better business to retain parallel channels than to deploy a new service on the old legacy channel, he said.

"I think the question you have to ask yourself as an operator is, 'Is the effort and expense required to remove those proprietary modems and cable routers from the plant — are you indeed able to replace the current operating cash flow that that gear currently brings into your business with a freed-up 6 megahertz channel?" he said. "We are all for doing the right thing for our plant, and doing the right thing for the future, but we are also very focused on today's economics and the economic environment, and making sure that we continue to utilize capital intelligently."