Cox Cable Spokane is shedding its image as just another home-entertainment business.
After test-driving a new modem that lets users receive and send data, Cox officials say they’re moving into a bright digital future where cable companies will have the fastest, biggest pipelines in the data-transmission business.
“Our sense is that the world is changing dramatically,” said Cox General Manager Alan Collins. “We want to be in the position of offering new services that go beyond what we now provide.”
The first Spokane test of new services involved 25 workers for Guardian Life Insurance Co.
Instead of working at the office, they’re using home computers connected to a North Side office over cable normally used to deliver sports, movies and entertainment.
The test may be the starter’s gun in a wide-open race among many companies trying to sell nifty new products for homes and offices, Collins said.
In five years, cable operators, phone companies and firms like Microsoft will be offering an assortment of telephone and information systems that redefine how people communicate and conduct business, according to cable industry analysts.
Up to now, cable subscribers have been the end users of a system that is a one-way, downstream pipeline.
But by adding amplifiers, the cable system works both ways, allowing the user to send signals, photographs or any digital information the other direction.
Its big advantage is the vastly larger bandwidth that cable allows compared to phone lines.
Think of it like two hoses: The phone system might deliver a gallon of water per minute, while a cable line can carry 2,000 gallons in the same time.
Guardian Life claim approver Tami Naccarato would have spent 30 seconds transmitting a dental-claim form over a standard phone modem line to her office. The faster cable-modem connection zips that same pile of data in less than a second.
That feature will help Cox deliver a variety of nifty new services if consumers want to pay for them, said Collins.
What will happen by the year 2000, according to the favorite image among cable companies, is development of the “digital storefront.”
“We have this very large store - the cable system and the wide bandwidth of the fiber-optic network,” Collins said. “But we are only offering one item. We want to maximize that shelf space and offer many more products if we find that consumers want to pay for them.”
One obvious first step would be cable companies giving consumers connections to on-line services like America On Line or to the Internet.
Other Cox franchises are already testing such connections, said Collins.
The next step would be providing phone service in all its forms - from fax to cellular to voice mail, from any remote location.
In fact, Cox is a partner in a new phone system that would use existing fiber-optic cable lines and wireless radio equipment.
That new system would add mini-transmitters to the existing Spokane cable system, letting users send and receive phone calls with mobile or home-based receivers.
The company helping develop that system is TCI, the country’s largest cable operator, which is trading another cable system to Cox and will take over Spokane’s 30,000-subscriber system next year.
Within a few years, consumers should also see full video-on-demand - the ability to order any of thousands of movies or concerts quickly by pressing a button, Collins said.
As companies try to provide different services, the strategy will be to win customers through packaging - having one home box that connects the home to the Internet, offers phone service and delivers a full line of cable TV and radio programming.
“If that works, we might even throw in a free turkey if people ordered the whole thing by a certain date,” Collins joked.
When Guardian first considered the telecommuting idea, its first goal was to find a way to help workers be more productive.
After learning that Cox had a test modem available, Guardian officials spent nine months preparing to install the network.
“We looked both at US West and Cox as our main network options,” said Rollin Hasness, Guardian’s project manager.
Cox became the obvious choice, he said.
“We found parts of Spokane where the phone system was still not digital and would be of no help to us,” Hasness said.
After a few start-up glitches, “it’s worked exactly like we hoped. It’s great,” he said.