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Excite@Home urges cable ops be cautious in rolling out multiple ISP services

Struggling cable ISP Excite@Home says it wants to generate new business by supplying services to competing ISPs, but, behind the scenes, the company is working to slow the rollout of those competitors.

The company, which last week fired its auditor, Ernst & Young, after the firm raised doubts about Exite@Home's viability, told the FCC that cable operators should take a cautious approach to rolling out multiple ISP services, according to reports from agency staffers about an Aug. 16 briefing they received from Excite@Home officials.

Company officials told members of the agency's cable, engineering and policy offices that they believe that cable carriage of multiple ISPs may be hampered as system operators expand the service beyond small trials to the entire subscriber base of a cable franchise, according to staffers attending the meeting.

"We need to do things in prudent fashion rather than turning to new platform overnight," said Michael Wendling, network architect for Excite@Home.

Competitors and company critics dismissed Excite@Home's concerns about "scalability," saying that either the company's technology is behind the curve or it is hoping to persudade the cable industry to stick to its longstanding argument that multiple-ISP carriage poses serious technological challenges.

Wendling countered that his company, at 3.7 million subscribers the largest cable ISP, has amassed more operation knowledge about the business than any other company. Among the significant issues identified: To better demarcate functions served by cable operators and ISPs, many MSOs say they want to switch from today's destination-based routing system to one based on customers' addresses. The change could pose unforeseen challenges, he said.

As exclusive contracts between cable systems and cable-focused ISPs such as Excite@Home expire, major MSOs are moving to take over some of the high-speed data-service functions themselves, while leaving others to the various ISPs they offer on their platform. Already, Charter Communications has offered to acquire parts of High Speed Access Corp., the cable-focused ISP serving its subscribers. Cox and Comcast are considering similar moves, according to sources.

Ragan Wilkinson, vice president of AP Engine's Broadband Business unit, said the new cable strategy will offer opportunities for companies that supply behind-the-scenes services to cable systems. AP Engines provides technology to Time Warner, which is attempting to add multiple ISPs to its cable systems and participated in the recently completed trial for 50,000 cable Internet subscribers for Time Warner's system in Columbus, Ohio.

AP Engines has proposed revisions to DOCSIS, the cable industry's data-transport standard, that will enhance interfaces between cable operators and their Internet back-office providers.

Wilkinson says there's no reason that scaling up to serve an entire MSO should be a problem. "We can make it so crossing business boundaries is invisible to the consumer," he said.

As a prelude to competing with Excite @Home when it loses its exclusive contract to serve AT&T Broadband systems next June, Wilkinson hopes to join AT&T's next multi-ISP trial in Massachusetts later this year. He has also had discussions with Comcast, another major client for Excite@ Home.

Critics of the cable industry see Excite@ Home caution as a continuation of cable's longstanding reluctance to offer a broad choice of ISPs. "The cable industry and Excite don't really support true open access," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "What the industry is doing is, in their terms, 'managed access'—providing a tiny handful of self-selected ISPs access to the network."