Published Works,  Technology Column

Tech 06

June 10, 1997

Last week Bill Gates put a billion dollars on the table for a share in Comcast, a huge cable company. About the same time the local cable company was proudly showing off Cox Fibernet,the first new local telephone service around Hampton Roads since Ma Bell. A big clue for anyone interested in where this whole Internet and computer thing is going.

“Cable television programming service has always been our defensive line,” says Wes Neal of Cox Fibernet. “Entering into telephone and other related new services is our offense into the telecommunications arena.” Neal took the time to show me around the weatherproof bunker which houses the new operation. “We’ve been providing alternate access telephony services to business customers since 1993. Now we can offer business customers a dial tone, and residential service is next.”

How does it work? Pretty much like the local phone service you have now. It’s all connected. Your cable company phone line sends voice or data to a central location. If you’re calling someone else on the same system, the conversation is in a closed loop. If not, the cable company sends your call to the local phone company. That’s it. But because the new line is mostly broadband fiber optic cable, it’s really fast. Internet service providers are already in the loop for that very reason. “When America On Line had connectivity problems with the regular phone company they turned to cable.” Wes Neal added, “and wait until on line customers get a sample of super high speed cable modem service!”

Meanwhile, the existing phone company is trying hard to catch up. As I reported in last weeks Tech, Bell Atlantic is finishing up its Philadelphia network first. Their plans include Hampton Roads, but it looks like Cox will beat them to the punch. Beginning this summer Cox plans to have dial tone to business customers. Later this year residential sections of Newport News will be up and running. That will be followed by Chesapeake, Hampton and Williamsburg.

Within two years Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and the military bases will all follow. It’s a whole new world.