FSN's bad rap

Thu, 07/31/2003 - 8:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor

Jeff Baumgartner
“FSN wasn’t created on its own to pull in
dollars by the
bucket; it was put
in place to prove
a concept”
Unless you're Neil Armstrong, being first isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Case in point: the legacy of Time Warner Cable's Full Service Network (FSN), cable's first trial of video-on-demand and other interactive digital services, has taken its share of pans and slams for almost a decade. Words like "failed" and "much-maligned" have trailed it like unwanted sidekicks.

My question is: What failures are some of these folks referring to? At last check, those early trials and tribulations have since turned into an area of much growth and promise for Time Warner Cable, with VOD available in just about all of the MSO's markets and HDVOD apparently in the wings. Plus, the seeds of the project helped to spawn chip giant Broadcom Corp. and advanced digital boxes from the likes of Scientific-Atlanta. It also served as a career-launcher for many.

Still, those on the other side of the FSN debate always play the financial card, laying it on the table like a slab of juicy prime rib. Was it an expensive project? Hell, yes. But not in the context that some so flippantly refer to it.

First off, who would create a business model based on gargantuan digital boxes that cost $7,500 apiece, and get hot enough to heat the living room, with per-stream costs in the thousands rather than the hundreds? Well, it's almost absurd. Anyone who based long-term business plans on those figures would be kicked to the curb faster than you can say "career-killer."

FSN wasn't created on its own to pull in dollars by the bucket; it was put in place to prove a concept. Given FSN's fair or unfair legacy, depending on your view, it also will be interesting to see how history reflects on MystroTV, the super-secretive TV-on-demand unit of AOL Time Warner. Like FSN before it, Jim Chiddix's fingerprints are all over this one as well. And, like FSN, it will probably raise the bar on what we know about cable's capabilities. But, unlike FSN, MystroTV is supposed to be a product from the get go, and therein lurks the true pressure.

The last time I remember this much anticipation about a stealth cable-related effort was in mid-2001, and the names Steve Perlman and Rearden Steel were attached to it. But that company and its media center concept–following a name change (to Moxi Digital Inc.) and then a sale (to Digeo Inc.)–persisted until just last month before it could secure its first wide-scale deployment deal.

But it also required a corporate cousin (Charter Communications, in this case) to step to the plate. It'll be a similar scenario for MystroTV. Time Warner Cable will be its first. It's certainly good to have friends in high places.

At this point, material information about MystroTV is a bit hard to come by. I don't begrudge them wanting to rein in expectations, but here goes: It says here that vendor proof concept trials are targeted for this year, followed by deployments as early as 2004.

History will certainly have its say about MystroTV, too. Here's hoping it's shared with at least a dash of perspective.


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