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Comcast bundles phone in New England

Sun, 12/14/2003 - 7:00pm
Staff

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company

The Boston Globe

December 15, 2003, Monday, THIRD EDITION

Comcast customers in more than 120 Eastern Massachusetts communities — and a total of 1.5 million households served by Comcast in New England — will be able to get 5,000 minutes of phone service for $44 monthly combined with premium digital cable TV service or $43-a-month high-speed Internet service. The phone bundle, called "Comcast Connections Any Distance," is available as a stand-alone plan for $49.

By national standards, Comcast's rollout is considerably less aggressive on price and features than Internet-based phone services being deployed nationally by Time Warner Cable and Cablevision Systems Corp. Verizon charges about $7 less for a bundle of broadband Internet service with local and long-distance phone and voice mail, although Comcast's Net access will be about twice as speedy as Verizon's when pending upgrades are completed in the next several weeks.

But by being able to rival Verizon, Sprint Corp. and other traditional phone companies with a flat-rate effectively unlimited service, Comcast stands to build on its major progress locally in using its cable-TV networks to gain phone and Internet customers.

Comcast reported having 237,000 phone customers in New England as of last March, along with 1.74 million cable TV subscribers and 462,000 broadband Internet subscribers. Its local success has made New England one of only two regions of the country where it has been actively promoting conventional phone service over cable while it readies an Internet-protocol system for deployment by 2006.

Kevin Casey, Comcast's regional vice president managing the New England market, said, "Our customers have asked us for simpler packaging, and this is all about simplifying the telephone product proposition for our customers. It's one price on one line on a bill, which we think makes it easier for our customers to understand and a greater value."

Going back to its days as Media One, the state's dominant cable company has offered local phone service with options for unlimited calling within Greater Boston or Eastern Massachusetts. Customers usually had to sign up for separate long-distance service from a carrier such as Sprint or AT&T, however.

Over the last year, Comcast has offered — but barely publicized — six calling plans that include Comcast-branded long distance in "buckets" of 180 or 300 minutes or a by-the-minute service charging 5 cents a minute for in-state toll calls and 7 cents for interstate. Generally, existing Comcast long-distance customers who make more than about 300 to 400 minutes of long-distance calls monthly will save money by switching to the Any Distance plan.

Like Cox Communications in Rhode Island and other states, however, the Comcast phone service uses the same kind of "circuit switching" as Verizon, effectively dedicating a channel on the cable line for conventional phone service.

Time Warner has begun offering a $40 unlimited calling plan using "Internet protocol" systems in markets including Portland, Maine. These "voice over IP" systems are much less expensive than conventional phone service and can incorporate more premium features because they transmit phone calls in the same digital-data format as e-mail and Web pages.

Time Warner said last week it would expand the service to 31 markets in 27 states next year, through a partnership with MCI and Sprint. Cablevision offers a $35 unlimited calling plan, also using VOIP, throughout its Long Island-metropolitan New York franchise.

James Penhune, a cable industry analyst with Strategy Analytics in Newton Highlands, said of Comcast's new plan, "I'm surprised that it's not really all that cheap" compared to local rivals or other cable providers nationally.

But, Penhune said, Comcast generally has been more focused on pushing digital TV, video on demand, and high-speed Internet services than making any dramatic moves in the phone area.

"Comcast has a lot of balls in the air and so many different services they can be marketing," Penhune said. "The question is how you apply your resources."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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