Both, of course, offer data transfer and Internet access at speeds hundreds of times faster than the telcos can with conventional POTS modems. And both are providing continuous connections for a monthly flat fee.

With the launch of their own high-speed data services, the nation's largest cable system operators are plunging headlong into uncharted waters as they search for new revenue opportunities. But even the casual reader of this magazine will realize by the time he gets to the last page that there remains at least one, huge obstacle to realizing that dream-the cable drop and in-home wiring.

Estimates vary, but some observers suggest that upwards of 50 percent of the coaxial cable that's running in basements and through walls in the homes of customers is inadequate to facilitate digital video or data signals.

Even systems that have been recently rebuilt could be in for a rude awakening. While fiber has been added to the trunk and feeder portions of the plant, in-home wiring is rarely touched. There's never been any need to replace it, because even vintage coax can routinely pass scores of channels of analog video to multiple TV sets. But the digital world is much more uncertain-no one is quite sure if that old, unshielded coax can offer reliable service. And virtually no one has any test equipment to find out.

But the industry now has a golden opportunity to rectify the situation without it becoming a huge financial drain. But it's going to require an investment in time, training and test gear to make it work.

According to @Home and Roadrunner executives, cable systems will be charging upwards of $150 to install cable modems, Ethernet cards and related hardware and software. That fee should more than cover the cost of labor and materials (as long as the installer doesn't get involved in a massive software morass). Anything extra ought to be invested in high-quality coaxial cable and F-connectors, so that when the installer leaves the house after hooking up a cable modem, the system won't fail.

Early cable modem users will be a cable operator's best customer. Installers need to be instructed on how to do the install right-the first time. After all, customers only invite you in once; after that, you're there on more contentious grounds because something doesn't work.

For their part, the MSOs need to specify and install cable with enough shielding to protect the integrity of the signals from the harsh in-home RF environment. They need to develop policies that mandate drop testing before the installer leaves. Personnel should be encouraged to treat the home wiring and drops as systems that should rarely be cut into. In short, the drop needs to be recognized for what it is: just as valuable as the headend itself.

So, if you haven't already, consider the age of the cable that's in your subscribers' homes. Realize that many have probably purchased substandard cable as they wired their own additional outlets. If it can be called into question, now is the time to bite the bullet. Being proactive could cost you less, in the long run.

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