Instead, I paused. Thoughts of 500 channels, digital compression, full service networks, interactive TV, Teletext and other failures or missteps flooded my brain. I've seen a lot of neat technology that never went anywhere, largely for non-technical reasons (interdiction, anyone?). So, call me skeptical. Call me jaded. I'm both.

But, do I think datacom over cable will take off? Without a doubt, I do — unless the fickle public decides the Internet, chat rooms and new on-line services were just the latest passing fads. But with new content offerings, the promise of on-line gaming, the ability of the medium to renew itself almost constantly and the incredible popularity of America Online and its brethren, will on-line services flame out soon? I doubt it.

The challenge for cable systems isn't really technical; it's operational. Can cable operators train their technical and customer service personnel to understand and deal with data problems? Can software be written so that customers only get one bill? Can help desks actually provide help, without leaving a bitter taste in the consumer's mouth? Those will be the key questions going forward.

To amplify those suppositions, I point to an interesting research survey by Douglas Shapiro, an analyst with New York-based Deutsche Morgan Grenfell. While small in scope, the survey directly contacted 30 paying customers of high-speed data services offered by three different providers (@Home, RoadRunner and Highway 1) and reports on how they feel about speed, reliability, customer service quality, installation procedures and overall satisfaction.

The good news: Consumers are elated with the system's speed and report few or no problems with modems. Shapiro says consumers are almost "exuberant" in their love for the service, with some noting that it's a steal at $40 per month. Even where some problems have been encountered, nearly everyone said they'd recommend the service to a friend.

Now for the bad news: Customer service and technical support have been identified as the Achilles' heel. Of the 30 people contacted, five reported problems. All of those were customers of Time Warner's RoadRunner service (mostly in Akron, Ohio). Complaints ranged from lost e-mail to numerous outages; but complaints over customer service really got people worked up.

That means anyone who plans to launch data services over a cable system must have enough personnel to answer the phone; be prepared to deal with a wide range of questions and problems; and be better than the telcos when it comes to overall service.

Can the MSOs do it? Shapiro thinks so. He says the quick survey shows that operators are indeed equipped to handle the complex technical issues — if they devote the resources. Are you ready?

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