RadioShack, the ubiquitous electronics store that techies and hobbyists have been turning to for decades for the odd connector or cable, is becoming a key retail outlet for cable operators served by Excite@Home that seek to bring high-speed data services to the masses.

One of the 7,000 RadioShack stores nationwide.

In October of last year, RadioShack and Excite@Home forged an alliance where people seeking broadband service who lived in areas served by @Home's partners could stop in at the local RadioShack and add to their shopping carts high-speed data service, a self-install kit and a cable modem. The first operator to step up to the plate was Comcast.

Other operators are soon to follow.

With Thomson Multimedia's RCA DCM 226 Universal Serial Bus (USB) cable modems and Excite@Home self-install kits in 150 stores in Comcast system territories in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, RadioShack, according to Kay Jackson, director of media relations, aims to boost that number to 3,500 stores across the country in Comcast, Cox and AT&T Broadband systems by the fourth quarter of this year.

The Excite@Home QuickStart kit, as customized for Comcast.

As of last November, consumers can buy the Thomson cable modem, Excite@Home QuickStart installation kit/CD-ROM and one month of service for $99.98. The price of the monthly service, says Jackson, is $32.95 per month.

Excite@Home is hoping bargain-hunting RadioShack shoppers hungry for broadband will take the plunge.

"RadioShack has a store in about every cable system footprint there is," says Scott Sternberg, senior director of planning and development for Excite@Home. While Sternberg wouldn't disclose any sales targets, he indicates that Excite@Home is hoping to attract in "the high 10s of thousands" range or more subscribers as a result of its relationship with RadioShack.

The goal is to achieve a long-held dream of the cable industry–complete self-installation of high-speed data service. According to Sternberg, 80 percent of the installs performed by customers buying the RadioShack package are completed without a truck roll.

Prepared to join Comcast to launch its retail program with RadioShack is Cox Communications, which will launch first in Omaha in late April/early May, according to David Pugliese, vice president of sales and new product management for Cox. Importantly, Pugliese, who notes that there are about 400 RadioShack stores in Cox territories across the U.S., says that the "USB, from a consumer standpoint . . . is much closer to plug-and-play." The USB modem, then, is helping facilitate the self-install process, bypassing the need to install Ethernet cards and configure Ethernet drivers–no easy task on Windows-based computers.

Excite@Home has designed a user-friendly interface to help consumers complete a self-installation of high-speed data services.

Once a customer is in a RadioShack store located in a cable operator's territory, Excite@Home has developed a sophisticated, evolving system to integrate its qualification databases to point-of-sales computers at RadioShack locations. Sternberg explains that Excite@Home has provided Radio-Shack with access to its Sales and Lead Executing System (SALES) software that's integrated in point-of-sale units at RadioShack through a Web-based front end connected to Excite@Home's databases. The system allows RadioShack reps to perform a serviceability check to make sure the customer's home is able to receive high-speed data service from the corresponding cable operator.

When a prospective broadband user buys a modem, it is scanned in at the point of sale, with modem serial number and MAC (Media Access Control) numbers recorded, downloaded into the RadioShack database, and transmitted to Excite@Home at the end of the day.

Under development is a channel integration system in which the modem buyer's name and address are taken at the point of sale and the information is immediately sent to the cable operator's network operations center, systems operations group or dispatch group. It's then determined whether an upstream bandstop filter at the customer premises or drop needs to be removed (if one has been installed by the system operator). This system will be launched in the second quarter of this year in a few markets, says Sternberg.

After purchasing the cable modem, customers activate their modems and accounts at home by phone and run the QuickStart CD installation wizard to configure their computers for service.

The QuickStart install kits, says Sternberg, have been designed and co-branded together with cable operators, and Insight Communications and Charter Communications have been testing them. According to Excite@Home executives, the kits, which are available in selected Circuit City, CompUSA and Staples stores in addition to RadioShack, sold at a daily rate of between 300 and 400 copies during December in spite of limited availability and demonstration capability. The kits were seen as a key contributor to Excite@Home meeting its 2000 year-end subscriber goals.

To develop a strong presence in RadioShack stores, Sternberg says that Excite@Home is in the process of designing display units that will contain the modems and QuickStart kits. The displays can be free-standing, built into the "cash lane" near the check-out area, or built into a wall in the store. Cox is working on a design similar to the Compaq store presence, with a dedicated wall placement, says Pugliese.

All of these fixtures will eventually contain a computer with a live, high-speed connection to the appropriate operator's @Home service page, providing both a demonstration of high-speed Internet service to consumers and another tool to check serviceability in the area in which the consumer lives. A phone will also be available in the display for shoppers to call about availability.

The key element, says Pugliese, is the live Internet connectivity. As Cox launches its RadioShack program in each market, the operator will create sales materials to make sure RadioShack salespeople are well-versed in the @Home service, he says.

Once inside the local RadioShack store, customers looking for cable modems will have to navigate through RadioShack's other partners' "stores within stores." That's because RadioShack also has deals with Microsoft Corp. for MSN (Microsoft Network) Internet access, Sprint, Compaq, RCA direct digital satellite systems and Verizon Wireless cellular phone service.

Despite the clutter, Sternberg says that ultimately "we need to be in the store to compete," with services such as MSN. Theoretically, when a RadioShack rep sells a Compaq computer, he or she will suggest either MSN or Excite@Home service, depending on the customer's needs and budget.

Once the newly-minted broadband user leaves Radio-Shack, any service calls or installation assistance become the responsibility of the cable operator.

Don't expect Radio-Shack's fleet of service vans to soon be rolling into neighborhoods helping cable Internet customers install and provision service. Instead, hundreds of the more than 2,500 installation and technical personnel of RadioShack Installation Serv-ices (a division of Ameri-link, a RadioShack subsidiary) are more likely to be installing direct broadcast satellite services–to the tune of 20,000 video installs a week.

Not only is RadioShack unlikely to assist customers by provisioning and installing data Internet service, but cable operators have good reasons to not want RadioShack techs (or any third-party techs) in their subscribers' homes.

"I know our customers would prefer to have Cox personnel in their homes," says Pugliese. However, he admits, "in some markets, in order to keep up with demand, we do go to third parties" for install help.

But according to a cable executive speaking on background, a key reason for sending only cable techs into neighborhoods is that once in the home, techs can not only up-sell other services to the subscriber, but also control the quality of the installation, make sure wiring to PCs is done correctly, and check the integrity of the drop. Operators "obviously would be somewhat reluctant to have a RadioShack installer do anything from a maintenance or repair standpoint to our distribution systems," says the exec.

What RadioShack does bring to the table, however, is a high percentage of self-install customers. While Cox offers its customers the option to have a Cox tech visit to perform an installation (for an added fee), Pugliese points out, "if we can get customers to agree to take on part of the install themselves . . . we can do twice the number of installs per day . . . It's a huge increase in productivity."

And RadioShack may help facilitate that. "RadioShack tends to attract a more technically adept audience," says Pugliese.

Who better to perform self-installs and see the value of high-speed Internet service than those electronics tinkerers with pocket protectors and propeller head caps who visit RadioShack?