With VoIP installs gaining momentum, the need for widespread automation and integration, along with savvy business models for both residential and commercial markets, are assuming higher priorities at cable MSOs, voiced panelists at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) VoIP Symposium.

In the "What We Found" panel last month in Denver, MSOs updated attendees on their VoIP plans, and outlined the real world pros and cons and potential future of IP-based voice services.

"We're trying to equip 50 percent of our footprint and will add 15 new markets, including Chicago," said Rian Wren, senior vice president and general manager of telephone for Comcast Cable.

Panelists concurred that getting to scale and integrating myriad technologies and equipment, while automating key processes, are the next big hurdles facing the full-out deployment of VoIP service.

"Automation is critical. The need to get the portal further developed and automated is key. And now that the service is out there, we're focusing on performance and interoperability," said Mark Barber, vice president of telephony for Charter Communications.

Bresnan Communications is pushing VoIP deeper into its markets as well, and has accelerated its launch schedule to include 50 percent of its customers by 2006, explained Katherine Kirchner, Bresnan's director of telephony operations.

Time Warner Cable, arguably the most aggressive VoIP provider among the cable MSOs, has 500,000 lines up for its digital phone service, and is adding 15,000 lines a week, according to Gerry Campbell, the MSO's senior vice president of voice.

It's taking some effort, however. Cautions Campbell: "This is not just VoIP, which is a technology, but a full service company. It can't be run like a cable business. Maintenance and back office issues are big, and we have to turn it up a notch to be better than our competition."

Jay Rolls, the VP of telephone and data engineering at Cox Communications and keynoter of the event, said VoIP has emerged as a viable and competitive business...and it's about time.

"It [has felt] like an [eternity] waiting for VoIP," he joked. It's no joke now. "Now, it's about money. That's the attraction," Rolls added.