For Service Providers, First Impressions Last

Carl Weinschenk

Service providers should be very careful about deploying new technology before they fully understand what it takes to make the system work and have all the hardware, software, policies and other elements in place. The downside-introducing a new service and having it perform poorly-is far worse than introducing it a bit late.

Waiting until the system is ready for prime time seems like such a common sense piece of advice that it doesn't seem necessary to give it. But perhaps it is, since two major service providers-Time Warner Cable (TWC) and AT&T-ended up with egg on their corporate faces during the past few weeks.

The first problem was TWC's service aimed at streaming television channels to Apple iPads. Actually, there were two problems. The first was that apparently nobody in the legal department bothered to ask the owners of the content how they felt about the project-or they did and didn't care about the answer. In any case, those copyright holders weren't thrilled that their programming was being used for something other than traditional cable delivery. Who knows what the contracts allow or don't allow? The point is that it isn't a conversation that should be held in the press.

At the same time, the company got some good news: People loved the new service. Unfortunately, they loved it so much that the system couldn't handle it and buckled. The problem, apparently, was in the authentication servers. TWC cut the number of channels by about half and the system was re-established. (I may be a bit sensitive because I have two teenage kids, but the headline on the Time Warner Cable blog explaining the incident, "Heavy Demand Crashed Our iPad App Last Night: It's Not A Good Party Unless You Run Out Of Beer," was a bit tone-deaf for a company marketing its products to families.)

The AT&T problem was lower profile. The carrier is offering two phones billed as 4G-the Motorola Atrix 4G and the HTC Inspire 4G-on its High Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA) network. That's a 4G network, at least according to the revised definition from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Unfortunately, the carrier has been limiting the speed of the network and will do so until a patch is released in April. This, obviously, hasn't been sitting well with people who assumed that they would get 4G service when they bought the phone.

There is an age-old tension between the marketing and engineering departments. The marketers want to impress current and prospective subscribers. Engineers want to test until new services are bulletproof. This tension will erupt into embarrassing problems more often as development times shrink, services get more complex and staffs are stretched thinner. Time Warner Cable and AT&T have been proving that these past few weeks.

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