Upgraded cable TV, modem service in the works

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2001

Digital programming, more channels, more choices, pay-per-view specials and high-speed Internet service are coming to a cable TV near you -- as long as you live within the coverage area of GCI.

Work has already begun on the needed digital conversion to GCI's system, which extends from east Kalifornsky Beach Road from the mouth of the Kenai River to just east of Soldotna, up to roughly Kenai city limits in the north. The $2 million upgrade will give GCI more bandwidth on its cables and allow it to offer more channels and other services.

The company plans to launch the expanded service in the first quarter of 2002, said Sherrie Sheridan, system manager for GCI in Soldotna, hopefully early in the year.

"The community has been hungry for this for a long time," Sheridan said.

No channels will be deleted in the upgrade, and 17 new ones will be added. Though the new line up has not been finalized, Sheridan said there will be several new special interest channels featuring health, science and technology, as well as four new Fox Sports regional channels and Turner Movie Classics.

The premium channel line-up will be expanded as well, with no increase in price. For instance, there are currently two HBO channels for $12.95 per month; after the upgrade, there will be seven for the same price. The same goes for Cinemax, which will expand from one channel to eight for the same $6.95 per month. The Showtime and The Movie Channel's two channels will expand to nine for $11.95. Starz, another movie service, will feature a dozen channels for $12.95.

GCI also will offer an even more basic cable package, called limited basic, which will offer 12 channels for a discounted rate over preferred basic. Preferred basic will increase to 45 channels.

"This really gives people a choice," Sheridan said.

The TV Guide channel will become interactive for those who choose the expanded digital programming package. It will allow the viewer to selectively see only the type of programming they want, such as only the sporting events scheduled, or only soap operas or movies. It also will allow parents to block certain channels so children can't see them.

The expanded service also will include 40 digital music channels, accessible from the TV screen or a digital set-top box, which can be connected to a home stereo.

High-speed Internet service will be available with the upgrade. The digitalization of the GCI system will allow for Internet traffic to fit in the bandwidth available and allow for two-way communication. The service, at 256 kilobytes per second, is comparable in speed to GCI's high-speed competitor, ACS, which entered the market a year ago. Sheridan said the cost of the service will mirror either Anchorage, at $39.95, or Valdez, at $49.95 per month.

GCI company spokesperson David Morris in Anchorage dispelled two misconceptions about cable modem service. One is that connection speed slows appreciably as more customers are added to the service.

"Bandwidth is a red herring. The Internet is a shared medium, regardless if you're using cable, DSL, wireless or dial-up," he said. "If a lot of users are on at the same time, wherever it is, it will slow down."

He said the perception that cable modems slow too much came when the service was first developed in the Lower 48 by cable companies that didn't know anything about telephony.

"When we rolled out our service up here, because of our telephony background, we built the architecture of our network quite different," Morris said.

He added that as more customers sign up in Anchorage, GCI has been installing additional equipment to handle them.

The other issue surrounding cable modems are that they are less secure than other services. In some cases, a person's computer could be called up on a neighbor's computer, the cable connection acting essentially as a network among all those served in a certain area.

"Anytime you're on the Internet, you are exposed to certain security risks," Morris said. "It becomes an issue of what degree of security you want."

He said some people simply turn off file sharing in their computer's control panels, others install passwords to access information on their machines, while others will install software or hardware firewalls, which filter traffic into the computer.

He said a feature of GCI's service is that networking is configurable, allowing virtual private networks just inside homes, if the customer wishes. As a default, virtual private networking is turned off, though the customer can request it be turned on.

As part of the upgrade, there will be a six-week period of occasional service outages, though they will be between midnight and 7 a.m. -- only a problem for insomniacs.

With the late-night upgrade work will also come late night workers, sometimes in the right-of-way near people's homes.

"We're trying to get the word out, putting ads in the paper, putting door hangers on homes in areas most sensitive, letting people know there may be construction crews in their back yards working on equipment," Sheridan said. "We want to make sure the community is aware."

She said the workers will be "clearly marked" as GCI contractors and have identification on them.

"We hope nobody gets frightened in the middle of the night," she said. "We hope the slight inconvenience will be more than outweighed by the benefits."

The outage schedule will be posted on cable channel 98.

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