BitDepth 526 - May 30

Under new management, Trinidad and Tobago's largest cable provider plans for a telecom-based future...
Going with the flow

Rhea Yawching, Marketing Sales and Communications Director for Columbus in the digital backroom at Columbus' administrative operations. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

The advertising seems to be everywhere. Something's clearly up at Columbus Communications, the new owners of the cable business formerly known as CCTT.
Columbus, an ambitious telecommunications player based in Barbados is busy rebranding the ageing offerings of its new acquisition, preparing the groundwork for an expansion into broadband service and making its first moves into the market for telephony.
The company clearly hopes to use a decade of experience as a cable and Internet service provider in the Bahamas to become a player in a communications market that's increasingly being levelled by open technologies.

Over the next seven months, expect to see big changes as Columbus begins rolling out new cable boxes, new packages, more aggressive marketing of a marginal Internet service and finally, a phone that plugs into your cable line.
Some of the changes will take place over your head or under your feet as Columbus begins replacing old coaxial cables with fibre connections. Next month, the infrastructure rebuild will include St Augustine and Valsayn and service will be delivered for the first time in July to Rio Claro and Cumuto.

It's a big investment for the new player, with a billion dollars budgeted for replacing the backbone infrastructure of cable television delivery, with a further quarter of a billion dollars budgeted annually for maintaining that infrastructure.
Most customers will welcome improvements to the cable service and the expansion of the lineup to 200 video channels and 50 audio channels, but the broadband Internet offerings offer the most promising change to the local telecommunications landscape.
Columbus has acquired New World Network, to leverage New World's 88.2% interest in the Americas Region Caribbean Optical-ring System, a broadband undersea fibre optic cable that connects the Cari bbean archipelago reaching from the US through to Mexico.

The ARCOS ring, as it's called, hasn't made landfall in Trinidad yet, but Columbus is promising enough bandwidth to serve the entire country.
But improving the technology underpinnings of its business may be the easiest problem facing Columbus.
According to Rhea Yawching, Director of Marketing, Sales & Communications for Columbus, "Customers can expect change from a company that's now operating in a deregulated environment."
Among those changes are new arrangements for the cable box decoders, which the company claims have been widely abused. The company cites research revealing that most of its customers use only one of the boxes that are offered under the existing contract and many of those extra boxes have been distributed widely to bring illegal service to non-paying customers.

When areas are switched to digital distribution, new arrangements will kick in and customers will be issued only one free box (you can rent others). The new boxes are much smarter and offer, at the premium end, TiVo-like controls for recording and rewinding live TV. But they are also much smarter about where they are being used.
Columbus also claims to be aggressively pursuing formal arrangements with the stations it carries and reports that many content providers are happy to make what Yawching describes as "creative" contractual arrangements.
"Columbus has a legal right to all the channels we carry," Yawching said. "We are an English-speaking country, and we believe that our customers deserve current, English programming."

Despite the rush of colourful advertising, Flow and Columbus still have some way to go in resurrecting the heady rush that cable television promised when competition briefly made that sector of the telecommunications industry interesting.
The challenges the company faces are daunting. Persuading customers to accept the changes it's planning will require a sobering level of customer interface and some persuasive selling.
DVD quality video, pay-per-view options and adult programming matched with powerful parental controls will sway some consumers, but success will probably hinge on a more fundamental change in perspective as Columbus tries to move cable service from being a luxury to a necessity.

That's only going to happen if it can deliver a real alternative to TSTT's DSL broadband offering and deliver VoIP that works well at price points that will attract a broad base of customers. If it can pull that off, then it stands a fair chance of being a local telecommunications player of significance.
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