Bell Atlantic blazes trail for films via phone lines

November 06, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Correspondent

RESTON, Va. -- Bell Atlantic's headquarters is in Philadelphia, but its future is here.

In a modest two-story building in a bland office park outside Washington, the company is researching and implementing the technological marvels that could transform it from a boring, predictable utility to a bold pioneer on the electronic frontier.

Here the company's Bell Atlantic Video Services subsidiary is working to fulfill Chairman Raymond W. Smith's vision of a Full Service Network, where the telephone, television, computer, shopping mall, hospital, school and more will converge and create a new era in human communications.

If the high priests of this technological temple succeed in creating a bug-free network, and if the market rewards their efforts, the millions of dollars Bell Atlantic poured into its creation will be the best money it ever spent. The much-hyped information superhighway will open, and Bell Atlantic will start collecting the tolls for video-on-demand services that could make Blockbuster obsolete.

If they fail, or if they succeed but the public doesn't care, this smartly renovated building with its state-of-the-art technology could go down in the annals of telecommunications as Ray Smith's Folly.

The stakes for Bell Atlantic are much higher than its failed merger with Tele-Communications Inc. That was simply a means to reach a goal of a Full Service Network. Reston represents the goal itself.

So far, Bell Atlantic executives have emphasized the vision but have downplayed the risks. With serene confidence they have announced not just tests but rollout plans for six high-priority markets. According to company executives, video services could reach parts of Baltimore in late 1995 or early 1996.

But so far the telephone industry has delivered more voodoo on demand than video. All around the country, telecommunications companies have announced trials of interactive video services only to quietly postpone their launch because the technology wasn't ready.

In many cases, the trials that do exist haven't resolved some of the most critical technical questions. In Connecticut, for instance, 370 homes are receiving video through their phone wires as part of a test by Southern New England Telecommunications Inc. The movies come through the phone wires just fine, but on the other end is a bank of 115 VCRs, with cassettes loaded by a telephone company employee.

Bell Atlantic, whose early technical trials have employed less primitive technology, insists that it's ready to move ahead with a more commercially plausible system, but those plans have been delayed by the Federal Communications Commission's slow processing of its construction permit applications known as 214s.

Larry Yokell, president of Convergent Technologies in Boulder, Colo., said the FCC's deliberate pace has saved some of the regional Bell operating companies from having to acknowledge that their technology isn't quite ready for prime time.

"If the logjam on 214s were broken and the FCC said, 'OK, go ahead,' they'd just flip out," he said.

*

The construction crews are still working on parts of the interior, but the Reston Video Services Center is already playing a big part in Bell Atlantic's strategies.

When Bell Atlantic held its "Mr. Smith Goes to Hollywood" press conference last Monday-- announcing the creation of an entertainment production company jointly owned by it and two other phone companies -- the Reston center's services were cited as Bell Atlantic's prime contribution to the $300 million twin ventures. Reston also will become co-headquarters of a new video technology company -- a bow to Bell Atlantic's pioneering work on the nitty-gritty of delivering video by phone.

Bell Atlantic isn't saying exactly how much the Bell Atlantic Video venture will cost, but spokesman Larry Plumb said the company had come in under a 1992 estimate of $200 million.

A walk through the technology-rich facility leaves little doubt that it is no fly-by-night operation.

Its heart is the Operations Center of Bell Atlantic Video Services (BVS).

For now the sleek-looking, glass-enclosed control center stands nearly empty -- a bank of 10 work stations waiting for engineers to operate them. From their seats, the engineers will be able to survey a bank of sophisticated computers that will store trillions of bytes of video information and route the right movie to the right place at the right time -- and make sure the bill is correct.

This part of the system lies dormant now, waiting for the FCC's permission to launch a 1,000-home "video dial tone" market trial in Northern Virginia. But Frankie Russell, a spokeswoman for BVS, said the trial could be up and running within 70 days once the FCC acts.

While the operations center is quiet these days, an equally important part of the BVS operation is up and running.

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