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Time Warner begins phone service here 1,000 in city already have signed up

Time Warner Cable has launched telephone service in Buffalo, providing a long-awaited alternative to dominant local carrier Verizon.

Time Warner has signed up about 1,000 phone customers in the past few weeks since it began selling local and long-distance service, engineering vice president Scott Ducott said.

Cable phones will be available throughout the company's Buffalo-Niagara Falls service area by year end, he said.

Unlimited local and long distance calls, plus features like Caller ID, cost $39.95 a month during a 12 month initial period, before taxes. A package deal that adds cable TV and high-speed Internet service costs $115.95 a month.

"I do think it offers a new choice for consumers," said Tom Tarapacki, Buffalo's director of telecommunications. "In other areas it's driven down some of the prices."

Competitor Verizon offers a similar "Freedom" calling plan with unlimited minutes for $44.99 a month, before taxes.

The cable phone rollout brings Buffalo into step with other U.S. cities where the service is already established. Eighty-two percent of U.S. households have access to cable phone, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association -- including Time Warner's other upstate New York markets.

The bankruptcy of Adelphia Communications, Time Warner's predecessor, slowed the arrival of voice service here, Ducott said. Time Warner acquired Western New York's cable network from Adelphia last year.

Cable-phone customers use a conventional phone and make calls as they normally would. But the technology behind the new service differs from traditional calling. A modem converts voice calls into digital impulses and zaps them over fiber-optic lines as data. Long-distance calls are handed off to the carrier Sprint's switch in Syracuse for completion, Ducott said.

Buffalo resident Zina Planter said she signed up for the service because it includes unlimited long-distance.

"My son has a girlfriend in Kansas -- you can imagine how expensive that was," she said. Since opting for the $39.95 service, her four-person household in the Delavan-Moselle neighborhood is saving about $30 a month in tolls, she said.

"I kept my Verizon line just in case," to make sure there wasn't too much static on the new line, Planter said. The cable calls sound clear, she added.

Now that one of her two sons is heading to college in North Carolina, she'll be the one making the long-distance calls. "But I won't have to wait until 9 p.m.," she said, when tolls go down for conventional phone calling.

Time Warner waited to launch the product until it built a back-up data network between its regional operations centers, Ducott said. That ensures that a broken trunk line won't cut off thousands of callers at once. Smaller lines that carry service to neighborhoods are being tested street by street to make sure they have enough capacity for voice calling, he said.

Even so, cable phone, like Internet-based voice service, can be more vulnerable to outages than the Bell-era network.

"The question to ask is: If the power goes out, will the phone work?" said John Breyault, a research associate at the Telecommunications Research & Action Center in Washington, D.C. Unlike standard phones, cable phones won't work if power is out at the house, Ducott said.

The new phone technology does work with home alarm systems, given some adjustment by the alarm company, he said. And it connects with 911 operators and gives them the address of the caller.

The state Public Service Commission doesn't regulate cable phone and has no information on its reliability, a spokeswoman said.

The new service adds to an exploding array of choices, which have grown to include cell phones and voice-over-Internet services like Vonage, as well as the standard copper-wire network created in Ma Bell's day.

Cable phone, with its wireline technology backed by installation workers and tech support, compares most closely to the traditional phone network.

However, it isn't clear that competition is bringing down prices, Breyault of TRAC said. The best values come in the package deals that bundle fast Internet and TV service with calling, he said. But at monthly prices over $100, the all-in-one deal isn't for homes on tight budget.

"The service they're offering isn't really comparable to bare-bones [local] telephone service," he said.

Verizon's fiber-to-the-home "FiOS" system, available in parts of Buffalo and suburbs, is equipped to carry TV signals. That will position the phone company to compete head-to-head with Time Warner for bundled services. However, Verizon hasn't applied for the franchise rights to sell TV service in the area, Tarapacki said.

"Hopefully," he said, "it's only a matter of time."

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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