ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Throwing down the gauntlet to the telephone industry, Jones Intercable launched what it calls the world's most sophisticated cable television system here yesterday -- a network capable of providing services that compete directly with Bell Atlantic Corp.'s core business.
Executives of the Englewood, Colo.-based cable company said the $35 million system will be capable of providing traditional dial tone and high-speed Internet access in addition to 120-channel capacity and vastly more reliable "self-healing" cable television service.
Serenaded by a bagpiper blaring a tune that might have been "The Cables Are Coming," Jones unveiled the system with a hefty helping of hyperbole at its state-of-the-art Alexandria transmission center -- known in the industry as a head end.
Glenn Jones, the company's founder and chief executive, hailed the new system as "one of the world's first full-blown examples" of the convergence of telecommunications industries.
"Convergence is releasing energy in the same magnitude that fusion releases energy," Mr. Jones said. "We're talking about the reformation of civilization itself."
Hoopla aside, industry experts said the launch of the Jones system actually is an important milestone for the much-maligned cable industry as it attempts to simultaneously defend its video turf and grab a chunk of the phone companies' voice and data business.
"It may be one of the most advanced systems in the world," said John Mansell, a media analyst with Paul Kagan Associates in Fairfax, Va.
Unlike most other well-publicized cable and telephone technological projects in recent years, the Jones Intercable system is an actual commercial rollout. "This is not an experiment," said Mr. Jones.
The rebuilt Alexandria uses a "loop" architecture that creates a redundant path to each customer so that if the signal is blocked in one direction it instantly switches to the other. Jones executives said the "self-healing" system will virtually eliminate outages.
Carl Elieff, chief engineer of the Alexandria network, said the system will expand immediately to 87 analog channels from its current 53, leaving room for another 33 channels.
He said that when digital technology becomes cost-effective, the system's capacity could increase to 500 channels through signal compression.
The Alexandria rollout could eventually herald an upgrade in service for Maryland customers of Jones, which operates systems in Anne Arundel, Calvert and Charles counties and is in the process of acquiring a Time-Warner system in Prince Georges County. Jones executives said the Alexandria head end is capable of providing service to all of the company's cable properties in Maryland and Northern Virginia.
The Jones launch in this historic Washington suburb is an indication that some companies in the cable industry have no intention of wilting before the onslaught of such mighty telephone companies as Bell Atlantic. On the upper floor of Jones' two-story structure is a bank of telephone switching equipment -- a direct threat to Bell Atlantic's endangered monopoly on local telephone service.
Jeff Siegleman, general manager of the Alexandria system, said Jones intends to apply for regulatory approval to provide telephone service soon after a Virginia law allowing competition in the local exchange takes effect Jan. 1. That process could take nine months to a year, he said, pushing Jones' entry into the telephone business into 1997.
Eric Rabe, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, indicated that the telephone company is not exactly quaking at the prospect.
"The first question will be, do people really want to buy telephone service from their cable company," he said.
In fact, Bell Atlantic is counting heavily on the cable industry's reputation for poor service to let it capture a substantial part of the video entertainment industry.
But Stephen Effros, president of the Cable Telecommunications Association, said Jones' Alexandria system is representative of many cable network upgrades under way throughout the country, including Comcast Corp.'s $100 million-plus upgrade of its systems in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties.
"We're not rolling down and playing dead -- far from it," Mr. Effros said.