November 1, 2006
The Next-Generation Field Tech
Commitment Built on Expertise
By By Brian Jeans, Comcast
One afternoon a few weeks ago, I was teaching a group of newly hired technicians how to properly attach an aerial drop to the side of a subscriber’s home. While they were busy practicing their messenger wire wraps, I started thinking about the troubleshooting procedures I planned to cover later in the class. Instinctively, I turned to the dry erase board and began to draw the quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) vectors that are used to calculate modulation error ratio (MER).
After a minute I stopped, thinking I might be getting a little ahead of myself. After all, they still were cable babies, not seasoned service techs. So even though my artwork had already attracted some attention from a few of the students behind me, I replaced my constellation diagram with one depicting the dangers of exceeding a drop cable’s proper bend radius. Everything in its due time, I thought.
A technical trainer’s day is filled with moments such as this. But later that evening, I wondered what had led me to introduce material this advanced to a group still in their second week. It didn’t take me long to find the answer. Until rather recently, I was a “cable dawg” myself. I knew then as I do now, that in the era of the triple play and video on demand (VOD), the big dawgs set themselves apart from the little ones in two areas.
The first really goes without saying and is perhaps the greatest daily challenge facing any tech: namely, the ability to base every field decision on what will provide the most positive impact on the customer. This assumes not only a full understanding of the premises (for example, a drop that might have water migration and need replacement), but also a constant vigilance for those wider, more elusive issues that might affect the customer’s service in the future (such as sporadic packet loss on a suspect node). To cover all the bases, technicians need to employ every one of their individual tools, but also the resources provided by their local network management center.
One of the very first things I tell new techs is that there couldn’t be a more exciting time for them to be entering the industry. Their sphere of responsibility is constantly expanding, both deeper into the home and into the network. Their opportunities for growth are virtually limitless. But these new horizons also call for a heightened sense of commitment; to their customers, their systems, but most of all, themselves. How successful a technician is in fulfilling these commitments depends on a whole variety of factors, from personal initiative and work habits to the ability to collect and analyze technical data on the ground.
This brings us to our second area of focus: technical expertise. For our current purposes, I will restrict this to the understanding of how signals are generated, transported and measured in our networks, from the headend to the premises equipment. I shudder when I hear those stories of techs, in-house and contractors alike, working for weeks on end without touching their signal level meters (SLMs). I wonder what magic cable oracle they’re consulting to make the decisions on how to proceed with an installation or trouble call. I liken it to a blind forensics detective arriving at the scene of a robbery. As the store owner, I wouldn’t have much confidence.
Eyes and ears
The digital meters currently being rolled out in our system have been extremely useful to technicians assigned to install or service our advanced products, such as digital voice and VOD. One of my new hires reported that during an observational ride-out for a triple-play installation, her mentor uncovered individual problems on every single outlet using the meter’s reverse scan. The severity from two of them would have prevented successfully provisioning the embedded multimedia terminal adapter (EMTA).
(Side note: This has been a mandatory procedure on every service-related truck roll in our system for several months now. A more rudimentary, but still very useful, ingress scan is available on many standard SLMs.)
In another case, a packet loss measurement taken at three strategic locations at an address helped a tech avoid the path taken by three earlier techs on a call for intermittent surf. Instead of blindly swapping out the modem, the tech located a corroded barrel connector hidden in the basement’s drop ceiling. Case closed.
I find it extremely encouraging that more and more stories like these are being heard in team meetings and tech break rooms. It reflects more than anything a deeper level of engagement in satisfying the customer, made possible largely by access to more sophisticated tools. Sure, there do remain a few techs who would blindly change every visible F-connector and splitter in the premises before going ahead and swapping the modem anyway. Their hearts are in the right place, but their days are numbered if they cannot to learn to feel comfortable using these essential troubleshooting tools.
On a broader scale, it can take a while for a new technician (and many hardened field vets, for that matter) to understand that their responsibility at every address can extend far beyond the tap. They often are as surprised as the customers themselves to learn that the funny looking signal booster in the basement is disrupting the services of homes three blocks away. It’s become almost a mantra in my classes that 90 percent of the nasties swimming upstream began their journey in the customer’s drop system/premises.
At the tap, a tech should also be on the lookout for loose fittings, open tap ports or physical damage to anything at all on the strand. Analog/digital signal levels, MER, bit error rate (BER) and QAM constellation measurements all help to paint a detailed picture of that address. A 2-minute call to the local management center can then verify the return path and reveal potential issues in the node. This simple series of preliminary measurements can easily save a tech two to three hours a week in redundant work at the premises. It will also inevitably lead to fewer truck rolls, greater system reliability and more satisfied customers.
Usually at this point in my sermon, no matter how animated I’ve become, I can spy a few eyelids starting to flutter. The smokers are starting to fidget. There may even be a few in the room wondering what exactly they’ve signed on for. I boil it all down for them with the following metaphor: I ask them to view every one of our customers as a character in an ongoing story we all write together as a team.
Though all are responsible for their individual parts of the story, they must have read what’s already been written for their part to make sense. Most important, anything they write should always have the best possible impact upon the character. Only then can we be sure the story will have a good ending. In cable terms, the message is clear: With our unwavering commitment to service and technical expertise, we write happy endings to all our customer’s stories each and every day.
Brian Jeans is a technical training specialist with Comcast University. Reach him at Brian_Jeans@cable.comcast.com.