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In this dog-eat-dog competitive environment, one almost never hears cable-company executives talk about their internal R&D, strategies or programs – at least not in public. The fact that one operator actually shared a program developed in-house with the rest of its second- and third-tier cableco brethren – and without exacting a huge fee to do so – is both mind-boggling and laudable.

Ohio-based Massillon Cable TV, selected by Communications Technology as the 2012 “System of the Year,” is this operator, and its outspoken leadership and technical staff continue to adapt to and implement ever-changing technology while striving to provide excellent customer care and service.

“Massillon Cable TV has proved over and over that it is an innovator in the cable industry, and that it also is will to share its expertise with other operators,” magazine staff maintains. “The most recent evidence of this is its participation in the development and deployment of the ‘WatchTVEverywhere’ initiative, which now has helped more than 80 members of the National Cable Television Cooperative offer their subscribers authenticated programming content across multiple screens.”

“It is a distinct honor to be named the Communications Technology System of the Year,” adds Robert Gessner, president at Massillon Cable TV. “The network engineers and technicians at Massillon Cable TV and Clear Picture work diligently to be innovative, cost-effective and, most importantly, to provide the very best possible service to our customers. They deserve all the credit for our technical achievements and this recognition. It is a testament to their efforts and I couldn’t be more pleased that others have noticed their hard work.”

Started by Gessner’s parents Richard and Susan in 1965 (the elder Gessner had been part of the Metrocast system), Gessner says the system offered over-the-air services to the suburbs and grew organically until 1978, the year it purchased Clear Picture, the system Kelly Rehm, technical operations manager/Massillon Cable TV/Clear Picture, runs and which is situated about 30 miles from Massillon.

“From 1979, we marched along with the rest of the industry with satellite TV, two way services, telephone,” Gessner continues. “Now we’re a service-based company rather than a utility company. Now, we focus on our customers, and fix their problems right the first time.”

The company, which employs approximately 150 staffers in two locations, serves diverse markets. There are highly urban areas with downtown problems, low income and high crime; gated golf-club communities; and farmland – what Gessner refers to as “a microcosm of the rest of the country in our demographic.”

“Those communities have evolved over time, and we’ve become one of the leading employers and operatives, and we still are locally owned and operated,” Gessner notes. “We tend to be called upon to serve on community boards, charities and other local things, and we don’t mind doing that because these people are our customers.”

But Massillon also apparently is doing right by its employees. In the last three years, it’s acquired a home-security group that allowed it to hire more people, and it continues to add installers and customer-service people as needed. There have been no layoffs in the last 15 years.

Proactive Maintenance

One of the new best practices developed by Massillon’s Nick Provost and used by the entire tech team is what Provost calls “proactive maintenance.”

“Here’s what makes it unique for us,” he explains. “I came from an IT background, and that’s kind of my title, but I wear different hats here. I came here with little to no RF background. I work with guys in the field, and we cross-train each other. Because I have that interaction, because I have the IT background and because I work with all of the technicians on programs, we have blended what I do and what others have done in their traditional technical silos, and that puts us way ahead of the game.”

At the heart of proactive maintenance is customer high touch. “Thirty percent of our time today is spent knocking on our customers’ doors when we think they may be having signal issues they may not recognize,” he says. Some are taken aback by this brand of network assertiveness, but most appreciate the extra care.

“If they aren’t home, we leave a door tag with an explanation on why we were there and to give us a call to schedule an appointment,” Provost says. “When we actually went out in the field, we had customers come out to us to ask what we were doing. When we told them, they asked if it was normal for their pictures to tile. Half our people will not call us if their service is bad. They will endure terrible service for years until they do get fed up and cancel, and go to Dish or another provider. We want them to call us.”

Gessner adds, “This really goes back to 2009, when we completed our all-digital rollout and we recaptured all of our analog spectrum. We expected our service-call volume to drop significantly because we now had a digital system. We did not see that service drop.”

To find out what was happening – or not – Massillon created its “House on Fire” campaign, with the techies starting looking at repeat service calls. “We found we were going to the same homes over and over and over again, so it was obvious we weren’t fixing the problem,” Gessner says. “Dave (Hoffer, Massillon’s COO and “the guy with the whip”) called upon Kelly’s experience with cable modems and the telemetry information coming back from them to see what was going on in the system. It took someone with no RF background to question everything. In pursuit of solving the tiling issue, he created a predictive assumption and looked at the taps.”

When it instituted proactive maintenance, Massillon played catch-up during the first 12 months because the technicians really hadn’t seen all the errors at the plant. They spent the first year fixing plant problems where other repair people had “changed designs on the fly,” and where there were cracked lines and old lines.

“So we concentrated on getting our plant levels up. During the last six months, we’ve had these pockets of areas cleaned up, and now we’re drilling into individual problems,” Gessner says.

Tool Sets

Before Massillon went all digital, it discovered subscribers would put up with grainy pictures but that all changed. In addition, when it comes to tiling, some of the old-school technician techniques go out the window. At that point, the Massillon shop had to step back and re-evaluate the tool set it was using.

Mike Robinson, the programmer who built the operator’s successful Watch-TVEverywhere program, wrote many of the tool sets the technicians now use.

“We decided that we had to stop going to houses next to each other to solve individual problems. We needed to fix the neighborhood,” explains Robinson. “We got to the point where we had to tell the customer, ‘We know you’re having an issue and we know we have to fix it, but we have to fix it outside before we can fix your individual house.’”

In addition to the clarity problems going all digital brought to the fore, Massillon had to deal with the fallout from broadcasters and programming going all digital at the same time.

“It was frustrating to try and find where the issue really was,” Robinson says. “By turning 35,000 cable modems into probes, we could find them.”

Adds Provost, “We now fix problems before customers even see them. I can see when something is going to break within the next six months. We load statistics every five minutes. We store a week’s worth of data. We look not at how good they are right now but how much they have changed in the last 24 hours.”

As far as staffing for proactive maintenance is concerned, some five technicians now are doing service calls and 20 are doing proactive construction and rebuild instead of the other way around.

“We’re still using our RF professionals, and they are methodical but they are being directed differently,” says Provost. “They use the tools we’ve developed and they are sent locations that have a specific problem.” Rehm says he remembers when Massillon’s oldest technician came up to him and said, “You can’t tell me where the problem is by just sitting at that desk.”

“It sure didn’t take very long to make a believer out of him,” he notes. “We look at the bigger picture. It’s all an IT network, even with wireless and fiber. It makes sense to have that blend of IT guys working with RF guys. Cable is like dominoes. If your problem is in the headend, all your dominos are going to fall down.”

And in keeping with the smartphone times, all Massillon tools are available on an iPhone.

In addition to technical staff, five Massillon customer service reps are sent out into neighborhoods to knock on doors, ask questions and gauge customer satisfaction.

“Right now, we average between 98-percent and 99-percent satisfaction,” says Rehm. “We’re not a big number-crunching company. We just ask them if their TV is working or their Internet or their remote. We also ask them whether they are aware of our TV Everywhere service, and if they would recommend us to someone else. All the averages are in the upper nineties.”

Getting More Technical

Besides revamping its maintenance program, during the past 12 months, according to Rehm, Massillon has been aggressive in replacing all of its optical nodes. It also upgraded all of its optical transmitters and headends.

“That’s some pretty substantial hardware upgrades,” Rehm says. “We’ve also been upgrading to 1 Gig. We try to replace pieces of the platform to 1 Gig during off hours, and we’re probably 50 percent into being a total 1-Gig system at this time.

Massillon also is in the process of replacing its video-on-demand (VOD) platform. As part of that, it’s increasing the number of VOD service groups so it can offer more VOD bandwidth and more HD. By the time this story appears in October, it should have deployed a new ARRIS Whole Home system.

The operator also is looking at live streaming, what it can offer on iPads and droids, and what it can do with rights management.

WatchTVEverywhere

The jewel in Massillon’s R&D crown most probably is its WatchTVEverywhere platform. Says Robinson, “It all started when HBOGo started to advertise to our customers that they could watch ‘True Blood’ on HBOGo. Our phones lit up. We had to tell our customers that we didn’t offer that service. Bob spent many months giving me the opportunity to with HBO so that now we can.”

Gessner adds he talked with HBO, telling the programmer it wasn’t fair that it had worked with Massillon’s competitors to launch HBOGo to everyone without also giving the smaller operator the same opportunity. “They said OK because they didn’t think we could do it,” he says.

Here’s how the platform was developed: According to Robinson, “HBO told me what they wanted, and I wrote to meet their specs. In October of last year, we launched HBOGo to all our customers. We are still today the smallest company to have launched with HBOGo, and we’re the only small company not to use a third-party integrator to get it to work.”

He continues, “It’s not hard to make this authentication system. We build it for today because it’s going to be different tomorrow. No need to build a lot of capabilities that we’re never going to use. Even with that, it took months to do this. If it hadn’t been for Massillon, few cablecos would have been able to offer subscribers the Olympics on WatchTVEverywhere.”

And after making sure the application worked both for the operator and for its customers, Gessner and his team offered it to the NCTC.

“I said, ‘we will give this to you. Just use it to help the small operators participate,” Robinson says. “In March (2012), we had it ready for the Olympics for everyone who had the right NBC channel that carried the games. Most were up before July 1. We had to overcome how to deal with so many billing systems in such a limited time. Bob’s thought was that everyone needs to participate but you don’t have to spend $100,000 to make this work.”

Rich Fickle, CEO at NCTC, said earlier this spring, “This project is a great example of how mid and smaller operators working collaboratively can create very innovative and cost effective solutions. Several members like Massillon have a great track record in bringing new products to market faster than many large MSO’s. Massillon had the right approach: keep it simple, low cost and easy use.”

There is a little bit of a revenue sharing between NCTC and Massillon but Gessner says doesn’t begin to cover the development costs.”

Competitive Differences

Just what makes Massillon Cable TV better than other content providers in its footprint?

“When you call us, we answer and we usually have the truck out there same day,” says Gessner. “Our system has hit a sweet spot in terms of size. We’re small enough that we know everyone who works here, we know a huge number of our customers, and we know the whole system well without going through layers of management. But we are large enough to have a room full of really smart network engineers and computer programmers, enough network technicians to keep things running and enough people in the call center. If the system served 150,000 customers, we’d have more internal things to deal with.”

Debra Baker is editor at Communications Technology. Contact her at dbaker@accessintel.com.

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