Reducing calls to an MSO’s overburdened customer service reps (CSRs) is a surefire cost-reduction strategy. But that approach also can serve to boost revenue, according to executives at firms representing two distinct ways of interacting with consumers. OpenTV targets the TV set. It enables interactivity through a middleware platform that resides on a set-top box and interfaces with various backoffice systems of a cable operator or direct broadcast satellite (DBS) provider. CEO Jim Chiddix says that OpenTV customers around the world save a lot of money by using interactive TV for various kinds of customer care. “There’s even one large DBS company whose default bill delivery system is the TV screen,” he says. “You’ve got to send in a paper request if you want a paper bill.” Chiddix’s view is that every phone call spared by such automated delivery of information frees up CSRs to perform activities where the human touch is required and the payoff much higher. “(CSRs) are very hard working, and many of them are very skilled,” he says. “Strategically, what makes sense for operators is to use that resource as much as possible as a sales tool, and certainly as a last resort for customer problems.” PerfTech Bulletin Services communicates with consumers over the PC by way of hardware associated with strategically located routers on an operator’s high-speed data network Without interrogating packets, PerfTech nonetheless determines the type of application at hand and associates it with the media access control (MAC) address for any particular subscriber. This enables the delivery of bulletins on planned outages, detection and remedies of computer viruses, or critical local information. While such services can lead to increased consumer satisfaction and reduced customer care costs, President Rod Frey says two of the biggest areas of interest are on the revenue side of the ledger, namely: leveraging high-speed data customers to return to video services and facilitating their adoption of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). PerfTech has deployed across the 54 points of presence (POPs)
belonging to CableOne, as well as throughout WideOpenWest’s data network.
—Jonathan Tombes As high-definition TV (HDTV) picks up steam, getting it right has never been more critical. According to panelists at a special SCTE Cable-Tec Expo session moderated by Communications Technology Editorial Director Laura Hamilton, doing so is a matter of clear thinking, technical fundamentals and solid training. While the CEOs and CTOs on their respective panels at Expo deflected the notion of cable running out of capacity, engineers closer to the trenches were less skittish about the idea of limits. “The key is to know your spectrum,” said Roger Paul, a regional technical training supervisor with Comcast. Peter West, vice president business development at Cox Communications, said that putting marketers and engineers in the same room is one way to “build the understanding at the organizational level that there are tradeoffs.” For its part, Bright House Networks, which is offering 15 HD channels in Orlando, is benefiting from advanced modulation technology. “QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) 256 gets us to where we want to be,” Greg McLaughlin, assistant to the president at Bright House, said. Getting HD signals reliably delivered also may require strategic collaboration between MSOs and broadcasters. Paul recommended a combination of both over-the-air reception and fiber delivery. “In that case, you’ve got instant backup,” he said. A bad word?
How to handle those signals on the cable plant is another matter. Doug VanCura, divisional director of technology for Charter Communications, said the clustering phenomenon of HD early adopters requires MSOs “unfortunately, to over-engineer, to a degree.” Compression is also a valid technique, he added, “so long as the consumer doesn’t suffer.” But some find the word itself objectionable. “Say ‘compression’ to the enthusiasts, and they will come at you with their claws out,” McLaughlin said. One way to take the temperature of those key stakeholders is by visiting relevant HD user sites on the Web, he said. As for tracking quality, McLaughlin urged his colleagues to put HD sets in the field, or at minimum, one in the headend. Make that two, Paul said, to account for both the 4×3 and 16×9 aspect ratios. VanCura added that renting high-end test gear is another option for HD quality control. What about the arrival of Cable-Ready HDTV sets? “From a business standpoint, I would love to see a day when we don’t have to deploy a set-top box,” McLaughlin said. “Be careful what you wish for,” warned West, who said the prospect of 30 separate makers of HDTV sets was a downright scary proposition. For his part, McLaughlin has 200 CableCards sitting in South Florida warehouses, in the event that a CableReady HDTV set shows up on the Orlando or Tampa systems. Given the affluence of this region, he likely will have to deploy some. The sophistication of HD early adopters and complexity of the technology is a double-edged sword. It drives initial sales, but requires cable operators to educate the retailing community and to scrutinize every word they themselves release, McLaughlin said. And that goes for both written and verbal communication: “It’s critical for CSRs to be able to say, ‘I don’t know.’” Needless to say, the more knowledge, the better. “My standard answer is ‘training, training, training,’” Cox’s West said. “Besides training, define a line that you don’t cross.” And once again, enthusiasts are setting that limit. “Work out an approach that keeps techs out of the home theatre,” Comcast’s Paul said. But who then connects the six-figure entertainment systems and keeps cable’s platinum subs happy? McLaughlin said one solution is high-end contract installers, who often sell a complete solution that includes service contracts. Beware, however, of that industry’s
fragmentation. “Do your due diligence. Make sure it’s not a fly-by-night business,” he said. —Jonathan Tombes