Buckeye Cable: Giving Voice to Customers When you’ve been delivering voice services as long as Buckeye Cable—a little more than eight years—you learn a few lessons. For instance, truck rolls will always be a part of life. For another instance, not every subscriber wants unlimited long distance calling, no matter how attractive the price.

“There’s just enough complexity that I don’t think we’ll ever go to a traditional home phone line service self-installed,” says Joe Jensen, executive vice president and CTO of the northern Ohio-based telecommunications provider.

Buckeye’s desire to deliver top-notch phone service is part of the complexity. Installers must put filters on all non-high-speed data and non-voice drop components on the coax, and that means truck rolls for every installation.

Upstream filter at the tap

“If a customer has never had Buckeye Express, our high-speed data product, or Buckeye Tel, our phone service, that upstream filter is at the tap. We move that filter into the home and put it past the first splitter, allowing a direct connection to the cable modem or MTA (multimedia terminal adapter), but filtering the rest of the home for noise, (and) that makes self-install very difficult,” says Jensen.

On top of that, fragile wiring in older homes and security systems keep installers busy. The bigger problem for Buckeye is not sending techs into the field; it’s getting techs in the first place.

“It’s very difficult to get hold of experienced IP (Internet protocol) phone installers because it seems like everybody is doing it now,” says Jensen, noting that keeping up a training schedule is itself a time-consuming and necessary job before sending techs out between 140 and 200 times a week to support an existing base of about 27,000 lines.

Buckeye started its voice services eight years ago with commercial customers and a time division multiplexing (TDM) trial. It soon moved to IP and has adopted the Cedar Point Safari product line to feed Motorola and Arris MTAs for both residential and commercial customers.

While the service is actually packetized voice—too commonly called voice over IP (VoIP)—Buckeye prefers to call it the digital phone service portion of its VIP package—video, Internet and phone.

Same service, better price

“Our emphasis has been on providing a service like you currently have with the incumbent telephone company. We port the number; it works just the same as you had before, but we can provide you a better price and more features,” Jensen says.

Buckeye’s considering easing installation costs by offering self-installable session initiation protocol (SIP) extensions as secondary IP-based lines, “but that isn’t our primary focus at this point,” he says.

The biggest focus with the digital voice product is flexibility. While IP voice usually offers generous bundles of long distance minutes, Buckeye’s found that’s not what everyone wants.

“A lot of people use their cellular phone for all long distance, and they don’t need a landline package of long distance,” Jensen says.

Buckeye offers three levels of service: all-you-can-eat local and long distance; a 150-minute monthly long distance plan; and a basic line with a large local calling area and per-minute long-distance charges.

Good mix of customers

“We have a good mix of customers across those three,” he says. “We can do that because we’re doing all the back office ourselves; we’re not using a Level3 or a Sprint to provide that connectivity.”

Looking backward, Jensen says making voice a part of a triple-play bundle is “a very good business to be in. Over 70 percent of our customers (are) in a triple-play situation where they’re taking all three services from them. That is in a large part why, even if it were painful, we would still do this.”

Looking forward, there’s that fourth piece of the package—mobile wireless.

“A cellular phone would be a great addition, especially as you look at a dual-mode phone that could operate as a landline phone when it’s in the proximity of the home; and when it moves away from the home, it becomes a cellular phone,” Jensen agreed.

Mobile JV

Buckeye, being small, isn’t part of the cable industry’s joint venture with Sprint, which is looking at the quad-play opportunity. “(But) if that does avail itself, we would certainly be interested in exploring the opportunity because we would like to offer a quad play at some time,” he says.

For now, Jensen, a self-proclaimed “technocrat,” just wants to make things a little better every day.

“There are still anomalies that we wish we had a better handle on,” he says. “We’re in a continual process of improvement … but there are still transient issues, garbled voice on occasion, sometimes dropouts. There’s just a normal set of problems we’re trying to beat through and get rectified.”

It’s part of the process of “making sure that it’s a viable product” because, he summarizes, “the nice thing about high-speed data and phone service is you don’t have programming costs going up 10 to 15 percent every year. It’s a very good business to be in.” The Wizards of ID: Everest Connections Finds Gold in Caller ID on TV It’s been said that it’s the little things that count. If that’s the case, Everest Connections has found a little thing—caller ID on TV—that’s counting big bucks and even bigger subscriber retention for its triple-play systems in Kansas and Missouri.

Caller ID displayed on a TV set is a big deal for Everest’s 40,000 or so subscribers in the Kansas City area communities where the service provider competes with Time Warner Cable. It was also a pretty big deal to get it working using Integra5 technology over a time division multiplexing (TDM) phone network.

“We had a couple early challenges,” says Ken Johnson, the op’s CTO. “In a VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) implementation, it’s much easier to connect the servers that are serving up the caller ID on the TV content directly to your call manager on your VoIP system.”

Everest’s TDM system uses a traditional 5E switch and SS-7 links, so it was “a little bit of a challenge” to get the user information to the server, “but we figured it out” by using Sun servers to handle and present the call data. The servers do account lookup and interface with the set-top, sending user information to the box via a channel in the Scientific Atlanta network.

“It’s like an out-of-band communication via the DNCS (digital network control system) in a Scientific Atlanta network. It doesn’t require any hardware in the consumer’s home, so we don’t have to go out there and do it. It can be turned on and activated and deactivated remotely,” Nelson says.

Willingly paying the price

Subscribers are certainly turned on by the service, for which Everest reaps a monthly $6.50 fee as part of its overall caller ID service.

“Ninety-eight percent of our residential customers take our telephony product, and 85 percent take caller ID,” Nelson says. “People see additional value in the caller ID.”

They must. When the service was introduced, Everest also introduced a $4/month mandatory price hike for everyone who already had caller ID, and “25,000 people took a $4 price hike when we implemented caller ID on the TV,” he says.

It is, Nelson says, about the most popular offering the operator has, and it makes Everest, as an overbuilder competing against incumbent telco and cable operators, stand out.

“We have actually had a number of experiences with people leaving, going back to Time Warner, and then coming back to us, saying, ‘I didn’t realize I wouldn’t have caller ID on the TV,’”
he says.

And it really is simple—at least as far as the subscriber is concerned—and sticky as far as the operator is concerned.

Away from home

“We don’t require any interface to your home phone because we’re processing that call and pulling it directly off the SS-7 link,” he says. “You can’t have it unless you have our phone product with caller ID and cable, (so) it really does encourage the purchase of the bundle, and it really does help with churn.”

More so than other cable-oriented offerings such as video-on-demand (VOD) and even the uber-popular digital video recorder (DVR).

“Video-on-demand was already available by Time Warner locally, so it was more of a ‘me too’ move,” Nelson says. “PVR (personal video recorder) cable boxes are huge, and caller ID on TV is huge. VOD is a great product, but it has limited content, and you still have issues with the remote control. PVR is a phenomenal product because it changes the way you view TV.”

And caller ID on TV?

“Absolutely the No. 1. As far as customer impacts, that was the No. 1 product we implemented. It’s amazing,” he concludes.

Jim Barthold is a contributor to Communications Technology. Reach him at jimbarthold@comcast.net.

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