Midcontinent Communications won a Top-Tier System award from Communications Technology this year, but it could also garner the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the work the engineering staff does on preventive maintenance.

Midcontinent’s preventive maintenance program has been running for four years now, but by making preventive maintenance a priority, Midcontinent is able to not only head off any potential problems at the pass, but also trial new technologies. For example, late last year, Midcontinent successfully implemented its 64-QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) upstream deployment in six nodes. (Midcontinent was the unnamed operator in Ron Hranac’s April column in CT.)

Midcontinent Media and Comcast jointly own Midcontinent. The company’s roots date back to the 1930s when it was originally in business in Minneapolis as a movie theater operator. Currently, Midcontinent serves up its triple-play bundle in mostly urban and rural areas in South Dakota and North Dakota, but also counts some of its 220,000 customers in parts of Minnesota and Nebraska.

Tom Heier, Midcontinent’s corporate engineering manager, says the company has 71,000 digital customers with about 100,000 digital set-tops. The company’s headquarters is in Sioux Falls, SD, and is divided up with six operational regions. Serious about PM Four years ago, Midcontinent started its preventive maintenance initiative program (PMI). The company has 38 full-time employees across its entire footprint who are dedicated just to its PMI departments. Some cable operators make preventive maintenance part of another job, but "we tried that, and it wasn’t working out so well, so we went to a dedicated staff," says Jon Pederson, Midcontinent’s vice president of technology. "One thing we do is a dedicated PMI staff, and that is their sole function," he says.

The PMI program covers plant maintenance as well as headend maintenance and certification. Midcontinent performs its plant preventive maintenance program at intervals of no longer than 18 months. The maintenance includes, among other items, testing, finding and fixing faults with the optical nodes and power supplies, sweeping each amplifier as well as end-of-line digital testing, the latter of which includes modulation error ratio (MER) and pre/post errors.

Midcontinent’s network operations center (NOC) actively monitors every return path 24 hours a day to ensure that ingress and common path distortion (CPD) levels don’t exceed specifications and impact the performance of all of the devices in the field. When the levels exceed the specifications, a technician is sent out to locate and repair the impairment.

Each of Midcontinent’s headends has to adhere to certification standards set in place by engineering. Headend preventive maintenance covers running tests on many headend elements on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. If a possible customer-impacting fault is detected at any time in the field or headend, a service a technician is dispatched to find and fix the problem.

"We don’t do self-installs, and we’re not afraid to send a technician to a house because one of the benefits we get from a technician visiting a house is if there’s anything else wrong, we get it fixed during that visit," Pederson says. Since Midcontinent’s techs are cross-trained to do voice, video and data, they’re able to tackle additional problems at homes while they’re there on service calls. 64-QAM upstream The preventive maintenance program meant Midcontinent’s house was in good order when it came time to launch upstream 64-QAM using 6.4 MHz channel bandwidth. Midcontinent launched its 64-QAM program about eight months ago in Sioux Falls. In early summer, the deployment was running over six nodes, but David Haigh, Midcontinent’s senior RF engineer, says some modems have been swapped out in anticipation of going to eight nodes, but "we just haven’t flipped the switch yet."

"It’s a real deployment – they’re paying customers," Haigh says.

Midcontinent had previously implemented 16-QAM in all of its upstreams with very few issues, but when it came to 64-QAM, the engineering team didn’t know what to expect since they couldn’t find any information on what engineering requirements to use.

What Midcontinent found with both 16- and 64-QAM in the upstream is that both take a lot of planning before the switch is made. Some of the areas Midcontinent drilled down on included: ensuring the nodes have very little or no ingress, no high-transmit modems, and all modems being DOCSIS 2.0 compliant in order to run 64-QAM.

While Midcontinent doesn’t currently have a need per se for 64-QAM in any of its markets, it did see upstream speeds increase dramatically from approximately 9 Mbps to 30 Mbps.

"The long-term plan is to have this across our entire footprint," Pederson says. "We feel that over time there’s going to be a need for more throughput, and we’d sure like to have this as one of our tools." Shadow design Midcontinent also uses what it calls a "shadow design maintenance program" to stay on top of its cable rebuilds. The shadow design maintenance program started three years ago and was 90 percent completed this summer. Shadow design entails the contractors Midcontinent uses to first do a complete walkout of the plant under review.

"They more or less document how it is today, and then that information is sent off to a design firm that is familiar with our design specifications," Heier explains. "They compare the two and come up with a new design to fix any problems that they see with that design. Once we have that back, the work is issued to contractors, for the most part, who will go out and reconfigure the network to the new design."

During the shadow design process, Midcontinent’s technology group also makes sure the address database that is in its AutoCAD or design files links with the billing system. The last step is creating a final "as-built" picture of the plant so that everything is accurate going forward. Full service Last year Midcontinent started offering voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services, but when it comes to voice, the company is really an old hand since it has been offering switched long-distance phone service in its South Dakota market since 1982.

"In the phone business, there are a lot of other things that have to go on in dealing with interconnections and whatnot, but by the time we were ready to do VoIP, we had most of those worked out," Pederson says. "I think we were ahead of the game in a great big way when it came to rolling out phone services."

Midcontinent also has its own fiber-optic network – with multiple OC-48 and GigE links – that has helped it roll out services such as video on demand (VOD) from its three master digital headends (MDHs) across a wide geographical footprint.

In each of Midcontinent’s MDHs, it receives all of the programming that is carried as part of its digital service. These services are groomed and muxed into ~38 Mbps MPTSs (Multiple Program Transport Streams) and then transported over the network to headends. At the headend, the MPTSs are encrypted and modulated onto 256-QAM RF carriers for carriage on the cable system. Approximately 95 percent of Midcontinent’s customer base is connected to its digital video distribution network.

Facing a competitive environment in its markets, Midcontinent launched VOD last year. The last major launch of VOD in the MDH markets was in April. Currently, Midcontinent offers about 2,000 hours of VOD content, 200 standard definition (SD) digital channels, 45 digital music channels and 22 satellite high definition (HD) channels in its MDH markets. What’s next? Midcontinent has been using a wireless mesh multipoint technology for about a year to serve commercial services to customers that its HFC network can’t reach, and the company was slated to launch a wireless mesh system in Sioux Falls’ downtown area in July.

The company is also starting down the digital simulcast path, but despite all of the technological accomplishments at Midcontinent, Pederson says it’s the employees who have made the difference.

"What we did was all due to cooperation within our operations and technology groups," he says. "We certainly have a large team, but we’re very coordinated." Mike Robuck is associate editor of Communications Technology. Reach him at mrobuck@accessintel.com.

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