Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Insight Communications. But its expansion from 195,000 to 1.4 million subscribers took only five years, from 1997 to 2001. The speed strategy was born in the mid-’90s after executives faced up to the threat of direct broadcast satellite (DBS) and the cable industry’s mature and noncompetitive posture. “We had two options. We could grow the company, or we could sell the company,” CEO Michael Willner says. They first tried to sell. After a deal (with Charter) fell through, they regrouped and began to run. Prompted by the competitive threat and what President and COO Kim Kelly calls “headend economics,” Insight acquired, rebuilt and interconnected clustered properties, all the while deploying waves of advanced and increasingly bundled services. Insight’s technical prowess has been especially evident from 2002 onward. First, its engineers nailed its forced Excite@Home and video-on-demand (VOD) transitions. At the same time, it continued with planned upgrades and interconnects, pressed ahead with telephony, adopted an innovative field management technology, and redoubled efforts in training and quality control. The momentum of its early run has helped over the past 18 months. But by continuing to execute the company’s aggressive strategy and meeting the unscheduled challenges, Insight’s technical team merits special praise in helping the company to succeed in a climate that places a premium on doing it all and making no mistakes. The house that Charlie built Insight also has benefited from stable management, including Willner, Kelly and Charlie Dietz, who joined the company as senior vice president of engineering in 1996. Upon his promotion to CTO in late December 2001, the company noted his role in all phases of its growth. And as it happens, he became CTO at the onset of one of most intense technical challenges that Insight, and the industry at large, has ever faced: the demise of @Home. As with other operators, Insight’s @Home transition has become a point of pride. Insight’s strategy of clustering properties also gave Dietz an opportunity to capitalize on the challenge and institute efficiencies that @Home had resisted. As @Home planned to go dark, for instance, he took steps to reduce Insight’s points of presence (POPs) while ensuring redundancy. Deals with McLeod Telecom for greater connectivity, especially in Illinois, and with Cisco for its Cerent line of SONET gear helped Insight complete its fiber rings. The upshot: three backed-up gateways to the Internet (Louisville, Indianapolis and Champaign) as well as an in-house freeway for billing, company email and evening/overnight call-center traffic. Smooth transition Dietz also credits the timing of a contract with backbone provider AT&T for some learning-curve advantages during the @Home transition. “The same group that we worked with at AT&T (core) had worked with AT&T Broad band, and they had started shifting earlier.” That group also introduced Insight to the enterprise software of Auspice, which AT&T Broadband had already proved out in Denver. As for data network tools, Jerry Knights, vice president of telephony engineering, explains that Insight is using the Cisco Transport Manager (CTM) and Cisco Transport Controller (CTC) to monitor the Insight backbone, but Auspice’s Cable Modem Exception Monitor (CMEx) to look at traffic on the other side. “It’s a nice tool,” Dietz says. “You can get a lot of detail really quickly.” A year after the transition, Broadband-Reports.com (previously DSLReports .com) continues to give high marks to InsightBB, its high-speed data service. Recent reviews in March placed it fifth among 21 operators. Favorable reviews during the transition also attested to a relatively smooth switchover, Dietz notes, adding that proactive communications from Kim Kelly made her a “star” at this site. VOD, take 2 Insight was hit with another forced transition last September when its long-standing VOD partner, Diva, went out of business. In this case, having been an early adopter proved to be a saving grace. Insight’s three years of experience made it easier for the team to convert its 11 VOD sites. “The biggest plus is that the people on the ground understood the whole concept,” Dietz says. Patrick Ford, vice president of new technology integration, agrees. “You couldn’t roll that many markets new. The learning curve at the system level wouldn’t allow it.” As with @Home, Insight turned this crisis to its advantage. While pleased with Diva’s technology, it picked a design that assumed less than half as many simultaneous streams but increased server storage by several orders of magnitude. Being an “educated shopper” enabled Insight to move quickly with its new VOD provider, SeaChange International. “Our conversations with Insight very early focused on the operational impact of VOD,” Yvette Gordon-Kanouff, SeaChange International vice president of strategic planning, says. One point of impact is Insight’s interactive Local Source information-on-demand service. “It’s not just basic movies-on-demand,” Gordon-Kanouff notes, with approval. As for the actual switchover, Insight opted to build the new system parallel with the old. That approach kept customer downtime to between 30 and 60 minutes, the time it took to purge the Motorola DCTs of the Diva application, reload the SeaChange application and disconnect the wires, Forde says. Insight made two more adjustments to its VOD platform about this time. It continued its ongoing transition to a satellite delivery technology from TVN. It also moved from Diva’s proprietary gigabit Ethernet (GigE) technology to standard GigE transport, deploying Cisco’s Catalyst family of switches to feed Harmonic Narrowcast Services Gateways (NSGs) at the hubs. With servers now capable of handling from 990 to 2,310 hours, depending on the specific Insight system, business is picking up. “Now 20 to 25 percent of the VOD-enabled environments are using (the service),” Kelly says. “Buy rates are increasing again. And that’s all very positive.” Upgrading for telephony To appreciate the pains that Insight has taken in its launch of primary telephony service, consider the ice storm that hit Lexington, Ky., this past February. No one (whether telephony subs or not) lost power in the part of the Insight system in Lexington that had been upgraded for telephony, Dietz notes. After a couple of hours, however, batteries in the other part ran down and outages began, leaving managers scrambling
for generators. Insight’s powering strategy deserves comment. Instead of battery backup at the network interface unit (NIU) or upgrades of conventional standby powering, it opted to redesign powering for its existing plant, plus an assumed penetration for telephony. With everything re-powered at 90 volts and tied into a conventional power supply sitting next to a natural gas generator, you end up, Dietz says, “sleeping nights knowing that you’ve got real 911 reliability.” Insight tapped Arris for constant bit rate (CBR) telephony gear for this service, which derives from an arrangement in which Insight carries traffic from the headend to the customer and AT&T takes it back to the switch. Insight first launched in its largest market, Louisville, Ky., and thereafter in Evansville, Ind. The next two markets, Lexington, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio, are still in progress. Dietz offers this reason for Insight’s deliberate haste: “You don’t want to turn on a 100,000-sub market and have the phones light up. You need to control it so the customer has a good experience.” A 21st century toolkit Just as Insight has upgraded its plant, so it has worked to improve field operations. Its adoption of software from C-COR.net is a case in point. Insight ran a seven-month, beta-test for C-COR.net’s mobile workforce management product in 2001 in Lexington, all the while extensively evaluating other companies in the business. Along the way, C-COR.net developed an interface for Insight’s ICOMS billing system and the Lexington system graduated from a dial-up to a high-speed wireless network. Dave Brown, director of technical operations in Insight’s southern region, points to the software’s work-routing functionality as a big plus. Previously, hand-routing the 1,800 to 2,300 daily work orders in the Louisville system took at least two people working eight hours each. This product, however, automatically schedules work according to skill sets, location, status of job sites and other configurable parameters and takes one person about an hour per day to manage, Brown says. Accuracy of data is a metric that Dietz underscores. “What we’ve found is the mistakes associated with paper are not as severe in an electronic world,” he says. A certain degree of change management has accompanied this 21st Century addition to field tech’s toolkit. It’s like switching from an analog to a digital meter, says Brown, who went paperless in Louisville earlier this year. “You really have to work with them and coach them.” “But after time, then it’s ‘How did we ever work without this?'” adds Winston Boggs, plant manager in Lexington. Continual improvement Teaching a field tech how to retrieve data from a wireless PDA is only one part of an intense training effort that has accompanied Insight’s transformation into a broadband provider capable of delivering the video/voice/data triple play. With 12 dedicated trainers and a full-fledged curriculum, management is lending its weight to this effort. First, they’ve made it a part of corporate culture. “It’s a no-no to miss training,” Kelly says. Second, they’ve instituted internal controls. An aggressive quality control (QC) program audits 5 percent of a technician’s monthly work and aims to keep performance at high levels of accuracy. Using a service call report generated by its ICOMS back-office software, Insight also has targeted initial visit mistakes as another area for measurable improvement. As a corporation, Insight has worked with Peter Hart Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based survey-research firm, to track customer satisfaction and performance. For five years, the firm has drilled down into numerous components of customer service at the system level, providing Insight with a valuable external audit. As it happens, this firm also studies the industry at large, giving Insight another point of reference. “Our overall performance has now risen for three years in a row,” Pam Euler-Halling, Insight vice president of marketing and programming, says. “And the industry as a whole has shown little change.” Insight’s efforts have impressed Allan Rivlin, senior vice president at Peter Hart. “They want to deliver customer service and operations at a level that is best in the industry or better,” he says. “And I think when they get there, they won’t stop.” Don’t stand still So what does Insight look like, seven years after realizing that it couldn’t stand still? Fourteen headends now serve 95 percent of Insight’s subscribers over two-way plant that runs at 750 MHz (minimum). Of those, 11 are linked via an OC-48 SONET ring that also carries InsightBB. It has made primary telephony available to a third of its subscribers, and offers one of the most robust digital video platforms in the industry, with high-definition TV (HDTV) and subscription VOD being its latest additions. Over the past year, through graceful transitions, technical innovation and attention to fundamentals, Insight’s technical team has continued to execute the sound strategy on which it was founded. The company’s goals remain high, and inspiring. And it’s quite likely that when they get there, they won’t stop. Location and Strategy To get a fix on Insight Communications, keep these two geographies in mind: New York City’s Manhattan island, and the four contiguous states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. Insight’s corporate headquarters is located on New York City’s 7th Ave. From Charlie Dietz’s 42nd floor office window, he can look across the Hudson River, think about fishing when the going gets rough, and see Bergen County, N.J., where he began his cable career with Vision Cable Communications 30 years ago. As for systems, Insight has grouped its Midwestern properties into three operating arenas. The western region stretches from Rockford, Ill., down to Springfield and east through Champaign/Urbana. A southern region runs between Evansville, Ind., and Louisville, Ky. Its eastern region is an inverted triangle, lying between Lexington, Ky.; Columbus, Ohio; and Indianapolis, Ind. So why New York City? “We’ve always been here,” CEO Michael Willner says. “The systems that we own and their location were the result of the opportunities that were available to us. We didn’t have a Midwestern strategy. We don’t even have a single clustered strategy in terms of geography necessarily, but that’s where we are right now.” Willner says that Insight would consider acquiring a system with 200,000 subs off a single headend, regardless of location. “The geography is secondary,” he says. “The real strategy is to own large systems.” The Technical Team Charlie Dietz is Insight’s chief technology officer. Also in New York: Patrick Forde, vice president of new technology integration Larry Collins,director of network architecture Paul Sherman, purchasing manager/staff engineer In the field but reporting to Dietz: Jerry Knights, vice president of telephony engineering Derek Anthony, director of digital applications engineering Paul Sherman, purchasing manger/staff engineer In the field but reporting to the senior vice president of operations in each region: Dan McComas, vice president of engineering, eastern region David Brown, director of technical operations, southern region Chuck Harper,director of technical operations, western region Winner’s Checklist “Bookends – the @Home conversion and the Diva conversion,” Insight President and COO Kim Kelly says. “That’s how we look at our year in technology.” Those were clearly defining moments. But since @Home went dark, Insight maintained its trademark quick pace and checked off an impressive number of additional items on its to-do list: Transition from @Home, build InsightBB. Re-deploy integrated, on-demand platform. Pick monitoring, service assurance tools. Assess second-level data service. Bring interconnect and upgrades to virtual end. Extend mobile workforce deployment. Continue launching primary telephony. Promote training and institute quality control audits. Target initial-visit service call mistakes. Launch HDTV, SVOD and MagRack. Jonathan Tombes is executive editor at Communications Technology. Email him at jtombes@accessintel.com.

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