Clint Rodeman had pretty much seen and heard it all, so in 2003 when Bresnan Communications announced they were purchasing some systems in Wyoming and northern Colorado from Comcast, he took the news with a grain of salt. And who could blame him? In just over two decades, the Casper cable system for which he has worked as tech ops manager had been bought and sold by United Cable, TCI, AT&T Broadband and Comcast. And while some minor plant repair had taken place throughout the years, the harsh reality was the system had grown so technically threadbare that Rodeman and his tech team felt like they were trying to keep it running with duct tape and baling wire. Today Rodeman refers to his system’s former hand-to-mouth upgrades as "in-house rebuilds." Of course, that term fails to capture just how badly the system had to beg, borrow and steal whatever it could to maintain even minimal levels of service quality. "It was frustrating," Rodeman says. "I can’t tell you how many times we were on an upgrade list for TCI or AT&T that never happened." Then came Bresnan. Return of a Legend Like Paul Bunyan, the woodsman of American folklore, Bill Bresnan is a product of northern Minnesota. And like the mythological Bunyan, Bresnan is something of a folk hero—at least to those who follow or are part of the cable industry. Unlike many one-time MSO heads who sold everything when they cashed out, Bresnan retained not only the rights to his company’s name when he sold his cable systems to Charter six years ago, he kept a core of trusted people—leaving him with employees but no customers. After kicking a few tires, Bresnan came to one conclusion; of all the industries he looked at, the one that offered the most upside was—surprise—cable. In the four years since he had sold his systems, he watched new digital products infuse new life into his old industry. In addition, fiber deployment made it possible for operators to tie in even more head-ends and noncontiguous systems than previously thought possible. So in March of 2003, Bresnan closed on a cluster of systems that, following the Comcast/AT&T Broadband merger, fell out of the footprint of the new, giant MSO. Among them was a small system serving 18,000 customers in Casper, and a smaller one to the west, serving 3,500 customers in Riverton. They all share at least one thing in common: They have lost many customers to DBS. And in the ruggedly independent West, Bresnan is now trying to convince people who don’t like to be tethered to anything—much less a big company from the East—that their local cable operator is worth another look. Systems in Need of TLC Casper has a long and proud history in the cable industry. It was the first system in the country able to transmit distant signals imported from another market via microwave. It was built in part by Bill Daniels, who largely created the modern cable industry, and by cable pioneers Gene and Richard Schneider. However, by the early 1990s Casper’s pride had faded. As systems elsewhere increased bandwidth and launched new services, Casper’s succession of owners—most notably TCI—treated the system like an ATM, taking cash out but never investing in it. As the system slipped below industry standards, customers migrated to DBS. And while Bresnan provided no precise figures on how many customers the former owners lost, longtime employees of the system offer strong anecdotal evidence of just how powerful the outgoing tide was. Says one: "I would bet that over time some of our systems lost at least 40% of their customers to satellite." After the purchase, Bresnan put Rodeman in charge of the systems in the area. "From the very first time you met Clint, you could see that the guy got it," says Terry St. Marie, SVP, operations. "He truly cared and had a feel for the business." On their first visit to Casper, senior staffers at Bresnan outlined for Rodeman their planned upgrade of the systems in Wyoming, which included miles of fiber plant linking head-ends to create economies of scale. That fiber would allow the systems to offer high-speed Internet access, VOD, HD and VoIP service. They also promised an all-new call center in nearby Cheyenne. The initial projection was that the rebuilds would take two years, a time frame given to the local franchising authorities. However, as has been the case with operators eager to launch new services (and tap new revenue streams), they were all completed six months early. At roughly the same time, the promised call center was opened in Cheyenne to complement the existing one in Billings, Mont. And recently, in anticipation of launching IP telephony, Bresnan stepped up its plant "hardening," investing in new power-supply batteries and status monitoring stations for each head-end. Casper has a local payment center/service facility. It employs 20 field technicians and five office staffers. Riverton’s center employs nine full time people. Access channels carrying city council meetings, high school and community events and University of Wyoming sports coverage fill out the local presence in Casper and Riverton. Hard Decisions In Bresnan’s perfect world, Casper and Riverton, which operate as a single unit but are separated by 150 miles, would be connected by fiber. However, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a dearth of homes between the two, the company’s plans were scotched and Casper and Riverton share neither head-ends nor a common lineup. "Would we want to [connect them]? Absolutely, and we’ll continue to look at it until it makes sense," says St. Marie. "But until then we have to be economically responsible." The decision not to hardwire the systems also caused Bresnan to alter its rollout plans. Originally the plan was to launch high-speed Internet, video on demand, hi-def and voice in both systems in 2005. Now, although both Casper and Riverton offer high speed, only Casper has HD service. Casper will launch VOD this June and voice later this summer. Riverton will launch HD later this summer, with VOD and VoIP to be revisited in 2006. Long-Distance Marketing One concession Bresnan made to the size of its Wyoming systems was to market them out of the corporate office in Purchase, N.Y. Local employees download and sample marketing material using a password-protected website. "The people in the call centers go on our site and listen to a radio ad or check out a newspaper ad before it hits," says Rodeman. A local sales director and a stable of salespeople, each of whom is charged with channeling consumer feedback into the corporate office, are on the ground in Wyoming. "The challenge is you’re not there seeing and hearing the reaction to your marketing," says Jackie Heitman, VP of marketing. "But as long as you have regular communication with people in the field, you can keep your finger on the pulse of the market." Over the past two years, Heitman has worked with research firm Claritas to secure specific consumer data on the Casper market. Claritas broke the DMA into over 60 customer segments. Heitman then worked with Denver-based Eagle Direct to combine the segments into three larger, more manageable groups; Bresnan regularly performs predictive modeling on these groups and directs targeted messages at them. Heitman says that the data they’ve assembled on the marketplace have had a big impact on Bresnan’s win-back strategy. One of the company’s message points continues to be localism. "We found that people in Casper have a deep sense of connectedness to their community and a strong cultural identity," Heitman says. "Not every city in the country wraps those values into the texture of their lives quite like they do in Wyoming, so we’ve played up the fact that we’re a local operator, with local employees providing local channels." And while Heitman admits that there is still some migration to DBS taking place, the hemorrhaging has certainly stopped. "We’re still working to stop the losses, but it’s not nearly like it once was," she says. Tad Wright of Riverton, a former DBS customer who responded to an ad a year ago and switched to Bresnan, says that after a year he’d give his cable company a B-. He’s had only minor complaints: His cable is still not buried in his yard and his new Bresnan program guide lacks the features of his old one. Wright says he switched to cable for two reasons. "We wanted high-speed Internet service and Dish didn’t offer that," he says. "Plus, our equipment was old and starting to go. When we called they said we’d have to buy all-new equipment, and that was going to be very expensive." Wary Public Officials Perhaps stung by the unfulfilled promises of the past, at least two civic leaders are adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward Bresnan. Casper’s city manager Tom Forslund, who is just entering into renewal talks with the company, says that while Bresnan has done all the right things so far, it’s still early. He adds, however, that the company has exhibited much-needed good faith. "Bresnan is really trying to add value to their service by providing things that aren’t available on satellite," Forslund says, adding that many of the complaints that had been voiced in the past have quieted over the last two years. "Many of the complaints were price related, while others were about the fact that people really didn’t have a choice. Now with satellite, people in Casper have options, and as a result the complaints have decreased." Riverton city administrator Carter Napier, who just negotiated a 25-year franchise renewal, says, "I’ve appreciated the competition that DirecTV and Dish have offered the local cable companies over the years. It’s made a difference in the quality of the service we’ve received." He’d like to see even more competition for Bresnan, primarily because the only complaints he ever gets have to do with the rising cost of cable. Rodeman says there’s been a noticeable decrease in the level of skepticism from local franchise authorities over the past two years. When he announced that Bresnan would launch high speed he was told by some that they’d believe it when they saw it. "Then when we launched," he says, "one guy came back and said, `Wow, I’d heard they were doing this kind of thing in Denver, but I can’t believe you’d ever do it here. But you did.’" Bresnan
Casper, Wyo. By the Numbers Employees: 32 Miles of plant: 369 Homes passed: 29,700 Bandwidth: 650 MHz Percent upgraded: 100% Basic subs: 19,400 Basic penetration: 65% Basic cable rate: $17.54/mo. Digital penetration: 43% Digital tier rate: $18/mo. HSD penetration: 34% HSD rate: $45.95/mo. Bundle rate (various services): $56.99-$124.99/mo. HDTV: ESPN HD, HBO, HDNet, HDNet Movies, Discovery HD HDTV tier rate: $7.99/mo. VOD: Launching July 2005 HD DVRs: 210 HD DVR rate: $2/mo. Ad insertion: 24 channels Source: Bresnan Communications

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