Comcast Boston, an award-winning voice services provider, and Cablevision, the aggressive multiple system operator (MSO) engineered as a single system, join Midcontinent Communications (profiled last month) as this year’s Top Tier Systems. All three share the spotlight with System of the Year award-winner Cox Communications, Orange County/Palos Verdes (also profiled last month).

Five criteria guide the CT editorial team in this annual search for cable systems whose achievements in engineering and technical operations serve as benchmarks to the industry at large: a continual push to improve technical operations and/or upgrade the network; innovation in testing and development; high customer satisfaction; advanced service deployments; and success in nontraditional markets. COMCAST BOSTON Several facts, especially the effective scaling of Comcast Digital Voice (CDV), drew our attention to Metropolitan Boston last year. As it happens, and as most Comcast employees already know, Boston won the corporate System of the Year award for 2006 earlier this year.

One of the reasons listed in Comcast’s internal write-up was an "innovative new plant maintenance program" that led to Boston’s achievement of top scores on "node health." Improvement in technical operations – that’s the first item in this award’s selection criteria (see above).

Node metrics is an established but evolving discipline within Comcast that involves both corporate and region-specific tools. Along with Boston, seven other Comcast regions attained an "A" status in node health in 2006.

The case of Boston shows the flexibility that individual regions have in implementing these metrics. "We’re leveraging the national tools, but we’re putting our local spin on it, for scoring purposes," says Sue Wante, vice president for Metro Boston, East.

The particular plant maintenance program that the Boston team established last year involves scoring occurs at four levels: (1) active alarms; (2) priority plant work and demand maintenance; (3) potential RF problems based on levels and threshold violations; and (4) cross-product pending trouble calls.

It’s that fourth element that Wante regards as unique. "That’s the key," she says. "We’re really looking cross-product."

More innovation

Boston is hardly the only cable system (or vendor) in North America striving to improve plant maintenance. By adding event correlation and pending trouble calls across multiple products to existing telemetry, it is certainly hitting the right buttons – and then some.

The Boston program, for instance, also cuts across job functions, disseminating data that empowers several ranks of the technical workforce with broader views of their work and its impact. "Our plant network technicians are partnering very closely with our field technicians," Senior Director of Engineering Mike Allen says.

"They’re taking ownership of their plant in a more robust way." he adds.

The program links plant, field service and even headend personnel; but it’s closing other loops as well. Wante says the Boston team has closely partnered with the local network operations center (NOC), for instance, to improve processes and reduce mean time to repair (MTTR).

Boston has also closed a loop with customers through its innovative "next day report." This entails looking at all trouble calls and installs from the previous day and then proactively calling any of these customers with questionable RF levels. The simple idea is to fix any wiring or return- path issues that these just-served customers may have before they realize it.

The immediate goal is to preempt repeat service calls, but Wante says her teams have seized these data points as opportunities for further training. The object is to reinforce "the need to make sure (service technicians) have taken care of all the issues before they leave."

Workforce upgrades

Boston’s plant maintenance efforts, which got off to a good start last year, appear to be tracking well. "We’ve been able to actually improve our node scores more in 2007," Wante says.

The training that helped spur those results involved not only emphasizing the drop-related issues that have disproportionate impact on node health, but also a work-smarter-not-harder approach to prioritizing work on a daily basis.

The hard-working Boston team has revealed its preference to work smarter. A desire for more "empowerment" surfaced in last year’s internal "Credo Speak" survey, Wante says, and as a result, Boston decided to deploy Workforce Express, a CSG application that resides on Nextel phones and enables technicians to close accounts and communicate more effectively with customer care.

Wante emphasizes two results. With technicians closing out more work orders themselves, the dispatch organization has become more "technically astute" and been able to help the field "triage and troubleshoot more effectively." The second upshot is that improved communication with customer care, especially regarding estimated times of arrival, have driven a 35 percent, year-over-year reduction in late appointments.

The current system is a combination of online data and hard-copy work orders, but an ongoing technology trial is testing that balance. "The future state may be to go to a paperless environment," says Wante.

Customers and services

A company that equips, trains and listens to its employees – it sounds like a good place to work. According to the Boston Business Journal, for the past four years Comcast has ranked actually as one of the best places to work in Massachusetts.

It has certainly been hiring and promoting. In 2006 alone, Wante says the region up-trained and promoted more than 120 existing field technicians to be "triple-product certified" and hired an additional 90 technicians and 15 field leaders.

A key driver behind all that activity in human resources has been the successful layering of CDV to Boston’s network infrastructure and product portfolio. No stranger to voice service, Boston had been at the vanguard (then as part of MediaOne) of the industry’s first wave in 1998 of circuit-switched telephony.

Add to those technical and operational competencies, Comcast marketing and the right competitive landscape, and you have in CDV a clear winner – or what the Massachusetts Network Communications Council, in fact, picked as its 2006 product of the year.

Apart from CDV, other advanced services available in Boston include 24 high-definition (HD) TV networks, more than 100 hours of HD on-demand content, and a 16 Mbps high-speed data downstream. It’s a strong product mix. According to Comcast corporate, Boston achieved the highest percentage of subscriber increases in its division, "despite intense competition."

Boston also ventured into nontraditional markets. It was one of two Comcast regions chosen in 2006 to pilot Pivot, the Sprint Nextel wireless product, and the market is now home to two Connect stores, a joint venture with Circuit City that showcases Comcast services and can arrange for home theatre installs, PC services and integration of home electronics through the retailer’s Firedog technicians.

Boston clearly has its act together, across all its disciplines. Could one contributing factor be that the Regional Vice President Paul D’Arcangelo was previously vice president engineering or that Wante was previously vice president technical operations? We’d be inclined to think so. CABLEVISION SYSTEMS Cablevision’s industry-leading penetration rates for high-speed data and digital video and voice practically close the case when looking for evidence of customer satisfaction. Sister publication Cable World underscored that point in a December 2006 article designating Cablevision its MSO of the Year.

Before going any further, however, let’s ask why even consider Cablevision in this lineup. That is to say, as a system, rather than a multiple systems operator (MSO).

It could go either way. The NCTA includes four subordinate Cablevision properties in its list of top 25 cable systems in the United States. But another list of cable systems published by Multichannel News includes Cablevision. With more than 3 million basic subscribers, it’s at the top of that list.

The word from the technology leadership at the company formally known as Cablevision Systems (we hasten to add) leans more toward the unitary theory. "We cover a large area and multiple states," admits Cablevision Executive Vice President for Network Management, Cable and Communications, Reggie Workman.

"But we do it from a single infrastructure," he adds, "and do it with a very direct and thought-out process of ensuring that we’re consistent in all of those areas with respect to vendors we use and overall architectures."

Be best, be first

That unified approach to technology is one of Cablevision’s unique propositions. Whether an MSO or a system or (perhaps, more like Comcast Boston) a region, this operator is capable of acting as swiftly, in unison. "One of the huge advantages that we have here is that the management group who is determining strategic direction is also managing day-to-day operations," Workman says.

And what is that strategic direction?

Cablevision is commonly perceived to be a "maverick." From new conditional access systems to set-top boxes with DOCSIS and other integrated functionality to remote storage digital video recording (RS-DVR) architectures, this company’s technology decisions over the years have flown in the face of industry conventions.

One could view these as willful displays of a rules-breaking operator, but they are of a piece with Cablevision’s record-breaking performance metrics and, moreover, derivative of some plainly stated goals.

"The strategic direction that the senior management of this company took early on was that we want to be the best at everything that we do, and we want to be first," Workman says.

The track record across all services shows that those words are not empty rhetoric. Take high-speed data. Cablevision’s initial deployment a decade ago was 10 Mbps downspeed/1 Mbps upstream (10/1) offering. In late 2005, Cablevision upgraded the basic service to 15/2 and introduced two premium services, 30/5 and 50 Mbps symmetrical.

That’s fast. Maybe not so much internationally, but a May 2007 Communications Workers of America survey of 67,000 broadband subscribers in the United States found that download speeds averaged only 1.9 Mbps.

Switched digital video (SDV) is another example. Without slighting Time Warner Cable‘s own leadership in this category, one can still say that Cablevision took this ball and ran hard. In January 2007, Cablevision announced that it had launched SDV across its entire footprint, in what it called the largest such deployment to date in the cable industry.

As a result, Cablevision subscribers gained access to nearly 60 additional international programs. "A nonevent," says Workman, from a technical operations perspective.

On the telephony front, apart from Cablevision’s nearly 30 percent penetration rates, its successful implementation of redundancy on all its softswitches also is consonant with the first and best philosophy. Cablevision’s Optimum Lightpath, the unit that has been connecting larger enterprises via fiber for years, is now offering voice over (Metro) Ethernet, another industry first.

Thirst for excellence

Even as Optimum Lightpath has simplified its product portfolio around Ethernet, Cablevision itself has been reaching out to the small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) over its cable plant, expanding its offerings along the way.

"We’re constantly adding to the mix of services," Workman says.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that this approach is working. According to an account published by the New Jersey Media Group in late June, one such mix (five lines with unlimited local and long distance plus 15 Mbps high-speed data, along a static IP address) was found to be one-third less expensive than a slower service package from Verizon.

Cablevision Vice President Communications Jim Maiella sees "an interesting back and forth" taking place between the residential and business telephony. Credibility on the residential side (which actually goes back to the early circuit-switched days, again, like Boston) redounds to the business community, and now services such as four-line packages originally targeted at businesses have migrated back to the home front. Is that yet another first?

As with the three other best-case systems profiled this year, Cablevision appears to view the cable plant, and those who run it, less in terms of sunk costs than potential revenues. "I don’t want to overstate it," says Workman, "but the underlying strategy from day one was to ensure that we’re always first and best, and that means that you’ve got to build the infrastructure to stay ahead of the curve."

"It’s given us the ability to do these things as the market warrants." Jonathan Tombes is editor of Communications Technology. Reach him at jtombes@accessintel.com

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