Fiber Rings in West Texas Larry LaFreniere

Title: VP of engineering and technical operations, West Region, Suddenlink Communications

Broadband Background: LaFreniere has more than 30 years of engineering and operations leadership experience across a broad range of industries. A registered Professional Engineer, he joined the cable industry in 2002, having previously worked as an engineer and senior manager for Texas Instruments and MCI Communications. LaFreniere spent seven years in the USAF as a supersonic jet pilot and fifteen additional years in the Air Force Reserve as a technologist.

You had mostly completed your West Texas fiber ring build when we last wrote about it. Any additional construction or interconnect activity?

Initially launched as a Gigabit Ethernet ring, we added SONET capability in the past three months. It began with a couple of point-to-point customer implementations; then we decided to enable the entire ring by building it out to OC-192.

Two more small communities, Post and Tulia, will see big-city benefits as we retrofit and connect them to our fiber ring. When completed in the next few weeks, the retrofit will increase plant bandwidth in these towns to 750 MHz and 860 Mhz, respectively. The fiber connectivity will provide Post and Tulia access to improved high-speed data, all advanced video services (including digital simulcast and video on demand), as well as telephone service.

How has your push into the carrier space progressed?

We already have an OC-48 and a couple of OC-12 customers on the ring and recently won a contract to provide cellular backhaul for a major carrier. We’re discussing use of the ring with other MSOs in the area. That kind of cooperation will create added carrier opportunities.

The ring was designed as a video transport – unidirectional, protected, counter-rotating. How has it held up? In what ways are you leveraging it for delivery of advanced digital video service?

The ring has held up nicely. We’ve absorbed more than one physical fiber cut without service impact. The self-healing protection flipped video, data and phone service from one direction on the ring to the other with less than a 50 ms interruption, hardly noticeable when watching TV. We had no dropped phone calls.

The ring also helped us introduce a number of new services. We added three HD services (TLC, Discovery and Animal Planet) to the ring. We now transport 25 HD services in drop-and-continue fashion around the ring. We also transport all SD video content from our central signal processing facility in Lubbock to the other markets on the ring – Abilene, Amarillo, San Angelo, Midland, Plainview and Snyder in Texas, and Clovis, NM.

In July we launched video on demand to almost all markets on the ring. The on-demand content includes more than 40 new-release HD movies. All ringed markets will have video on demand within the next few weeks. Our VOD configuration includes Macrovision’s i-Guide interactive program guide, SeaChange’s Axiom back office, and Motorola’s B-1 Video Server (formerly Broadbus).

In August, we began digital simulcast of our analog lineup in Lubbock, then did the same for Amarillo in September. San Angelo is scheduled for today (Oct. 21), and the rest of the markets on the ring will complete their simulcast launches before the end of the year. Centralized digital ad insertion capability in Lubbock allows us to insert advertising on up to 40 channels and provides unique ad content to each market.

Digital simulcast allowed us to implement digital-only set tops from Pace (their model 778 Tahoe and 787 Aspen). The Aspen is both MPEG-4 and MPEG-2 capable.

You spoke about the ring at the NCTC CTO conference. How did your NCTC colleagues receive your message?

We received positive feedback from Suddenlink’s participation at the conference. The fiber project, in particular, prompted discussion well into the afternoon, and we sensed that many people seemed to be inspired by it as an example of the ‘can-do’ spirit that built our industry.

What’s up next for your West Texas engineering team?

We are continuing to look at ways to improve video operations on our ring. We see opportunities to reclaim analog spectrum and change the way we mux our digital QAMs. Since we use Motorola conditional access, we’re considering DAC upgrades that will enable us to create geographic redundancy. We also are looking to improve video monitoring capabilities, including tightening integration with our corporate network operations center.

Finally, we want to enhance the way we provision new Ethernet or SONET customers on the ring, using tactics and technologies that will streamline our processes and allow us to reduce time to deliver these customer solutions.

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