Sometimes things aren’t as simple as they look.

Take RF test and measurement for example. Seems simple enough: Just train the techs, give them the gear, tell them what to do with it, and we’ll all live happily ever after. Right?

Well, maybe not. A story I wrote on T&M in April turned up the astonishing (to me, anyway) news that not all is as it should be in T&M. I kept hearing about un- or under-trained techs, too little time for effective T&M, and the need to design products for the lowest common denominator. Yikes.

Questioning what I was hearing, I asked about it on the forum at CTChatter. (If you’re not a member, go to www.ctchatter.com and sign up. Some of your colleagues are probably already there.) Alas, the resulting thread confirmed what I’d been told.

A certain amount of difficulty is just the natural order of things in T&M. Technology marches on, and it can be difficult for test equipment vendors to keep up. For example, DOCSIS 3.0, or at least elements of it, has been deploying for a while now, but full-featured test gear for it hasn’t yet (as of this writing) hit the streets. But this isn’t the main issue.

The larger problem seems to be a general lack of T&M. In some cases, it’s not being done well; in others, not enough; and in a few, not at all. That’s costly. Churn, unnecessary truck rolls, and expensive meters sitting idle come to mind.

Causes

Is it a training problem? Yes and no. Trainers labor under mighty burdens. Not every new hire is a genius, or even an amateur electrician, and training is often one of the first things cut when money gets tight. Moreover, relatively few companies today focus on extensive training. That puts new hires in the field quicker, but they only just barely know their jobs.

In years past, informal on-the-job training provided by supervisors or experienced techs often helped take up the slack. But in today’s environment of doing more with less, the senior techs and supervisors seldom have time to provide in-depth OJT.

Corporate culture also contributes to lack of focus on such basics as T&M. Everyone’s big on the latest new technology, new applications and services, and bringing new subs online. This is entirely understandable – that’s where the money is, and if you’re not making money, it’s just a hobby. Such basics as keeping the plant tight aren’t "sexy," and too often are simply assumed. Thing is, without a tight plant, all those groovy new services won’t work worth a hoot, which takes us right back to truck rolls and churn.

Solutions

What’s the answer? Well, that’s the hard bit.

A technology solution remains elusive. There’s been some call for simpler and cheaper test gear. Whether that’ll pan out remains to be seen – much of the gear on the market is already about as basic as it can be and still do the job.

Some engineers have expressed a desire for customer premises equipment (CPE) that can provide the required measurements itself, or at least "red or green" reports. Such a setup could theoretically provide data from every subscriber device and negate the need for techs to carry meters at all. The problem is accuracy: A $50 set-top can’t be expected to be as accurate as a $3,000 meter. Also, CPE resides outside the cable operator’s physical control, and bad things can and do happen to it.

More likely, though, the solution will have to come from changes in training and corporate culture. I’m reminded of a (probably) apocryphal training story: A trainer and his boss are arguing about how to train new hires. The boss says, "What if we give them all this training and then they leave?" The trainer replies, "What if we don’t and they stay?"

Ron Hendrickson is the managing editor of Communications Technology.

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