In a market increasingly dominated by consumer electronics retailers, Bright House Networks, Tampa Bay division, has created a way to use business partnerships and home wiring to secure the home for cable services. It is a model that other operators may want to follow.
New home construction presents a tremendous growth opportunity for multiple cable company services. Getting this business, however, can be difficult because of the way contractors traditionally work with developers and homebuilders.
Wiring in new homes for anything except AC power is typically installed by contractor-integrators who specialize in low voltage systems and sell products that include home theaters, computer networks, telephone systems and environmental control. These systems often share a structured wiring cabinet, which the contractor provides as a central termination point. The contractor may also bundle retail electronics and satellite service provider products.
Contractor-integrators are under tremendous pressure to submit low bids to win business with home builders. One result can be structured wiring cabinets with low quality cable, connectors and components. That creates problems for cable operators.
"Unfortunately, we have return path issues with poor quality connectors and amplification products," Erik Danowski, Bright House senior manager, market development, says.
These problems have a way of cascading. "The service tech would bypass the amp and change the connectors, but since the original amplifiers are vendor-proprietary, the replacements wouldn’t fit in the cabinet, and the cabinet door wouldn’t close," Danowski says.
"The customer would call the contractor-integrator back, and it became a constant battle between the contractor and the cable company over voided warranties," he says. A better way Bright House sought to eliminate these problems by partnering closely with developers and builders, their low voltage contractors and vendors who supply structured wiring systems. The idea was to become an integral part of the overall process.
Dubbed the Home Integration Program, this initiative evolved from an existing ‘Builder’s Program’ that offered free pre-wires to the market’s largest builders. "That eliminated old copper cable and daisy-chaining of video outlets," Danowski says.
"The Home Integration Program…takes the Builder’s Program one step further," Danowski continues, "by designating selected structured wiring vendors as ‘strategic partners’ and by providing incentives for the builder’s contractors to both use the products of the strategic partners and to wire the builders’ homes correctly." Vendor partners Vendor strategic partners design their equipment around Bright House specifications and create special part numbers for components to be used in the program. They also offer rebates to contractor-integrators working with builders who have signed on as participants.
Vendor relationships to date include On-Q, Leviton and GE, with more on the way. These vendors provide special structured wiring cabinets that terminate in-home low voltage wiring and enclose active and passive components for video, telephony and home networks.
Requirements for participation in the program begin with the enclosure, which must be at least 28 inches and have a hinged swing lid. Cabinets must also include a custom bracket to house the operator’s multimedia terminal adapter (MTA).
Electronics must also pass muster. "All amplification and passive products must go through our lab and pass Time Warner Cable specifications for forward/return path, surge and isolation," Danowski says. "There are very few that can make it through the test, and most have designed their products around our specs to be part of our program." (For more on specs, see sidebar.)
Once these products are approved, they are assigned specific part numbers and bundled for use in Bright House kits. "Only our approved integration contractors can order those specific kits" Danowski says. Contractor-integrators As noted earlier, contractor-integrators are a key part of the Home Integration Program. Bright House hires endorsed contractor-integrators to do the builder’s pre-wire and provides them with cable, connectors and active components at no charge. Being on-site and having a rebate on structured wiring systems that are used in the pre-wire allow the contractor-integrator to bid the job at a lower rate, thus keeping the builder’s cost down. At the final trim-out stage of installation, the contractor-integrator activates Bright House service to the home, ensuring the cable company will be completely pre-installed and working at the move-in. Bright House issues the builder 30-day free service gift certificates to pass on to the home buyer.
The contractor’s role continues after the installation. During the sale of a home, a builder typically provides the buyer an opportunity to choose upgrades at an options-selection meeting. Endorsed contractor-integrators use this meeting to not only sell their own services, but also to pre-sell Bright House service packages. The contractor-integrator determines customer interest and sets up a sales call from Bright House to confirm services and prices. In return, Bright House pays a commission for the lead. Successes and the future The Home Integration Program has been very successful in gaining and retaining new customers for Bright House services. The numbers speak for themselves.
Currently, 114 builders and 12 integration contractors participate in the program in the Tampa Bay area. According to Danowski, Bright House has more than 90 percent penetration in greenfield developments where it has been applied. This represents almost a 30 percent increase over the numbers achieved by conventional marketing. Perhaps even more impressive, the company has realized a 19.5 percent increase in participation in digital service over a 12-month rolling average in markets where the program is in place.
Although the Bright House program addresses only video now, Danowski says that it will be expanded to data. A cable modem will be included in the strategic partner’s wiring cabinet, and upon first log-in by the home owner, Bright House will re-direct the user’s browser to a sign-up and registration page. Best practice? The extent to which the program becomes a practice for other operators to emulate depends upon how well it fits into a cable company’s other operations and marketing programs.
"Many other service providers have made attempts at programs over the years, but none of these had the right formula," says Brent Armstrong, director of sales for structured wiring vendor On-Q. "Bright House is unique with their program, and it is a testament to their forward-thinking nature."
Justin J. Junkus is president of KnowledgeLink and telephony editor for Communications Technology. Sidebar: Why Component Quality Differs Cost is not the only reason for quality differences in structured wiring systems. Agreement on the metrics for the components used in the systems is not universal.
Although all cable operators have their own specifications for component parameters, industry standards are not complete and take a long time to be finalized. There are several official SCTE standards for F-connectors, for example, but IPS SP 206, covering drop passives (splitters and couplers), and IPS SP 202 for drop amps, are not final and have been "in process" for some time now. There are as many reasons for the delay as there are parameters to be reviewed and discussed for each component.
Splitters, for example, need to be qualified by electrical characteristics including passband, return loss, port-to-port isolation, RF shielding, surge withstand capability, spurious signal rejection, operating temperature range, and insertion loss. In addition to electrical parameters, there are mechanical and environmental parameters that determine quality. Mechanical parameters include the type of housing, body plating metal, back plate material and thickness, how the unit is sealed (soldered is superior to epoxy), and even the threads on the F-connector. Environmental requirements include the degree of waterproofing, corrosion resistance and temperature performance.
Drop amps have a similar set of parameters, but their increased complexity can cause size to become an issue more often than with splitters.
Complicating these component issues is incomplete quality control, which has been aggravated by the prevalence of off-shore sourcing.
In its specifications for the structured wire cabinets and components, Bright House adheres to Time Warner specifications, which are generally regarded stringent. To ensure vendors meet the criteria, vendor-partner products must successfully pass Bright House testing before approval.