August 2006 Issue
The vice president of engineering and technical operations for the Seattle-based Comcast Washington Region is an extreme outdoor enthusiast. You might miss it. Cable veteran Steve Taber is a modest man who deflects attention to his team. But the more you learn about this high-performing system, the more sense it makes that its technical leader has the vision, intensity and instincts of someone who climb rocks and mountains, windsurfs, kayaks, skis backcountry and backpacks in foreign lands. We considered many systems in this year’s search for examples of outstanding technical achievement. Three others, in particular, stood out: Cox Gulf Coast, Mountain Cablevision in Hamilton, Ontario, Time Warner Cable Columbia, SC. In next month’s issue, we’ll tell their stories. What gave Taber’s northwestern Comcasters the edge was a preponderance of evidence that they were firing on all cylinders, from engineering to execution to—most impressively—basic technical operations. Well-known within Comcast, Seattle’s performance presents a case that the industry at large would do well to study. Trendsetters One number pops out. It involves the basic cable subscriber, who is back in the limelight as the industry reverses years of slippage to direct broadcast satellite (DBS). That industry-wide trend may be recent, but it looks as though Seattle was ahead of this curve. “We were kind of the anomaly in that we’ve had very solid basic growth the past three years and are continuing on that pace this year,” Comcast Senior Vice President Len Rozek says. Basic video sub growth, however, is only one of Seattle’s noteworthy accomplishments. Over the past year, the Seattle team launched digital voice and signed up thousands of subscribers, served millions of on-demand views a month, shifted video to an all-digital simulcast, deployed a new program guide, increased the pace of high-speed Internet subscriber growth, doubled its business services unit, all the while keeping service calls and outages low and preventive maintenance, training, technician sales and customer satisfaction high. The system also continued to promote geographical information systems (GIS) technologies, both in-house and through an important industry initiative, and lent strong support to the local SCTE chapter. The right team You’d think that it might take an extreme enthusiast at the helm to make all that happen. But Taber puts it otherwise: “We’ve just got great people up here, a really good team.” He also credits effective communications, dedicated project managers, and a commitment to planning and execution. It’s true enough that Comcast acquired some good people in Seattle. Their exposure to circuit-switched telephony under AT&T Broadband had helped make them even better. (That earlier “triple play” probably also drew in some of those basic cable subs.) But coaching does matter. One corollary to having a great team, for instance, is not having the wrong team members. In Seattle’s case, the Comcast acquisition created an opportunity to raise the bar. “We really went through a post-merger talent management assessment. We looked at every person we had,” Rozek says. “It was a difficult process, but we stuck to our guns and made sure we ended up with the best team.” Taber adds that this process was driven as much bottom-up as top-town. Through surveys, the leadership had discovered a real desire among employees at all levels for motivated and productive co-workers. “So we listened to them and formulated that plan,” he says. Service calls Just how good is this team? One telling indicator of any cable system’s performance, according to Ron Hranac, our senior technology editor, is the monthly number of service calls the operator makes per standard group of subscribers. Hranac associates a high number with “little or no preventive maintenance, lack of training, higher than normal outages, and subscriber dissatisfaction.” A low number would correlate with their opposites. Seattle clocks in with low numbers. Over the 2005 timeframe, the digital voice and high-speed data service calls rates were at 28 percent below the corporate average and video service call rates at 29 percent below that mark. Additional evidence bears out Hranac’s analysis. Seattle’s outage response time and durations, for instance, were respectively 22 percent and 19 percent lower than corporate average. As for overall customer satisfaction, as measured within the rigorous framework of Comcast’s Think Customer First initiative, Seattle ranked second out of 73 markets. And sure enough, Seattle does a lot of preventive maintenance. Taber pointed to two tools that focus attention on the “100 worst” and the most penetrated nodes. An evolving corporate tool molded together from various elements and multiple sources, the 100-worst nodes metric has led, in Seattle’s case, to positive trending. “There’s always going to be a worst 100,” says Taber, “but the initial worst is much worse than what we’re looking at now.” The most-penetrated list identifies which of Seattle’s 2,600 nodes are being worked the hardest. Seattle uses both tools to narrow its targets. “We take the worst 100 and then the most penetrated list and then we work it both ends,” Taber says. Apart from good hubs and outside plant, Taber points to a combination of “those little things” that helped them net the low trouble call rate, including continuous certification of the drop at the house and motivated and well-trained employees who know exactly what is expected of them. “We write methods and procedures for each type of job and provide clear instructions to the tech,” he says. Advanced services Comcast is winning back basic subs, but it’s the advanced services, especially digital video, that generate enthusiasm these days. “Unprompted, you hear more people talk about on-demand,” Rozek says. On-demand views in Seattle number around 8 million per month, with two of the top four categories being Comcast original content: Sprout and MoviePlex. Seattle also provides local on-demand programming, including time-shifted news with one of the broadcasters. Taber sees in general 2-3 percent simultaneous usage, with some nodes up around 10 percent. Seattle uses SeaChange on-demand technology over a Motorola digital video infrastructure, and unique to the industry, has migrated across the complicated set-top middleware terrain to what Taber calls “a real nice Microsoft TV guide.” The Microsoft TV Foundation Edition guide coordinates with the SeaChange session set-up and stream control for on-demand; links to Comcast’s broadcast program listings, HDTV channels, news and information, and games; and contains a search engine and integrated digital video recorder (DVR) functionality. As for high-speed data, in a market that already is deeply penetrated, Comcast is doing just fine. “We’re actually growing at a faster pace this year than we did last year,” Rozek says. The high-speed data infrastructure includes 74 cable modem termination systems (CMTSs). Most are Arris Cadant C4s, the remainder being Cisco uBR-VXRs. Seattle uses Arris multimedia terminal adapters (MTAs) for its PacketCable-based, Comcast Digital Voice (CDV) product. After launching CDV in the third quarter, Seattle ended 2005 with more than 15,000 customers. Continued strong growth has required the ongoing deployment of two additional Cedar Point switches, bringing the total up to five. People skills The successful launch of any cable service involves focused interaction with the technology itself, as well as with people, both vendors and end users. Taber says his engineering team members predominantly have Cisco Certified Network Associate or Professional designation and that the training platform for technicians is good. The training must be good, both on the hard and soft skill-sets, given that Seattle not only hit the No. 2 corporate ranking for customer satisfaction, but that it also nailed first place in technician sales for basic cable, high-speed data and digital. On the vendor side, the partnership or coach/player model prevails. Steve Taber’s engineering team “challenges our products to meet the same standard (of excellence)” as they do, says Arris sales rep John Foley. Cedar Point Executive Vice President Dave Spear describes a “collaborative relationship” and commends Comcast’s “embracing the training necessary to make new technology successful.” Microsoft TV Group Marketing Manager Terri Richardson simply says, “We’re an extension of the team.” What’s new? The Seattle phenomenon is more one of execution and operations than innovation or trials, but the system has taken the lead in a few practical areas. The new guide is one example. While an elegant and functional navigation system that incorporates both enhanced functionality and content has eluded much of the industry, the Comcast and Microsoft teams appear to have pulled it off here. In another case, Seattle has been at the forefront of the industry’s adoption of GIS technologies. More precisely, Comcast Seattle Director of Engineering and Construction Sean Bristol has been in front. “He’s really a lead—I’d say an industry lead,” says Taber. Bristol’s engagement with this technology stemmed from a “huge obstacle” encountered during an AT&T Broadband-era, cable telephony-related infrastructure and design project. The problem was a lack of digital files and inconsistent documentation methods. Funding from Patrick O’Hare (then with AT&T Broadband, now a Comcast West Division vice president) led to a successful test, and Bristol’s energy took it from there. President of the Mount Rainier SCTE chapter, which took second place in the annual chapter awards presented at this year’s Cable-Tec Expo, Bristol also became president of the industry-wide Broadband GIS Forum. He estimates that to date the adoption of these technologies in the Seattle market alone has led to more than 10,000 new subscribers. Virtuous cycle That, by itself, suggests another answer to the question of how Seattle was gaining basic subs while so many others were losing them. But the applications extend elsewhere, to business services, for instance. “With our mapping system, we are able to geo-code proximity of plant to commercial addresses,” Taber says. “We can bucket those in terms of distance from plant and make it more systematic in terms of how we try to get the sales.” And sales are coming. Rozek says they started to hit this market hard in mid-2005. With a professional team in place, they doubled the business last year and are on track to do so again this year. These unintended but beneficial consequences of Bristol’s exploration of GIS technology shed some final light on the upward spiral in which the system finds itself. About that “virtuous cycle,” Rozek said this: “It’s nice … to be in, and really hard to get there.” Getting there takes time, for sure. It also takes a lot of individuals who confront and honestly solve real problems. “We do a lot of little things differently,” Rozek says. “If you get a lot of people doing a lot of little things, it all adds up to being pretty powerful.” Jonathan Tombes is editor of Communications Technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sidebar 1 Washington Region at a Glance More a state region than a metropolitan system, Seattle is the designation for a former AT&T Broadband market area now optically ringed on the western part of Washington state and linked via fiber feeds to Spokane in the east. It encompasses three customer areas, 21,000 miles of plant, 153 franchises and nearly 2 million homes passed. Following the post-merger upgrade, 40 percent of the plant operates at 860 MHz, and 60 percent at 780 MHz. Sidebar 2 Seattle Checklist Sidebar 3 Seattle/Washington Region Leadership Steve Taber, Vice President of Engineering and Technical Operations
Taber oversees technical operations, outside plant engineering, new technology, engineering, the LMC (network operations center for Oregon and Washington), the conditional access system and telephone provisioning. Taber started his cable career in 1974 with Gerity Cablevision in Michigan as a technical installer. He was previously division director of engineering, overseeing the Oregon and Washington territories for AT&T Broadband. John Sheehan, Director of Field Operations
Sheehan oversees the installation and service, dispatch, and warehouse teams. John has worked for 23 years in the Seattle market in various functions including marketing, finance and technical operations. Matt Durand, Director of Engineering Operations
Durand is responsible for all aspects of network operations. He started with TCI in Montana in 1981 as an installer, becoming a plant manager in 1990. He assumed his current role three years ago. Sean Bristol, Director of Engineering and Construction
Bristol oversees the construction and engineering teams. He entered the cable industry as a line technician in 1987, becoming a director of engineering for AT&T Broadband in 1998. He is also president of the Broadband GIS Forum and president of the Mount Rainier SCTE Chapter, which took second place in this year’s Chapter awards. The rest of the Seattle team leaders: Jameson Acuff: Engineering Director Alden Alo: Engineering Manager Paul Bialaszwski: Addressability Content Manager Valarie Costanzo: Senior Project Manager Bev Dage: Operations Support Manager Curtis Hannah: CAD/GIS Manager Steve Hiatt: Regional Engineering Manager Russ Knight: Operation Manager Mark Mervau; Director of Technical Operations Stephen Nolan: LMC Manager David Rash: Area Director Tristanne Scheidegger: Senior Project Manager Darin Thomas: Senior Project Manager Jeff Votaw; Director, Operations Dan Wherry: Regional Manager of Engineering Marci Wherry: DBIG and Project Engineer Manager