This year’s search for excellence brought us head to head with the cable equivalent of that line from the English poet about no man being an island, namely: regionalization.

It’s a strong trend. Not so long ago, isolated cable systems were the norm. Then multiple system operators (MSOs) aggregated many of those systems into metropolitan or divisional markets. Now it has become fair to ask whether those divisions themselves can exist as islands.

"We can’t, and we don’t," said Carl Newberry, regional vice president of engineering for Time Warner Cable, Carolina Region. "It’s just difficult for a division to stand on their own any more. We’re all so interconnected." The vetting process We’ve met this interconnected reality before. The leaders of last year’s System of the Year, Cox Orange County/Palos Verdes, emphasized the functions they shared with sister systems in San Diego and Arizona.

In 2006, we honored Comcast Seattle and the greater Washington Region. The award in 2005 went to Charter Madison and the Great Lakes Region. Many of our Top Tier honorees have been region-based.

Regionalism figures prominently in this year’s story, but not by design. Here’s some background on the vetting process. One of several systems initially mentioned to us as having solid technical operations was Time Warner Cable, Greensboro, NC.

Following up, we heard strong reports on Raleigh, 70 miles east, and Charlotte, 90 miles southwest. Some 200 miles away on the coast, Wilmington was in the news for its role in an upcoming digital television (DTV) transition trial. Then we heard more about the role that Columbia, SC, plays in all of these interconnected properties.

No stranger, Columbia earned a Top Tier System award two years ago, largely for its prowess in testing and innovation. Since then, its network operations center (NOC) has morphed into a regional operations center (ROC). More officially, as Time Warner reorganized these divisions into a common region over the past year, it turned into the C (Carolina) NOC.

An insider who had visited this facility told us about its ability to pinpoint problems a state away and empower local teams to fix them preemptively. "No more wild goose chases!" he enthused.

Eliminating such chases – or errant truck rolls – is big. It’s the kind of success that feeds virtuous cycles of continuous improvement. It’s one reason why the Carolina Region got the nod this year. Network monitoring Admitting that the shift toward a regional structure is a "work in progress," Carolina Region Executive Vice President Carol Hevey nonetheless pointed to the CNOC as a success story.

"By pooling our resources and investing significantly in one location, we are able to create benefits for the entire region," Hevey stated in an email. "We have used the CNOC to refine our plant maintenance practices and make us much more responsive to outages. This has significantly improved our reliability and overall network quality and integrity."

Newberry, who previously headed up engineering in Columbia, said rolling out a single tool across the entire region was one of the ways that the CNOC has broken new ground.

"When we first started this a couple of years ago, there were multiple tools. Homegrown, invented in the garage, it was just everything," he said. "You could never get any consistency."

High on Newberry’s agenda was standardizing on a single platform, in this case, on the network service manager (NSM) from C-COR (now ARRIS.) Deployed across 95 percent of the region, that tool helps the CNOC accomplish two primary tasks.

The first is to drill down to root causes of problems in network devices. The second is to scour service calls to look for clustering and identify any common weak links. In either case, the CNOC’s analysts then guide system-level technicians working within 1-6 a.m. maintenance windows to address these issues.

"We try to fix those problems before we actually have to run a service call," Newberry said. "We cancel a lot of service calls that way." Workforce and powering A related step toward greater efficiency in technical operations came through standardizing on one workforce management platform.

As with network monitoring, each division in this region had managed its workforce in its own way. Given the tight links between the CNOC and the front-line technical staff, it’s not surprising that the Carolinas opted for a common tool, or one with hooks into the monitoring solution that powers the CNOC.

"We used ARRIS, or C-COR, because it interrelates with NSM very well," Newberry said.

The tool indeed does more than manage the mobile workforce. "All the scheduling is done through that," he said. But service technicians and installers can also "call and check on the status of a box (and) can do a whole house check."

One area that had already united the Carolina divisions was the common threat they annually face from severe weather. While flooding in the Midwest is a reminder that natural disasters can hit anywhere, Carolinians are certainly susceptible to high-category storms, and the privations they bring.

"Bad weather to us usually means a loss of power," Newberry said.

Here again, the regional approach has prevailed. "We’ve had a major emphasis in the past two years on standby powering. And not just standby powering, but monitoring at the ROC," he said.

Using data reported by Tollgrade and Cableware transponders, the regional command in Columbia has visibility down to individual batteries in a string. Combined with preventative maintenance, that adds up to greater network availability.

"We don’t have 100 percent standby powering. May never get to 100 percent," said Newberry, "but we’re going deeper every year." Trials, early adoption As for testing and development, Columbia is a well-known beta site for technologies initially tested by Time Warner’s advanced technology group (ATG). Less well known is Greensboro’s role as fast follower.

Among the services and technologies that have been trialed and then deployed in both Columbia and Greensboro over the past couple of years have been switched digital video (SDV), StartOver, LookBack and Caller ID on the TV.

Is there any explanation for this collaborative role with ATG? "They have a lot respect for the Carolinas, and we have a lot of respect for them," suggested Newberry.

The latest and greatest of this collaboration is SDV. The region already has deployed BigBand Networks in Columbia and Greensboro over the so-called SARA-C (the Scientific Atlanta-based, OCAP-compliant resident application) program guide. It is currently populating the Mystro Digital Navigator (MDN) in Wilmington, Charlotte and Raleigh and expects to have Cisco’s switched technology running in those divisions by the end of 2008.

The Cisco switched deployment is actually well underway. "It’s installed, integrated, and they’re bringing service groups online as we speak. Not in front of customers, but just making them live in the controllers," said Tom Gable, one of Newberry’s two vice presidents of engineering operations.

Any special challenges with the Cisco platform? "It’s not as baked as the BigBand implementation, but we’re very comfortable with the concept of switching in front of customers," Gable said.

As other MSOs continue to kick SDV’s tires and explore all-digital options, Time Warner presses ahead with what sounds in Gable’s words like a winning solution, at least for the near term.

"It works as billed – transparent to the customer, with the exception of the CableCard customer. Nobody really knows what’s switched and what isn’t. And it reclaims bandwidth, like it’s supposed to."

It’s worth rehashing just how much reclaimed bandwidth is on the table. Gable mentioned putting 25 high definition (HD) and some 100 standard definition (SD) streams into service groups of 800 tuners sized at eight quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) channels.

Let’s run those numbers. Total programming bandwidth mentioned equals 750 Mbps (25 HD x 15 Mbps + 100 SD x 3.75 Mbps). SDV narrowcast bandwidth amounts to 300 Mbps (8 QAMs x 37.5 Mbps). That translates into 2.5 times (750/300) as much programming. It’s a boost that, as we’ll see, thrills this region’s marketing team. Customer care The third criterion in this annual award, customer growth and satisfaction, serves as a reality check to all the others.

Regional Vice President of Customer Operations Dianne Blackwood strikes a measured tone when asked about the customer satisfaction. "We had very good results over the years," she said. "We’ve had our tough times, like everyone else."

Several indicators tip the scales in the positive direction. Not only is Blackwood is aligned with Newberry on the value of using network surveillance to "see what’s happening before the customers does," but her group also has harnessed technology in the customer’s service.

Along with NSM and the advanced agent desktop (AAD) developed by corporate IT, customer service representatives (CSRs) in the Carolina’s seven call centers have benefited from an interactive voice recognition (IVR) implementation, based on technology from Nuance.

"When our IVR answers the call, it does an immediate dip into our customer call information and NSM," Blackwood explained. "It confirms who they are and where they are calling from."

Beyond freeing customers from pushbutton inferno and resolving about 60 percent of all calls, the IVR serves a great teaching function, Blackwood said. The tool caught the attention of Time Warner Cable CIO Frank Boncimino, who sought to extend its benefits company-wide.

"That platform became an enterprise platform," Blackwood said.

Blackwood’s focus on technology that serves the customer is a valuable check on an unbridled enthusiasm for technology per se. "It’s not enough to innovate and promote your products and services," she said. "You really have to have a service organization that can back up not only the claims … but that really meets the customers’ needs." Advanced services That Time Warner – and the industry at large – has aimed to innovate is no secret.

"We’ve been in rapid deployment mode of new products and services for about five strong years now, and even before that with digital," said Regional Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales Brian Kelly.

Kelly, whose group earned Time Warner’s Region of the Year for Marketing and Sales, especially commends Newberry’s team for enabling more HDTV content. "Being forward-leaning on HDTV has been a real godsend on the product portfolio," he said.

That ramp-up predominantly, but not exclusively, followed in the wake of SDV rollouts. Another bump occurred right before last year’s holiday season.

"Carl (Newberry) added three HD channels in our non-switched markets, one of which was WTBS, carrying major league baseball," Kelly said. "Those additions came at the right time."

Regionalism to Kelly translates largely in terms of speed to market. As an example, he cites a competitively driven modification to high-speed data speed tiers on both Road Runner standard and turbo platforms.

"We were able to implement that across the entire region in less than one month," he said. "It has been refreshing to see how fast we can move."

In like manner, Time Warner offers multiple tiers of phone service – basic, in-state (both North and South Carolina) and unlimited nationwide – that benefit from a common, regional marketing platform.

Naturally enthusiastic, Kelly also reflects positive customer feedback. Take Startover. "The idea really gets them lit up," he said. Yet he shares Blackwood’s concerns for total customer experience.

"We’re constantly trying to innovate and impress our customers that we really do have their best interests at heart," he said. Serving business Speaking on background about Time Warner’s regionalization, some pointed to business services as a primary driver.

That’s as it should be. The time to delay firing up this high-growth engine has long since passed. And high growth it has been in the Carolinas.

"Double digit, year over year," said Bo Coughlin, regional vice president of business services. "We’re hitting our stride and doing even better."

Leader of a 300-person organization, Coughlin echoed his colleagues in emphasizing speed to market as a key advantage to regionalization: "We’re much more adept at realizing the competition and moving against it; whereas prior, because we had market-centric folks, it was difficult to roll things out quickly."

Among the vertical markets that the region serves, Coughlin listed government, education, hospitality and carrier. "We’re on a state contract. We serve a majority of school districts where we’re present. We do Verizon cell towers."

Regarding hospitality, as we learned two years ago when writing up Columbia, which also serves Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, hotel VOD is one of Time Warner’s niche specialties.

Overall, the service sector in the Carolinas looms large, including the small to medium sized businesses (SMBs) that are receptive to Time Warner’s business class phone service, which it launched in November 2007.

The day we talked, Coughlin mentioned a customer who had just ordered 100 lines over 12 campuses.

Coughlin said the primary goal is for customers to get the same services that they can from any telecommunications company, but to expect better. By better, he gave more bandwidth as one example and value-added services as another.

"We take care of the inside wiring," he said. "That’s a big deal to folks." Consistency, efficiency Is there a downside to the new regional structure? More travel for its distributed leaders sounds like one tradeoff.

More seriously, there’s the question of costs. It usually takes money and time and even some painful adjustment to standardize, whether it’s a monitoring tool or fiber practices or call center automation.

Of course, there’s no ROI without investment, and no reward without risk.

What’s appealing about this case is not only that Time Warner has indeed invested and taken risks, but also that this pooling of resources and standardization already is creating efficiencies, speeds and strengths. In a competitive market, those are absolutely the correct attributes to be cultivating.

For now, let’s let EVP Carol Hevey have the last word on the benefits – realized and promised – of regionalization. "Overall, I would say that the best success story we’ve realized with this project is that there is great strength in consistency.

"Our customers are too busy to take the time to ‘figure out’ what their cable company is doing, and our research shows that they are requesting simplicity and dependability from us. We’re now meeting their needs in a very efficient and responsive manner. That’s a great customer success story, and it’s going to be a great business success story for Time Warner Cable."

Jonathan Tombes is editor of Communications Technology. Reach him at Sidebar 1: Award Criteria and Winners Set by CT‘s editorial team, the criteria for the selection of System of the Year and Top Tier Systems include the following:

• A continuous push to upgrade and improve technical operations
• Innovation in testing and development
• High customer satisfaction
• Advanced service deployments
• Success in nontraditional markets

This year’s Top Tier Systems in include Insight Communications, Kentucky; Cox Communications, Greater Louisiana; and Suddenlink Communications, West Texas. Their stories will be told next month. Sidebar 2: Carolina Achievements • Established regional NOC
• Standardized tools and practices
• Spearheaded IVR implementation
• Tested and launched new video services
• Deployed (and deploying) SDV
• Hit high business services growth
• Won internal Marketing and Sales award Sidebar 3: Leadership Carl Newberry’s Regional Technology Team:

• Mike Connelly, VP HFC
• Tom Gable, VP Engineering Ops
• Pat Hourigan, VP Network Ops
• Richard Newcomb, VP Engineering Ops
• Rick Vance, VP Commercial

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