It’s no secret that these are challenging times for the cable industry. While MSOs remain somewhat recession-proof (click here for recent Comcast revenue growth) they face increasing competition from satellite, IPTV and other video providers.
For testing and measurement (T&M) vendors, these challenges have presented new opportunities as developers have set out to find ways to help operators and other service providers save money and cut down on testing and training time.
As seen in recent earnings report from JDSU, for instance, its T&M business unit actually increased revenues by 5 percent over the previous quarter. (For the analysis by Light Reading’s Craig Matsumoto, click here.)
The cable industry’s transition to digital carriage has reaped plenty of benefits for operators. But the shift has also changed the T&M game dramatically, calling on a range of new technologies to accomplish testing goals that would have been all but impossible with analog.
"In some aspects [the switch to digital] has made testing easier," says Keith Hayes, vice president of network operations and engineering services with Charter Communications, "in others far more difficult. Analog video is very fault-tolerant to a significant degree, but digital from the customer end gives three states — perfect, intermittent impairment or completely gone."
As a result, Hayes says, troubleshooting digital systems can be challenging. When the customer’s signal is spotty, the cause could be the source, the uplink/downlink, the headend, leakage into the network or a range of other issues. This has required techs to develop new skills, including an understanding of both baseband video and MPEG systems in areas where analog and digital overlap.
And there is more to the complexity than just technical headaches. According to Pragash Pillai, Bresnan’s vice president of engineering and technology, the real issue is that testing standards have yet to catch up with reality.
"The challenge for us is that we can’t change the FCC requirements for leakage without the FCC making that change," he says. "We’ve updated our systems, but the FCC still needs to update its testing procedures." (For more on this debate, click here.)
Still, says Ray Thomas, principal engineer with Comcast, digital has its advantages, like the ability to directly check customer premise equipment remotely through the network.
"Software tools and CPE reports provide the ability to monitor the network to a greater degree than ever before," he says. "But the massive amount of data needs to be acted upon quickly, so that the tech actually doing the hands-on troubleshooting has access to it. This increased complexity results in a greater focus on maintaining quality performance from end to end."
Easing the process
With these challenges in mind, T&M vendors have focused their development efforts of late on making life easier for operators.
"We’re trying to focus on making our customers more productive," says Steve Windle, product manager with Indianapolis-based T&M vendor Trilithic. "And when they’re more productive, their costs go down."
To that end, Trilithic has introduced a range of automated testing tools, including a leakage detector that can locate and pinpoint cable leaks without any user interaction, designed to simplify the training and operations process for operators.
"A lot of times the installer isn’t the most experienced person on the cable tech team," Windle says, "so we wanted to shorten the learning curve. With these tests you just push a button and it runs the tests and tells you if it passes or fails."
Automated hardware like this also enables operators to verify that their technicians are actually running every test that they are required to run, helping to cut down on truck rolls and all the costs associated with future service calls to correct inadequate installations.
"The newest test gear I have touched is much more intuitive than just a couple of years ago," says Charter’s Hayes. "The displays give you the key info without having to hit several screens, the menus are simpler and they are lighter and appear to be more robust in general. This simplifies initial training but can lead to techs only knowing what measurement is acceptable but not the technology behind it."
The concern is that this kind of tunnel vision could prove problematic for operators when techs need to make adjustments to complex systems. Says Hayes: "If 15 dBmV is good then 25 dBmV must be better, right?"
Aside from automation, another established technology making its way into the T&M space is GPS, which allows users to not only pinpoint problem spots on their networks but also to route their testing staff for future checks.
"Everybody has a GPS in their car and a handheld navigation system now," says Ken Eckenroth with Cable Leakage Technologies (CLT), maker of the Wavetracker line of testing products, "but this technology has never been used in leakage. And it just makes so much sense."
His company has incorporated GPS tracking into its testing products by overlaying users’ network information with a digital mapping feature. The map can be then used to plot problem areas as well as keep tabs on where service technicians are working.
So what does the future hold for the T&M sector?
"We have things in the pipeline in engineering that are going to make things even less
complicated," says Trilithic’s Windle, adding that his company’s newest products are slated to hit the market within the next six months.
And, despite the drawbacks of set-in-and-forget-it testing, anything that helps operators manage their T&M operation more smoothly is likely to do well in this economy.
"Sure, leakage testing is something you have to do as required by the FCC," says CLT’s Eckenroth, "but really it’s an opportunity for the operator to do some demand and preventative maintenance. That’s always huge."
And these days there’s money at stake as well.
"When budgets get tighter, the bottom line is keeping your customers satisfied and happy," he says. "The way to do that is by having flawless VoIP and very robust Internet service. The benefits of testing are incalculable, and it’s an investment that comes back tenfold."