The times, they are a-changin,’ particularly in the world of RF test and measurement. Not too long ago, T&M was all about the instruments themselves – whose meter had which features and so forth. Not any more. The focus has shifted to systems integration and doing more with less.
"MSOs’ budgets are tighter than ever," said independent consultant Ray Thomas. "Cable operators are aware of the importance of their technicians having the appropriate test equipment to do their jobs. But nothing, including T&M, exists in a vacuum, and testing needs are balanced against needs in all other areas."
Given that time is money, tight budgets have in some cases shifted the focus away from T&M entirely. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.
"I can string a new line without troubleshooting it faster than I can troubleshoot it back and fix it," said Nick Segura, manager of quality assurance for Charter Communications. "We really believe in simple replacements, which you can sell the customer on much easier than taking a couple hours in the house."
All that makes life tough on the equipment vendors. In many ways, it’s forced a shift in focus away from the equipment itself and onto the cable operators and what they need most.
"The technical operations manager is the guy that’s responsible for buying this equipment," said Steve Windle, product manager for Trilithic. "I think it behooves us to make his job as productive and efficient as it can possibly be."
But that’s not always easy. Not all operators want the same things, and technology itself sometimes conspires against the vendors.
"The most challenging thing I see for us is keeping up with the velocity or the pace of change, providing field solutions almost as fast as they end up in the lab," said Rob Flask, product line manager, portable test equipment, for JDSU. "We’re often called upon to understand and anticipate the difficulties they’re going to find in the field before they actually deploy them."
Despite the challenges, the vendors are working hard to meet operators’ needs. Tying T&M, customer premises equipment (CPE) and back office subsystems together is one trend.
"As you begin to integrate those things together, that creates a business efficiency," said Ken Couch, director of marketing and business development for ComSonics. "It creates the real savings. It creates a better workforce. You’re able to react quicker."
Another trend is test data management systems, which gather data from field gear, store it, and generate various kinds of reports. They’ve been on the market for several years now, and most T&M vendors offer their own versions.
"(Cable operators) are finding that they can operate more efficiently and more productively because they can monitor the techs’ performance in addition to the plant or drop performance," Windle said. "Part of the deal with this is that it minimizes the probability of a return visit because the techs are held accountable for having done the tests."
The thing is, the systems are expensive, and not everyone likes them – or uses them correctly.
"People that go after it, they get the data, they actually find it very useful," Segura said. "But they’re really not likely going to bring the tech in and counsel him. It would have been better to just proactively go out and spend half a day in the field with their people a few times a week than to put a tool in place just to audit them."
– Ron Hendrickson
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