This year’s search for best practices led us to Time Warner Cable’s Carolina Region, the focus of our cover story last month, and to three more exemplars: Cox Greater Louisiana, Insight Kentucky and Suddenlink West Texas.
Although we use a common set of criteria used in canvassing the industry for a System of the Year (see last month), in this brief wrapup, we highlight several distinctive excellences.
Somewhat like Carolina in its regional aspect, Suddenlink West Texas is largely a case of building a region from scratch. Cox Greater Louisiana is a story of competition. And Insight Kentucky is a case of transition and a focus on operations. West Texas St. Louis-based Suddenlink surfaced for several reasons this year, one being a 50 percent increase in revenues announced in March.
Although that bump derived largely because of the properties acquired from Cox Communications in 2006, there were internal growth engines, as well. The addition of phone service to its offerings in 80 percent of its operating areas was one. Migration from the Aptiv to TV Guide video navigation platform was no small feat. As was its exploitation of fiber optics to connect heretofore isolated systems.
A showcase of that strategy was West Texas. While discussed in these pages last June, the story bears repeating. The spans between the region’s five main cities – Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland, San Angelo and Abilene – ranged between 120 and 180 miles.
Lease providers being scarce, the West Texas team, led Larry LaFreniere, VP of engineering and technical operations, and Omar Sandoval, regional director of engineering, opted to build its own figure-eight ring around these cities. The case leveraged ongoing plans to upgrade digital video at the headend and to exploit untapped opportunities in the carrier space.
"Instead of having to purchase five times the headend gear, we’ll just purchase it once and transport those signals all around the ring," LaFreniere said.
As for carrier sales, the team knew it was onto something big when inquiries about service began arriving during the fast-paced, eight-month (October 2007-May 2008) project.
Partnering with West Texas on the opto-electronics was Huawei, a Chinese manufacturer with gear that could handle the distances and was quick on the draw. "We’ve been very impressed with their ability," said LaFreniere. "The quickest turn-up was on a 145-mile leg, with no mid-span access. They turned it up in about three hours."
Configured as a unidirectional, counter-rotating protected broadcast video ring, the backbone has exceeded expectations. Up next are internal developments, such as a unique video on demand (VOD) deployment using Motorola B1 servers and SeaChange software. Greater Louisiana Cox Communications in Greater Louisiana was offered to us as a "dark horse" nominee this year. The expression was apt: This is an unheralded but competitive family of systems.
It’s a fighter who, along with its regional neighbors, has taken its share of blows. Three years ago Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hammered the Gulf Coast, but it’s fair to say that those trials strengthened Greater LA, which includes Baton Rouge and Acadiana (aka Cajun Country).
"Those storms challenged us in ways that we had never been challenged before, but they also revealed the depths of our commitment to our customers and our communities," said Sharon Kleinpeter, Cox vice president, governmental and public affairs, in Baton Rouge.
One outcome was greater self-knowledge of the network’s strengths and weaknesses, revealed just as the region was preparing to begin its Extensible Optical Network (EON) upgrade.
"Tech ops capitalized on the lessons and incorporated the learnings into the EON plan," Kleinpeter said.
The results have been demonstrable. The 18-month-long, spectrum and service-enhancing EON project concluded in March 2008, and first quarter, internal Cox customer satisfaction data placed Greater LA – and Lafayette in particular – very high in the rankings.
Sharing Cox’s overall strength in the telephone and business services, Greater LA is "breaking into the state (government) market" and has had "great success in the education markets," Kleinpeter said.
Among recent educational wins are deals in the Vermilion, St. Martin and Ascension Parishes, the latter being especially sweet because it was the home territory of Greater LA’s fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) competitor, Eatel.
Competition may new for this region, but adversity and excellence are not. Led by SVP and General Manager Jacqui Vines, with two key technical leaders–David Butler, vice president network operations, and Ron Zimmerman, director, systems engineering–the Cox Cajuns have more fights, and probably wins, ahead of them. Insight Kentucky Insight Communications is no stranger, having taken our Operator of the Year award five years ago (before we shifted the focus toward regions and systems).
Less well-known is the new Insight, the slimmed down MSO that emerged without its Illinois or much of its Indiana markets as a result of the dissolution of its partnership with Comcast; or the Insight where technical leadership now resides with Hamid Heidary, his predecessor, the popular Charlie Dietz, having retired.
Heidary added CTO to his title in April. For the previous two years, he held the title of executive vice president, central operations. His previous career included chief operating office at Iesy Hessen (a German MSO) and CTO of NTL:Europe.
What tripped the wire for us this year was not Heidary’s promotion, but rather evidence that he leads a team that very much knows what it is doing.
A year ago, PC World readers ranked Insight Broadband 10.0 ahead of its competitors in terms of overall customer satisfaction and both downstream and upstream speeds. In addition to its 10.0 (10 Mbps) service, the MSO offers a 20 Mbps download service and up to 1.5 Mbps upload.
Insight’s prowess in high-speed data is commonly known and attested by savvy users on at BroadbandForum.com, where Insight execs have been known to mix it up. As is clear by talking with Heidary, high-class performance is no accident.
"Two years ago, if you were to have asked what is the speed or experience of customers that get on the Internet to browse or do whatever they do, we hoped it was good, but had no way of knowing," Heidary said.
What it took to gain that kind of granular and widely accessible visibility was the combination of an off-the-shelf measurement tool and a homegrown database presentation interface. Add to that a tenfold expansion of its network operations center (NOC), the codification of hundreds of processes, and the use of PCs programmed to act like subscribers.
That’s the kind of operational sophistication that lies behind end-of-year Q4 2007 results that included 26 percent growth in high-speed Internet, 60 percent growth in phone, 18 percent growth in digital and – stranger yet to say – 5 percent growth in basic customers. Results from Q1 2008 were consistent with those numbers. Consider that they were achieved amidst a distracting corporate split, and you have our third example, another top-tier performance in broadband cable engineering and technical operations.
Jonathan Tombes is editor of Communications Technology. Reach him at [email protected].