From disaster recovery to test beds to solid fundamentals and innovation, these three systems all hit the mark. Communications Technology’s annual System of the Year and Top-Tier System awards lead to special recognition at Cable-Tec Expo and coverage in these pages. Sponsored by Scientific-Atlanta, these awards are based on criteria set by the CT editorial team. Those criteria include the following: a continuous push to upgrade and improve technical operations, innovation in testing and development, high customer satisfaction, advanced service deployments, and success in nontraditional markets. The cover story in August featured Comcast Seattle, CT’s 2006 System of the Year. This year’s three Top-Tier systems are Cox Gulf Coast, Mountain Cablevision and Time Warner Cable, South Carolina. Their stories follow…. Cox Gulf Coast From Disaster to Test Bed By rebounding from natural disasters and seizing initiatives in telephony, interactive television and high-speed data, Cox Communications Gulf Coast has blazed trails both within Cox and across the industry as a whole. It may seem a stretch to refer to the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season. But the achievements of Cox Gulf Coast are better understood in light of their experience with Hurricane Ivan two years ago, which was a prelude to the natural disasters that Cox New Orleans and operators suffered last year in the wake of Katrina. These sequential disasters revealed the mettle of all those impacted. As for Cox, the corporate team in Atlanta underscored the heroic efforts of New Orleans and Gulf Coast by awarding their leaders with the Jim Robbins Helmsman Award for Leadership. The Gulf Coast leader, Vice President and General Manager Keith Gregory, was this award’s first recipient. The Pensacola News Journal published an article about Gregory, who described this award as the "hugest `Wow’" of his career, ironically on the same day that Katrina hit New Orleans (Aug. 29, 2005). Gregory’s team had set an inspiring example, indeed. Gulf Coast Vice President Marketing and Sales Dale Tapley recalls, for instance, the restoration of 260 miles of plant and 40,000 drops within 30 days. But what this system accomplished thereafter is no less significant. Voice, iTV and PCMM Opting to launch digital phone (instead of VOD) last summer, Gulf Coast leveraged Cox corporate telephony expertise to provide the triple play to its 167,000 basic subscribers, competing against Sprint in Ft. Walton Beach and BellSouth elsewhere. An internal document describes the take rate in the Sprint footprint as "astronomical." The deployment of voice solidly reinforced the efforts of Cox Business Services. As reported in the July 17 issue of sister pub Cable World, CBS General Manager for Gulf Coast Bernice Howard expects digital phone and triple play will lead to a 50 percent increase in commercial sales in this market. "Instead of our people working so hard to prospect leads, more companies are coming to us, happy they have a choice of phone providers," she says. Gulf Coast also established two corporate firsts: It was the first system to launch fully Cox’s interactive TV (iTV) service, and it was a trailblazer for Cox, and the industry at large, in its use of PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM) technology. The iTV service went live to customers earlier this year. "The beginning stages look like a Web home page," says Tapley. The service, which includes headline news, weather, local movie listings and email, is getting daily use from 25 percent of Gulf Coast digital subscribers. As for PCMM, Cox used Gulf Coast as the test bed for an improved method of giving high-speed data subs a preview of what a speed upgrade would look like. On the network side, this deployment involved cable modem termination systems (CMTSs) from Cisco Systems, operational support system (OSS) middleware from Sigma Systems and PCMM-based policy servers from Camiant. What this technology mix offered was a "more operationally efficient way" of doing speed previews, says Scott High-tower, Cox vice president of data product development. "It was not cost as much as a smoother process." Camiant VP Marketing and Business Development Ed Delaney describes Cox’s subsequent decision in May to roll this application out across its national footprint as more than a win for Cox and Camiant: "It’s a rousing vote of support for and validation of PacketCable Multimedia and the notion of policy." Camiant had announced a similar `TurboButton’ application with Buckeye Cablevision in January. Delaney distinguished the Cox application by calling it a "bulk upgrade of an entire tier of subscribers." Cable operators differ on which services to deploy over a policy server, but it only takes one application to get the PCMM ball rolling. Cox Gulf Coast, which overcame disaster to become a high-performing test bed, has shown the industry one way. —Jonathan Tombes Mountain Cablevision Carves Out Canadian Niche Like a rock climber chipping a foothold into a craggy cliff, Mountain Cablevision has built a solid, some might even call it rabid, base of subscribers in the midst of Canadian telecommunications giants like Bell Canada and Cogeco by taking the toll road to success. "The owners of this company have always believed in reinvesting the customers’ monthly payment back into the system," says Technical Director Bruce Marshall. That reinvestment covered the extra bucks needed to deliver a reliable fiber infrastructure; it covered the extra 12 percent needed to use triple-shielded drop cable everywhere instead of conventional coax; and it continues to cover the cost of maintaining a trained staff of veteran installers with the company. Customers seem to recognize the extra effort. Mountain Cablevision has received the Hamilton, Ontario, Spectator newspaper Reader’s Choice Award for the past three years as the area’s favorite Internet provider. 15-year-old decisions "I look back on some of the decisions we made 14, 15 years ago when we decided to do a system rebuild. We made some really good decisions," Marshall says. The best decision, he says, was to use the triple-shielded drop cable, which substantially reduced ingress so that a 40,000-customer network looks like a node and sets itself up for new services such as interactive TV, high-speed data and telephony. The second best decision was to use a backfeed design so there were no taps between line extenders. The third, of course, was to just use as much fiber as possible, building nodes down to 125 homes. "We made those early-on decisions, and people said, `That’s a huge waste of money,’ but looking back now, man, did we ever nail that," Marshall says. Mountain being a well-run company, employees stay on board and bring years of valuable experience to some odd situations such as the time when a veteran installer dropped a badly gnawed coil of coax on Marshall’s desk. Squirrelly business "’This is the seventh time I’ve replaced this drop in 10 years. Look what these tree rats have done to this thing,’" Marshall recalls the tech saying. "`You need to do something about this.’" Marshall—and his supervisors—had enough faith in the man’s insight to do something about it. In this case, Mountain asked its vendor, Belden, for something in a drop cable that would taste like liver, not lobster. Belden ended up custom manufacturing an aerial cable with a burial jacket on it. "We went through many iterations of Belden drop wire, and Belden really got it right, too," he says. "That’s something else that’s withstood the test of time; that was a very good decision we made." Marshall, who’s active in the SCTE, says his bosses have made the right move over the years sending Mountain techs to both regional and national SCTE events. There is generally a large contingent at Cable-Tec Expo and more than a few at the Conference on Emerging Technologies. "Thank God the owners of this company are willing to make that investment in people’s education and professional development," he says. "We come back, sit down, brainstorm and decide the things we’re going to be doing." Such as being one of the first operators to do digital-analog simulcast and to use unsolicited grant service (UGS)—a part of DOCSIS that was being overlooked by other operators and vendors—for the incredibly popular telephone offering it launched a couple years ago. "Where we’re at with our telephone service, in some ways this is rocket science; nobody has done this stuff before," Marshall says. The innovation, the investment and the hard work have led Marshall to say, without being immodest: "We have a reputation in the community for doing a pretty good job." —Jim Barthold Time Warner Cable South Carolina This past year isn’t the first time that Time Warner Cable’s Columbia-headquartered South Carolina division has risen to prominence. Five years ago, Columbia was the site of Time Warner’s launch of subscription VOD. The challenges of configuring the digital video network to handle what proved to be surprisingly high peaks of demand for S-VOD sound almost quaint today, in light of subsequent and increasingly complex waves of technology, but the point is that the technical team in South Carolina is known for its problem-solving capabilities. That is not so say that other Time Warner Cable systems don’t measure up. Especially in terms of video, Time Warner has been innovating at system after system, all the while completing its nationwide rollout of digital voice and maintaining the high thresholds for technical operations that telephony demands. In San Diego, for instance, last summer Time Warner launched a trial of "Broadband TV," thus proving that cable could deliver Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) without breaking much of a sweat. Texas continued to be a hotbed of innovation. Austin, the site of a path-breaking trial of switched digital video four years ago, was one of several systems that this year deployed an interactive application enabled by software from BIAP Systems and tied to NBC programming of the Olympics. Other markets included Corpus Christi; El Paso; San Antonio; Waco, Green Bay, WI; and, naturally, Columbia, SC. Time Warner trialed caller ID on TV in Rochester, NY, appropriately enough, the system that first tested circuit-switched telephony 13 years ago. In Portland, ME, where the MSO first launched digital phone three years ago, as well as in Austin and elsewhere in Texas, the MSO put several advanced VOD platforms through their paces, with the Waco TX deployment taking place in record time. Start Over started here Apart from "Broadband TV," Columbia has been either a test-bed or early adoption site for most of these technologies. Its trial and launch of Start Over TV, a time-shifting technology with origins in Time Warner’s Mystro TV initiative, however, is what sets it apart. Like S-VOD four years earlier, this service hit the mark in South Carolina. "We have received more positive feedback from customers on Start Over than any other product launch in recent history," says Mike Coral, Time Warner regional director of network operations and previously director of operations for the South Carolina division. Recipient of the C-COR-sponsored Star of Integrity Award at this year’s SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies, Coral says that key enablers of this deployment were the move toward a centralized network and "top notch" support from Time Warner’s Advanced Technology Group (ATG). Coral adds that the structure of the South Carolina division, which also includes Florence, Summerville and Myrtle Beach, makes it a good place to trial new technology. "We are able to test, with minimal or no disruption, to small portions of our customer base," he says. "Once we’ve had success in that area, we can easily expand to other areas in the division." Much like any high-performing system, Columbia is known for its sound fundamentals. Without the basics, of course, a system can hardly expect to serve as a test site; nor could it succeed in the demanding arena of business services, as has Columbia. Time Warner Cable Senior Vice President of Commercial Services Ken Fitzpatrick says Columbia’s clients include Caldwell Banker (14 regional sites), a county government (nine sites) and the Carolina Winds Resort and Laguna Keyes condos in Myrtle Beach. As for maintaining an efficient, high-performing network, Coral offers several keys: "Monitor to be proactive. Perform routine maintenance and continue to stay in tune with new technology. Educate your employees for the future." —Jonathan Tombes

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