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Cable: Act, Don't React

Cable companies are no longer just TV programming suppliers. They are mega-utilities, for visual, text and spoken communication.
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Written by Tom Steinert-Threlkeld on

Cable companies are no longer just TV programming suppliers. They are mega-utilities, for visual, text and spoken communication.

And when service goes out, you’re not just cut off from entertainment in the living room, you’re cut off from work and friends. The question becomes, very quickly, how will your utility company respond?

This post to Between the Lines, for instance, was put in limbo, until service from Cablevision, which is one of the two main communication utilities in the New York area, was restored in a process that took more than 22 hours.

Thankfully, the Steinert-Threlkeld household is a Verizon Communications customer, when it comes to wireless service.

Because, otherwise, we would never have been able to report the problem to Cablevision. And, by all appearances, it takes more than one squeak to get the wheels turning and service restored.

Here’s the situation, which more and more Triple Play -- TV, phone and Internet -- customers are going to face, at one time or another.

On Tuesday evening at about 9:15 p.m., a storm blew through Fairfield County, Connecticut, and took out connections in Weston, New Canaan, Stamford and Greenwich. Yes, it was an Act of God. But it took more than one Act of Mammon to get service restored.

Cable "node" hit by lightning, in Weston, CT.

After 12 hours waiting passively for service to be restored, one member of the Steinert-Threlkeld called to report the outage, the next morning. Nothing seemed to happen.

Two hours later, another member (yours truly) called. The phone lines were so overloaded, the recorded message on the voice response system that was delivered said that no more messages were being taken.

Two hours later, yours truly tried again and got through to a live human being. Now, let it be said, Cablevision’s customer service personnel are proactive and upbeat, relentlessly. This has been the case in the seven years we’ve been customers.

But that was 1 p.m. Service didn’t get restored until 7:30 p.m., after multiple calls and a clear message to field staff that there was a “VIP” household in this neighborhood. In my last magazine stop, I was editor-in-chief of Multichannel News, the cable industry trade bible.

By that time, the field technician in the bucket above the intersection of Old Farm Road and Osborn Farm Road had been on the job for the entire duration, catching not one wink of sleep.

It takes two (buckets) to fix this 21-hour-old problem.

Which is admirable, but also indicates that these mega-utilities may be understaffed for outages that are, when they occur, every bit as devastating as a power outage, if you’re in a knowledge-worker family unit.

What else can be the case?

According to Cablevision, only "a small number of customers experienced isolated power-related service disruptions” as a result of this storm.

Yet its technical staff was clearly stretched to the limit, or our household wouldn’t have gone without service for nearly a full day. After all, Cablevision is one of the best-run of these new mega-utilities. From its Network Operations Center on Long Island, it communicates with millions of two-way devices (digital set-top boxes, cable modems and the like) at all times, to figure out where there is damage or loss of service and respond.

But there still seems to be no substitute for the repeated call to a customer service number to actually get service.

This is somewhat surprising and certainly discouraging, given the technologies that can be brought to bear. This family unit didn’t call for 12 hours on the simple assumption that Cablevision would have systems in place to identify, address and fix the outage on our street, within 12 hours, without any one of the four people in our house having to call.

After all, Cablevision is a customer of Scientific Atlanta, now absorbed by and rebadged as Cisco Systems, the sine qua non of broadband networking.

Cisco markets a network monitoring application called Pointer that is specifically designed to quickly identify points of failure in a cable network and limit truck rolls, in response. The “point” is to find exactly where in the network a problem lies, to maximize the number of homes restored with the each response. Not to respond, one at a time, to customers’ calls.

Yet to date, only 25 out of the 270 or so cable markets that Cisco Systems serves in this country have put Pointer in place. Calculating the return on improving “mean time to detection” or reductions in frequency of repair, is a tough sell, says Ron Ronco, senior manager of product management for SciCare Services inside Cisco Systems.

Another vendor of broadband monitoring software, Arris, has a similarly dyspeptic experience in trying to get a proactive means of addressing outages and degradation of service installed in cable networks, worldwide.

It serves 10 different cable operators and its ServAssure software analyzes quality of delivery to probably 22 million households or so, most in the U.S. and many belonging to the No. 2 cable operator in this country, Time Warner.

But Bob Cruickshank, its vice president of operations and business support strategies, says operators are still largely reactive when it comes to outages. Not proactive.

That is to say, they wait for the customers to call. When they could fix the problem first and avoid the call altogether.

Which means, to me, cable operators should not expect to sell a “quad play” to its customers.

The most vital communications service that is clearly lacking in the mega-utilities’ expanding arsenal is a mobile service of any serious sort.

That’s just as well. If this household also had its wireless phone service with Cablevision, there would have been no way to call in its problem in the first, second or third place.

And 22 hours would have been just a starting point.

Because, reading between the lines, an unheard problem still is an unaddressed problem, from a utility standpoint.

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