One of the greatest challenges facing MSOs is how to deploy data service systems quickly and cost-effectively in order to build revenue and recoup start-up costs faster. But if it takes a truck roll and a specialist to install every cable modem, how can deployment be either rapid or inexpensive?
TCA Cable TV, now a part of Cox Communications, met this challenge with an aggressive subscriber modem self-installation program and launched its cable data service in April 1998. (See "Mapping out a modem strategy," CED magazine, April 1998.)
After initiating its first cable data services in College Station, Texas, the only cloud on the horizon for TCA was a two- to three-week backlog because of the time it took to roll a truck for each modem installation. At first, installations were handled in the traditional manner by sending out a truck with two technicians who spent two to three hours installing and testing the modem. This time-consuming process limited the pace of the deployment and increased personnel costs. To speed things along, some customers were offered the option of installing the modem themselves. The first few people installed the modems so easily that self-installation soon became the standard, and the truck roll the exception.
The self-installation program has already paid off in cost-savings and time-to-market advantages. As of mid-September, the College Station system had signed up 12.5 percent of its subscribers for cable modem service (over 5,000 data subscribers out of 41,000 cable TV subscribers from 60,000 homes passed). And unlike most other systems that have reached double-digit penetration rates, College Station accomplished this without the need for additional truck rolls and installation personnel. "With self-installation, we added subscribers to the books faster, so we generated revenue faster and improved cash flow," explains Executive Vice President of TCA Communications Newt Farrar. "Self-installation is clearly the most efficient way to roll out services quickly." Customers win, too, because their service starts as rapidly as possible, and self-installation saves them the $75 fee for an installation performed by technicians.
Searching for ways to capitalize on the potential of self-installation to rapidly boost subscriber numbers prompted the organization of special events to sign up new subscribers en-masse and send them home with cable modems. For the College Station system, a one-day special in July offered new customers the first month of service free. This brought in 238 new subscribers, while a similar special in September netted 268 new subscribers in just one day. It would have been difficult to support such rapid expansion via time-consuming, expensive truck-based installations. A good measure of the self-installation program's reliability is the stunning success in retaining these new customers-there have been almost no service cancellations among them, to date.Self-starting service
To start service, customers need only a PC with an Ethernet network interface card (NIC) and a cable connection. Most customers already subscribe to cable TV service, so most installations don't require a truck roll to set up the cable wiring. Self-installation of the modems (TCA has deployed modems from Terayon Communication) is a simple, three-step procedure: 1) connect the TV coaxial cable to the modem through the provided splitter; 2) connect the included 10Base-T Ethernet cable from the modem to the PC's NIC socket; 3) plug the modem's power cable into the provided power supply and from there to an AC power outlet.
Partnerships with local computer stores to help subscribers choose and install a network card make things easy for customers who don't already have a NIC in their PC. Once the NIC and cable modem are installed, a few clicks in Windows 95 or Windows 98 via the provided self-installation software sets up the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), which allows the PC to grab its own IP address automatically. This ability to assign an IP address easily and automatically is a major reason for the self-installation program's success because it significantly reduces the time and effort necessary to configure a modem correctly for service.
It typically takes less than 10 minutes for most subscribers to install the modem itself (not including installing a NIC). "People spend more time unpacking the modem and reading the instructions than they do installing it," Farrar points out. The success rate for modem self-installation is approximately 80 percent. About 95 percent of failed self installations are related to old or substandard house wiring and the problems it creates. To keep customers happy, every failed installation is trouble-ticketed and a truck is rolled, as opposed to attempting to diagnose and solve the problem over the phone.The modem monitor
The key to the self installation program's success is the ability to verify that newly-installed modems are working properly and at peak efficiency. The verification software uses the database of managed objects provided by Terayon's management information bases (MIBs) to watch for new modems coming online and check modem levels. Existing database or new Traffic Contract entries tell the software what modems to expect online. When the software finds a new modem, it collects vital modem statistics via SNMP and sends an e-mail to the person or company that monitors the service. The software also evaluates levels, error rates, etc. The software continuously monitors all of the system's modems, counting sync errors, noting when the modem comes on line and much more, allowing operators to recognize problems almost instantly.
The Terayon system's synchronous-code division multiple access (S-CDMA) technology allows the modems to operate at a lower signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) level than other modems, so even if a plant's SNR should suddenly drop, customers retain some level of service instead of losing it entirely. "Terayon modems work in noise conditions under which other modems wouldn't function at all," explains Jonny Hinojosa, HSD Network Deployment Engineer.Business subscribers increase revenues
Self installation, while a wonderful time- and cost-saver for residential subscribers, won't fly with business subscribers, a key class of customers targeted when cable modem service was established. Because business customers pay more, they must receive a higher level of service, such as cable modem installation by a specialist. Business customers provide more revenue per subscriber than residential customers for the same fixed cost and are more likely to subscribe to enhanced services that generate extra revenue, thereby enabling faster recovery of deployment costs. Though business customers comprise just four percent to five percent of the College Station subscriber base, they generate about 10 percent of the system's revenue.
Businesses are only targeted in areas where residential service has already proven the local system's reliability and where solid partnerships with computer stores have been established. The company is encountering plenty of pent-up demand from small businesses looking for more bandwidth, a server connection, or a way to hook up more computers.
Most business customers did not previously enjoy network connectivity and are interested in a LAN product to support three or four computers. And although most business sites don't have coaxial cable already installed, the relatively low cost of implementation and service compared to ISDN or a T-1 connection convinces them the investment is worthwhile.
In addition to attractive pricing and high performance, cable modem service offers business customers several unique advantages. For example, a single modem can support multiple PCs, eliminating the need for the costly routers and servers required by T-1 lines. Business subscribers will also be able to increase the performance of their system on an as-needed basis. Using custom Quality of Service (QoS) provisioning software, subscribers will go to a Web page and select a higher system access speed for their modem(s), a feature that is planned to allow customers to upgrade their service offering themselves almost instantly. That can be a lifesaver when a company has to download or upload extremely large files today.
The modem system's QoS capabilities allow the selection of upstream and downstream bandwidth in 64-kilobit increments for each modem, which permits tiering.
Business customers can choose from four service tiers, with prices ranging from $200 to $1,000 per month. The lowest tier provides access for three PCs; then the price rises to more closely match the value of the service as customers add more PCs. Residential customers can choose from three service tiers: a $25-per-month service designed to replace the College Station system's dial-up Internet access business; and $50- and $70-per-month services that provide more upstream and downstream bandwidth.Unexpected benefits
Nearly two years of operational hindsight illustrates the benefits of this modem system. The architecture and advanced physical layer have resulted in numerous benefits, such as cost savings, faster deployment and fewer service interruptions. "The first benefit," says Farrar, "is that we can continue to provide service to customers, albeit at a less perfect level, while we fix a problem." The ability to provide service at less-than-perfect SNRs comes from S-CDMA's rate adaptive function. This compensates for fluctuations in system noise levels and enables data transmission at lower rates.
Environmental noise problems serious enough to take out an entire group of nodes have occurred, yet service has continued uninterrupted during repairs. "Being able to go into the system, turn down a configured signal-to-noise ratio and have it run at 10 dB-service is slow, but it's still running-instead of having to shut off service was beyond our expectations," says Hinojosa. "No one would expect anything to run at 10 dB." The ability to perform under noisier plant conditions also saved infrastructure costs because filters did not have to be installed. The system architecture also allows for a lower level of technical support compared to the technical support needs of dial-up service customers. Based on operational experience, cable modem customers only need about 25 percent of the tech support that dial-up modem subscribers typically require, which translates into a significant cost savings.
The system provided a few more unexpected benefits. "We didn't expect to have such easy access to the MIBs and be able to control the modem as much as we do," says Hinojosa. In addition to providing quick and easy control of the QoS features to facilitate tiered services, having extensive control over the modems offers the opportunity to use them as plant diagnostic tools. The headend equipment continually polls each modem to check its operational status. When it detects a problem, it automatically sends an SNMP error message to the system's technicians. In addition to alerting the technicians to problems in individual modems, this allows the technicians to determine when a node is malfunctioning by monitoring the status of all the modems supported by the node.
Rolling out cable data services has taught TCA several lessons that will help streamline future deployments. For example, equipment will be obtained sooner in order to check out plant noise more thoroughly, and give technicians the opportunity to get more familiar with the equipment. But the biggest lesson learned had less to do with the plant than with the communication infrastructure of the small towns where service is rolling out.
"These small towns have a very difficult time getting bandwidth," cautions Farrar, "so don't count on it until you see it." The problem is that some towns don't have T-1 lines or other large pipelines to connect the towns to other towns and to the Internet backbone. That means the bandwidth has to be installed before the masses can receive broadband cable services. "Other than cable plant rebuild," Ferrar says, "bandwidth has been the number-one delay for rolling out service for new customers. But we've learned a lot about plant set-up and knowing what we have to do to make a smooth deployment." n The author wishes to thank the following for their contributions to this article: Newt Farrar and Jonny Hinojosa of TCA, and Steve Levine of Terayon.