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A New Era of Testing

Sat, 06/30/2001 - 8:00pm
Angela Langowski, Associate Editor


To meet the demands of testing in the new world of converged services, manufacturers of test equipment are refining their products, and the very structure of their companies

As cable TV technology has advanced to the point where many MSOs are offering converged services such as digital cable, high-speed Internet and even telephony, test equipment manufacturers have had to reinvent their equipment—and in many cases, their companies, too—to make sure their equipment can help find and fix the problems that go along with new digital networks. The goal for test equipment manufacturers is to make the technician's job easier. That spurs research, development and even requires them to make predictions about future testing trends and needs.

While test equipment has gotten smaller and more sophisticated, the technician may not necessarily be better trained—so test equipment manufacturers have to make equipment that isn't too complex to operate but still provides the information the technician needs to troubleshoot problems. Companies have also had to add more functionality to their test equipment via software, so that instead of only doing one or two tests, it can now do several. Test equipment manufacturers also have to make sure the test equipment they design today will meet the needs of tomorrow and not become obsolete in the process.

"In the last couple years, the industry has taken this arabesque where it's become so complex and it has such bold visions now of where it's going to go in the future," says Jim Harris, instruments division marketing manager for Trilithic, summing up the challenge test equipment manufacturers have to face today.

ComSonics CyberTek Vision signal level meter

To be sure, several test equipment manufacturers have taken new approaches to develop digital test gear for an industry that's hyper price-sensitive; reinvented themselves through partnering with other companies or by adding software upgrades to their hardware; and made their equipment less complex for less experienced technicians.

Testing in a digital world

Over the years, portable test equipment has traveled the same path as other types of electronic equipment. Buttons have gotten smaller and softer, boxes have been miniaturized and made lighter, and designs have become more updated. As digital technology has advanced, so has the equipment to test it. Many devices now include a Windows-type operating system and a microprocessor that is equivalent to a Power PC.

Test equipment manufacturers like Harrisonburg, Va.-based ComSonics are working closely with MSOs to meet their new testing needs. The company sees the day when test equipment will be worn on the body instead of carried over the shoulder.

The company, which makes signal level meters and other devices, will introduce a test instrument later this year that can be placed in a vest pocket while the technician uses a head-mounted display to view the signals. Voice commands will activate testing and turn the unit on and off. The company came up with the idea for this product because it was under pressure to make its handheld equipment smaller and less complex for the technician to use. Dennis Zimmerman, ComSonics' president/CEO, believes this is the future for test equipment.

The skill set of today's technician has always been a concern, he says. "The industry has become more sophisticated, so as the technicians have improved, the technology is continuing to be out there a little bit further and move faster.

To help improve the techician's skill set, ComSonics has also begun putting tutorial information in its test equipment so the technician can learn from his equipment, while he is learning to use the information it generates.

Making test equipment less complex and easier to use is a theme echoed by many test equipment manufacturers. In fact, they even have a term for field technicians who may not be as skilled today, calling them "deskilled."

As equipment gets more sophisticated and does more things, it gets more complex and painful to use, says Harris of Trilithic. The company makes test equipment and test accessories for the HFC industry.

"It was always typical of an instrument maker or anything maker to find some genius way of doing it his way," says Harris. "What has happened in instrumentation, from Trilithic's point of view, is if it doesn't contribute to making the thing better, don't change it."

Trilithic is introducing more test equipment that is "virtual." The company recently introduced a test set that can do multiple tests and, more importantly, is upgradeable by software.

"(The test equipment) can be configured to think it's a modem, or a signal level meter or a leakage detector," says Harris. "It's a radical departure from using largely hardware."

Many test equipment manufacturers have had to alter their approach in order to change their devices from testing merely analog signals to testing digital as well. New tests that companies provide for in their equipment include reverse path monitoring and data management.

"In the past, we've had software that you could run on a PC and download data from your test set and save it, recall it, etc." says Mark Miller, product manager of Agilent Technologies. "It's becoming more important for the service providers to get at this data."

More test equipment manufacturers are coming out with equipment that can emulate problems technicians testing for digital data will find.

Spirent cdma2000 Automatic Test System

Spirent Communications' TAS (telecom analysis systems) division makes test equipment that emulates noise or ingress and other problems that develop on the physical layer. In the last six months the company has come out with both hardware and software enhancements to existing equipment to more rigorously emulate the physical layer.

"The new devices coming out that are going to be operated on the cable network like new cable modems and voice across the cable network are going to be pushing the capacity of the network," says Dave Garrison, development manager, cable line for Spirent Communications' TAS division. "Developers are going to have to better test their equipment before they try to deploy it."

Hodges

Tektronix Inc. sees customer requests for more centralized remote monitoring as another driver in the digital test market, says Eric Hodges, U.S. business development manager, video business unit, for Tektronix.

Spyros

"We need to provide a solution that will give a view of problems to the technician and provide an in-depth analysis of the problem," says Spyros Lazaris, worldwide business development manager for Tektronix.

Francois Abbe, design engineer for Snell & Wilcox, agrees that customer demand is driving certain aspects of the test manufacturing field and companies like theirs have had to customize what they build to meet that demand.

Spirent PocketDM handheld diagnostic monitor 

"There are greater demands for system solutions," says Abbe. "Our customers want a turnkey solution because they have to know how all their services are doing from the lowest to the highest level."

Reinvention of the test equipment company

The advent of converged technologies for test equipment manufacturers has also made them examine the future of their own companies. Providing test equipment for MSOs that can do more than one test function has also motivated them to come up with new ways to reinvent themselves, including partnering with other companies, switching from hardware-based equipment to software upgrades and even buying other companies for the test functionality they provide.

Portable test equipment maker Sunrise Telecom, located in San Jose, Calif., is one of the best examples of a company buying other companies in order to expand its test functionality.

In the past two years, Sunrise acquired Hukk Engineering, which makes portable digital and analog cable modem test sets. It also bought Avantron Technologies, a Canadian corporation which specializes in the design and manufacture of cable TV test equipment and performance monitoring systems.

Hukk CM1000 cable modem analyzer

"The customer needs test equipment that overlaps other technology, including data, telephony and cable modems," says Ralph Gerbasi, president of the Avantron division. "This motivates companies like Sunrise to combine with other companies to meet the converging demand."

Sunrise's acquisition of Hukk and Avantron allows Sunrise to share and develop more core competencies, says Chuck Almand, vice president of marketing for the Hukk division.

Gerbasi thinks test equipment manufacturers should further reinvent themselves by proactively catching problems before they happen because it helps keep MSOs' systems to a high quality of standards.

Acterna, formerly known as Wavetek, is another company that reinvented itself and extended its testing capability through acquisition of other companies, notably Cheetah Technologies. Cheetah is a developer and manufacturer of broadband network management systems for cable networks. Acterna was formed on May 23, 2000 from the merger of Wavetek Wandel Goltermann (WWG) and TTC, the communications test industry's second- and third-largest companies.

Acterna’s Stealth digital analyzer

The merger of the three companies was spurred by the idea of providing test equipment for service providers' converged technologies, says Kevin Oliver, director of product marketing for Acterna.

"From a marketing standpoint, Acterna understands what the operator needs and has also been working with other OEMs to test and develop new products," he says. The company has also been working with some of its customers on voice-over-IP trials.

Trilithic and ComSonics did some reinventing of their own when they created TriCom International, a company which manufactures and services test equipment for the international market. TriCom's goal is to produce a pipeline for product movement into international territories and service those products in the countries themselves, says ComSonics' Zimmerman. The company is currently doing business in South America and will eventually move into Europe and Asia.

Avantron’s AT-2000 RQ model

Besides partnering with Trilithic on TriCom, ComSonics also recently bought several service companies to give its service business a national presence.

John Kennedy, vice president of sales and marketing for Paramus, N.J.-based Noise Com, says his company hasn't changed for competitive reasons per se, but for its customers.

Noise Com, which was founded in 1985, has been serving the commercial and military communication systems testing market for more than 10 years.

Gazing into the crystal ball

Test equipment manufacturers have been meeting the challenge of helping MSOs evolve into offering converged services. They've had to make their equipment lighter and less complex to address the skill set of today's technicians; they've had to integrate several tests into one piece of equipment and give it the means for two-way communications and the ability to almost teach the technician; they've also had to acquire other companies to provide more test functionality and even partner with other companies to help meet the MSOs' needs.

Bill Moore of Comcast Indianapolis using Trilithic’s Guardian 9580 SSR.

But if test equipment manufacturers looked into a crystal ball and could predict what else would happen in their field, some of the things they mentioned included moving toward open platforms to encourage interoperability of individual test systems; evolving new measures of digital performance so that digital measurements can become as "comfortable" as traditional analog measurements; the onset of more performance based testing and helping MSOs drive down the cost of their equipment to provide converged services and reduce their truck rolls through catching problems before they happen.

"In the near future, digital content will be the norm, and test methods and equipment need to grow, not just to meet that challenge, but to make doing so economical and convenient," says Trilithic's Harris.

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