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Harnessing power

Wed, 04/30/2003 - 8:00pm
Craig Kuhl, Contributing Editor

MSOs grapple with their battery back-up and bottom line needs

The trend toward cost-efficiency and the savvy management of power in today's sophisticated, powerful cable networks isn't a trend any longer. It's a reality. And that reality is sparking a new mentality among power management companies, battery manufacturers and cable TV multiple system operators as they pursue the ultimate prize of achieving greater network reliability while enjoying reduced maintenance costs and palatable capital expenditures.

New technologies and methods aimed at efficiently managing the thousands of batteries that sit silently waiting in rebuilt and upgraded cable systems are surfacing. The missions include extending battery life, reducing the pesky maintenance costs associated with visiting outdoor equipment cabinets, and providing a level of reliability desperately needed in the fiercely competitive world of video, voice and data.

With many cable networks already rebuilt, the focus now is on reducing the costly maintenance and management of systems that have battery-powered standby systems built in them, while increasing the reliability of these expanding networks that were built to generate new and incremental revenue sources, experts maintain.

Those pressures are prompting a growing number of manufacturers to not only build better, longer-lasting batteries, but bless them with long-term warranties–in some cases up to 12 years–while introducing creative new ways of managing and maintaining thousands of batteries and orchestrating a consistent source of power.

Paul Humphreys
Humphreys
"There has been significant upgrading of networks to provide the triple play, and consequently, it has meant a need for more power," says Paul Humphreys, vice president of marketing for Alpha Technologies Inc., a provider of power-related products. "Now, the emphasis is on ROI (return on investment), system functionality, reliability and maintenance, and not on the upgrade. There's definitely been a shift to more power equipment and products."

That shift is generating a number of creative powering strategies and next-generation batteries for standby power. "Some MSOs are moving toward 'local powering architectures,' which use utility power during regular operation and switch to battery back-up if a power outage occurs. Others are going with a 'network-based powering' architecture, where the MSO places centralized infrastructure that provides power to homes via a power passing tap," explains Linnea Brush, senior research analyst for the Darnell Group.

Whichever the case, cash flow and ROI are now getting the attention of the battery and powering communities. Says Humphreys: "Operators want (powering) products that will improve reliability and reduce maintenance costs and there's a big effort to demonstrate cash flow. They don't want to tie up a lot of expense and they want to generate revenue now from added services. We have to support that mandate from MSOs and not get in their way."

Alpha and others in the network powering business are claiming 30 percent to 40 percent increases in battery life, and in regions with mild climates, up to 75 percent. Warranties are spiking to 15 years and a host of creative new maintenance and management programs are flooding the battery-power and management spaces.

Yet even with all the compelling data being compiled by battery manufacturers and power providers on creative new battery management programs, reduced maintenance costs and longer battery lives, many believe most cable operators are tip-toeing into the new reality of battery power and management.

"When you tell them (cable operators) they can cut electricity and labor costs, and reduce maintenance costs by 75 percent, they usually roll their eyes and say they have bigger issues. They assume all batteries are the same," says Tuck Mixon, director of marketing for DayStarter North America, a manufacturer of standby batteries using a vented design and electrolyte in a liquid form, a breakthrough technology the company says will reduce electrical costs by 20 percent and increase battery life to 15 to 20 years.

The assumption that all batteries are the same is challenging power solution companies such as American Power Conversion to adopt support and service strategies to complement their advancements in battery technology. "Cable networks were not originally architected to be highly reliable. Now, they have to be as available as telephony networks, and that's tough. We have to adopt our strategies for that, and standards will help," maintains Ed Bednarcik, vice president of American Power Conversion Corp. (APC).

APC recently deployed its InfraStruXure power management architecture in Time Warner Cable's New York system to support video-on-demand, and for Cox Communications. For a serious breakthrough into the new era of power management, however, he insists a more standardized approach is needed.

"Cable MSOs must add value to their dollars, and standardization will be crucial in driving down costs. We're seeing real changes in how MSOs are distributing power at the headend, but the key is opening up new opportunities for local and distributed powering and lowering the total cost of ownership for power. If there are standards, then it works. If there's a closed, proprietary environment, it gets real expensive and scalability becomes very difficult," Bednarcik says.

Difficult or not, more battery and power management companies are sprouting up, each touting their batteries and battery management programs as a crucial addition to the future power needs of the cable industry.

For example, EnerSys Inc. has developed a valve-regulated lead-acid battery priced at $460 with a design life of 15 years, which the company says will "provide significantly better value and improved return on investment." It is also pushing a new battery system which it says will stretch battery life to 20 years.

Modular Energy Devices Inc. is producing large Lithium-ion battery modules "at reduced prices and with four to five times the energy in similar volume as valve-regulated lead-acid batteries," says K.M. Abraham, vice president of Modular Energy Devices. And, Generac Power Systems has entered the market with multiple generator sets which it says cost 10 to 20 percent less than large, single generators. And the parade of battery/power manufacturers and management companies goes on and on.

A shift in just how batteries are purchased and managed is going on as well. OEL Worldwide Industries is breaking new ground with an offer to sell power to cable networks as a metered unit of power, eliminating the cost of batteries and the time-consuming maintenance baggage that accompanies them.

"For years, power was so fragmented. Batteries failed at different times and were very inefficient. We had to think differently about that. So, why not just buy the power through a lease agreement? It replaces the process of buying batteries and battery installations can be by turnkey or by internal maintenance. Operators can retain a level of control and be out of the battery business," says Larry Dyer, president of OEL Worldwide Industries.

The battery/power leasing option requires an agreement for a fixed period of time. The battery manufacturer performs a power requirement study and evaluation of the projected life of the batteries and divides the purchase price by the projected life of the battery.

The battery company then provides new batteries for installation throughout the system. The contract can include maintenance guidelines for the batteries, which are all installed at the same time, allowing the accounting department a fixed overhead monthly payment.

Rates are determined much like insurance rates. Explains Dyer: "We look at the actuality of regions and their environments. We want to plan no more or less than current backup power systems, and it can't cost more than their current battery purchasing agreements. If we can't do that, we won't be doing this."

He believes the leasing agreement program can work, however. But not without some inherent challenges. Admits Dyer: "We have to convince operators this is the way to go to eliminate warranty and internal issues like maintenance, management and accounting costs. Those are huge issues for operators. This is new thinking and it's built around the flexibility and needs of the cable operator. It can simplify the battery/powering process and be turned into a line item expenditure."

Before that happens, however, many admit there is a lengthy educational process ahead to better understand the nature of batteries themselves, and how they interact with sophisticated new networks. "Frankly, lots of cable companies didn't know much about batteries when we deployed our Alpha Cell batteries. We've looked at lots of new technologies like fuel cells, but batteries are absolutely necessary for network power. We have to focus on educating the cable industry on a deeper level about batteries," says Humphreys.

Just how deep that education goes will likely determine the extent of the new reality of battery/power management, experts say. "Companies must understand how to manage batteries, and until they understand how lead-acid batteries work, a battery management program won't work," insists Dave Hebert, vice president of operations for Supply Performance Testers Inc., a power management and consulting firm.

The purchasing, management and maintenance of batteries isn't exactly a cable operator's prime revenue source, and most agree it's an overlooked and certainly underappreciated function at cable networks with the "it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it" tag.

Without it, however, there is no network. "Systems with mismanaged power supplies usually have a 30 percent failure rate, which means CSR involvement, truck rolls and 'firefighting overhead.' That translates to poor reliability and cost inefficiencies, along with less customer service. Some companies have figured this out, but most haven't. And costs are increasing because they don't understand batteries or how to manage them," maintains Hebert.

Throwing a flock of new batteries at the problem won't cut it, Hebert says. "Six- to seven-year-old batteries can still work fine in some regions, while others will last only two to three years. Systems that don't understand batteries will replace them with new ones every two to three years and implement a status monitoring program. But that is very costly. That's why understanding batteries and implementing a quality management program is essential. Because if an operator can't tell you what their failure rate is, they're not managing their battery power system," he adds.

Maybe so, but a growing number of operators are jumpstarting their battery management programs, and none too soon. Concludes Hebert: "The message is sinking in that these batteries must be managed more efficiently, and when that happens, the overall reliability and cost efficiencies of a network improve."

Mixon concurs. "Some MSOs are very diligent about their battery purchasing and management programs. But the cost of a battery with a three- or four-year lifespan can't be ignored. The biggest issue for us now is inertia. We have a relatively new product, and operators are focused on rolling out new services and moving slowly and cautiously. Another hurdle to overcome is the resistance to using liquid batteries. There's just a complacency about the old gel-style battery," he notes.

For today's cable networks to function efficiently, and with the high reliability expected from them to generate and distribute balanced power across a network to provide triple play services, complacency can't be on the power radar screen, experts contend.

Valere Power’s integrated system
In fact, intelligent management of the new era of batteries that can live for 15 years is likely to gain momentum as a high priority for cable operators. "The top priority for operators is dealing with the capital crunch and the sluggish economy, and sometimes, DC power issues don't top their list. Our challenge is to bring this growing issue to them and show we can solve it," says Al Cioffi, vice president of business development and product management for Valere Power, a company with a patented DC power conversion technology.

Valere and Avestor, a company that produces Lithium-Metal-Polymer (LMP) batteries, will co-market through a non-exclusive agreement Valere's DC power technology and Avestor's "smart" battery, which is equipped with an internal device to control its internal temperature.

The issue of cost efficient, reliable power management is inspiring a gaggle of new technologies, battery management solutions and extended-life batteries. It's also creating a new reality among both the cable and battery manufacturing industries.

One of those new realities may include an outside-the-box leasing agreement, new generation battery or simply a more diligent and wide-ranging battery and power management effort on the part of cable operators.

For cable operators to get real about their power management, experts conclude that at least one of those has to happen.

E-mail: craigakuhl@earthlink.net

 

Icing on cable's cake

Power outages come and go, but on a recent icy Sunday morning in Lexington, Ky., the outage stayed around awhile.

For 10 days, many of the 120,000 residents of Lexington were without power, including most of the 83,000 customers of Insight Communications.

The storm laid down a two-inch thick sheet of ice, wreaking havoc throughout the city and causing widespread phone and cable outages. There were 11,000 drops down during what the locals termed the "perfect ice storm."

Not only was the storm fierce in its intensity, but for Insight, it was especially ill-timed. The multi-service company was in the midst of a massive upgrade to telephony service, of which just 25 percent of the construction had been completed.

"About 75 percent of our system had traditional power supplies with battery standby. The areas with generators as back-up power supplies caused very few problems. My life would have been a whole lot different if we had been 100 percent upgraded. At the four-hour mark of standby power for outages, you couldn't print what I was thinking," recalls Winston Boggs, technical operations manager for Insight Communications of Lexington.

Insight employees worked around the clock to provide portable generators–powered by either natural gas or propane–to keep the network up and running, and were housed in hotels and provided meals by the company. "It took two to three days to fully comprehend and evaluate the magnitude of the storm and the damage it caused. We just didn't know where the power was out," Boggs says.

They did know where the city's backup generators were, though. Adds Boggs: "We were securing as many generators as we could and our first concentration was taking care of the telephony customers; then we looked at routers and cable modems. I became a big believer in generator power backup after this storm."

Boggs could immediately determine which of the power supplies were for the 2,500 telephony customer upgrades. "The natural gas generators automatically kicked in and did what they were supposed to, but it was all we could do to get portable generators to the plant. The worst thing was knowing we wouldn't be able to restore cable service to everyone. But our people really pulled together," he says.

Including an Insight senior VP. "He was in the field delivering generators and got covered in mud trying to push a truck out of the mud. I think we put in six months of field work in three weeks. Now, we look very closely at forecasts for ice storms," Boggs says with a laugh.

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