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Field upgrades

Mon, 06/30/2003 - 8:00pm
David Iler, Contributing Editor

Today’s broadband test and measurement sector is being shaped and modernized
by new technical capabilities, workforce integration and company consolidation

The traditionally blue-collar world of cable test and measurement is quietly undergoing a hi-tech makeover, driven by the move to greater operational efficiencies.

Although field technicians and installers won't soon be wearing suits and ties and communing with the elite digiterati when they show up for work, the equipment they carry and the data they collect are becoming more sophisticated, and more important to cable operators' bottom lines.

The proverbial stubby pencil and dog-eared notebooks used to record test and measurement data and signal-leakage levels are slowly being replaced by a new generation of devices and data-collection techniques sporting efficient Web browser interfaces that tie into server databases.

High-speed data deployments are driving this shift in test equipment, and data service installers are being asked to do much more than connect a modem with a PC. Simply put, "when they leave the house, the service should work," says Hung Nguyen, senior staff engineer for Time Warner Cable. Thus, in-house and contract data installers, he says, ought to carry some kind of test equipment to analyze the round trip on the return path.

Concurrently, with its plant upgrades completed, Time Warner is beginning to implement a workforce and network management platform across its divisions. Other operators are also moving toward workforce management platforms.

The desire to place digital signal analysis tools with workforce and network management functionality in the hands of field techs and installers has sparked the development of sophisticated handheld devices by the industry's primary test and measurement equipment manufacturers.

Devices that once simply tested signal levels for service activation are now equipped with cable modems to pass test information through the cable system, test the quality of the return path, interface with back office systems, automate work orders, archive test data, and perform other procedures. This puts customer service information stored on remote computers in the hands of field techs.

Both network management and workforce management "should be displayed at the user level, which are the technicians and installers," says Nguyen. Although the functionality has typically resided at the cable operator office or dispatch area, "we wanted it to display directly on the user's screen," i.e., information such as a map or work order corresponding to a problem in the network.

"Operators are very keen on a solution where one box has functionality that goes beyond test and measurement," says Raffael Gerbasi, VP and GM for Sunrise Telecom Inc.'s broadband division.

THE HANDHELD EVOLUTION

Moving beyond pure service activation, Sunrise Telecom's CM500 IP has been integrated with two workforce management systems–C-COR.net Inc.'s Mobile Workforce Manager (MWM) and Spirit Business Solutions' field service platform. These platforms turn the CM500 IP into much more than a DOCSIS test signal level meter.

Equipped with a workforce management functionality and a DOCSIS cable modem, devices such as the CM500 IP, Acterna Corp.'s DSAM-2500 and Trilithic Inc.'s 860 DSPI can send test data to a headend server that is connected to the network and is assigned an IP address.

These handheld devices can also be programmed to run through an automated sequence of measurements through a designated "hot button."

Sunrise has also added sophisticated digital video signal level technology into the CM500 IP, at the chipset level, making it capable of testing not only DOCSIS data functionality, but video signal strength and QAM modulation.

Further combining functionalities, another Sunrise product, the LP100, performs FCC-mandated Cumulative Leakage Index (CLI) report measurements, and can link wirelessly with the CM500 IP. This lets the installer of digital video and/or high-speed data services also perform CLI measurements during the same visit.

Acterna Corp.'s DSAM-2500 digital service activation meter was originally introduced "as an enabling tool to help operators deal with the mass deployment of cable modems," says Bruce Hembree, VP and GM of the company's workforce solutions division.

Hembree says that feedback from customers called for a system to ensure techs were completing all necessary tests.

The DSAM-2500 draws upon Acterna's TechComplete platform, which includes several components, including a field device management software (FDM) platform and an instrument application server (IAS), which allows access to back office system applications. The device also integrates with C-COR.net's Mobile Workforce Manager and MDSI Mobile Data Solutions Inc.'s Advantex mobile management workforce platform.

Browser-based software also helps with the integration with other applications. Through its FDM software, channel plans can be uploaded into the DSAM-2500, firmware revisions are managed, and test set options configured.

Enlarge Image
Trilithic, meanwhile, is leveraging digital signal processing and intelligent software. In April, the company added the 860 DSPI to its line of signal analyzers. Armed with an operating system that supports an Internet browser, the device not only sends data directly to a server, but can also operate as a server. The 860I can then be run remotely through a browser interface on a PC.

"We've left 860s in troublesome headends where problems occur late at night," says Jim Harris, director of marketing for Trilithic.

Trilithic allows custom programming of the 860 DSPI through a proprietary command set language, P32, which the company makes publicly available. P32 lets workforce management software companies with back office systems write their own test routines.

On the hardware side, the 860 DSPI is equipped with both a PowerPC processor and a digital signal processor, which digitize incoming data and give the device wide flexibility in the types of signals it can analyze. The 860I can serve as one meter for 16-, 32-, 64-, 128- and 256-QAM, as well as QPSK or any other world standard, says Harris.

WORKFORCE MANAGEMENT PLATFORMS

The common thread in these enhanced devices is a variant of workforce management platforms. The essence of these platforms is the linking of customer service and work order data, often generated, for example, by CSG Systems Inc. or DST Innovis Inc. (formerly CableData Inc.) applications, and stored on back office servers.

Garnering much attention because of its adoption by MSOs such as Time Warner Cable, C-COR.net's MWM has been integrated into Sunrise Telecom's CM500 IP, Acterna's DSAM-2500 and Trilithic's 860 DSPI.

MWM is a module of the larger Integrated Services Management platform, which Time Warner has adopted in two of its divisions, with more deployments on the way, according to Ken Wright, chief technology officer for C-COR.net.

The goal of MWM, he says, is to replace what is today largely a manual, paper-based system with a mobile, automated system that allows for real-time management of the workforce.

With techs transmitting data from the data terminal/signal level meter, a history of signal level readings can be stored to help with troubleshooting later on.

The larger Integrated Services Management product, says Wright, is a network operations center-type software platform that conducts network testing and root-cause analysis by constantly polling digital set-top boxes and cable modems to measure parameters such as received signal strength, return signal transmit level, received signal-to-noise ratios, and bit-error-rates.

When a signal is outside of a set parameter, the platform generates an alarm and pages a technician.

By tying into a customer management system, a series of power outages, for example, can be analyzed relative to the services, such as telephony, that are being delivered in a specific geographic area, thus easing response prioritization based on the importance of the service.

Mobile Workforce Automation system
C-COR.net’s Mobile Workforce Automation system.
Integrating test equipment with workforce management systems will help where it can likely matter most–in the field, notes Joe Rocci, group VP of broadband products for AM Communications, which has completed integrations with both Acterna and Trilithic.

Merging those workforce and network management functions is a huge trend that empowers those in the field and makes those technicians much more efficient, he adds. For example, the analysis can help to determine which nodes are contributing the most noise, isolate those sources, and tell the operator where to put its assets to eliminate the problem.

That trend also represents a paradigm shift in how information is disseminated. "It moves from a push technology [whereby] the NOC (network operations center) sends information to the field, to the field technicians pulling the information they need," Rocci says.

SPIRIT MEANS BUSINESS

Emerging from SAIC's dissolved cable work management unit last year, Spirit Business Solutions has developed a platform based on Microsoft's .NET Web services technology that serves as a "common conduit" between various back office systems, such as job and account information, and field technicians' test measurement devices.

According to John Christensen, president of Spirit Business Solutions, the platform and its Field Services Portal "provide technicians with real-time access with work orders and job-specific information," as well as routing, work-order distribution, field-measurement uploading, supervisor notification, customer account updating and schedule optimization.

The .NET framework lets Spirit's platform be specifically geared to Web browser applications for messaging and database/server access. Christensen notes that the platform also has the ability to tie into marketing data to provide techs with information to upsell customers in the field.

The SAIC work management product served as the basis for a proof-of-concept demo with Comcast Corp., and Spirit has been working with the MSO over the last year, focusing on new test devices and letting technicians in the field communicate in real-time with back office systems.

Spirit is in discussions with Comcast about deploying its platform at the division level. In May, Trilithic announced it would integrate its 860 DSPI with the Spirit platform. Sunrise's CM500 IP also supports it.

The trend toward browser-based tools is also extending into the signal leakage detection sector. Cable Leakage Technologies' Wavetracker platform is undergoing an evolution with the release this month of APLAS (Automated Positional Leakage Analysis Software) version 3i, a browser-based application.

The program includes an SQL database that stores leakage measurement data from the field. Wavetracker test receivers are equipped with Flash memory cards and, by using the APLAS 3i client software, techs can take a day's worth of data and upload it to a secure Cable Leakage Technologies server or to a server in the cable operator's office or headend. Each Wavetracker receiver is assigned a unique identification code so Cable Leakage Technologies' servers can recognize which cable system geographically corresponds to the data.

The new version will give flexible degrees of control over the FCC CLI reports that must be filed for each system, with different levels of password-protected access. If electronic filing of CLI reports becomes a reality, the platform will support the process.

As before, APLAS not only collects leakage measurement data, but also ties it to a GIS (geographic information systems) analytical engine that tracks everywhere the technician's vehicle has been during a leakage tracking exercise. With Cable Leakage Technologies' leakage tracking system, a pre-qualified channel is tagged with a 20 hertz tone and sent from the headend into the cable network. The Wavetracker receiver looks for that tone out in neighborhoods.

The APLAS software "gives the plant manager the ability to look at a visual representation of the entire plant," says Mike Ostteen, technical product manager for Cable Leakage Technologies.

Wavetracker receivers may also be programmed for "hot key" reporting of damaged pedestals, trees on cable lines, suspected theft, and other events encountered while techs are on patrol.

Movement toward a handheld form factor for combination measurement/data terminal devices has not meant that the ruggedized laptop platform, often used today to link from the field to the office, has remained dormant. For example, Tempo Research (owned by Textron Inc.), recently introduced a modular signal level meter, the VIP SLM, that integrates with the Panasonic Toughbook laptop. Using the same form factor as Panasonic Toughbook removable drives, the VIP SLM can conduct signal testing for DOCSIS modems as well as leakage and ingress measurements.

According to Jim Smith, broadband product marketing manager for Tempo, the VIP SLM/Toughbook combo lets users save test files in a format that can be transferred to workforce automation applications. The module also integrates with C-COR's MWM.

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