Powering up for the storm
Disasters have not changed much in the last five years. Hurricanes still snap lines, earthquakes rattle systems insensate, rivers flood over infrastructure. Cable operators have changed a lot in five years, however. Now that most are offering data services, and more and more are offering voice, it is increasingly important to do more than simply prepare for the power to come back on.
But another thing that hasn't changed is human nature. In the midst of, and then in the aftermath of disaster, we're all full of good intentions. But then we start evaluating the costs of generators and fuel, balance the cost of six batteries versus three, and then we realize we still have to pay for those eMTAs or those DVRs, and maybe we even start calculating the odds of getting hit that bad again.
And that may be the biggest reason cable operators across the country are generally under-prepared for disaster, says John Hewitt, vice president of North American cable sales at Alpha Technologies, a primary supplier in the cable power market.
The notable exceptions are systems in places like The Gulf Coast, the Carolinas, and Florida, where they've been hit over and over again by hurricanes. But systems in earthquake zones, tornado alleys, and blizzard areas? Not so much.
Few cable systems have generators on hand to keep themselves up and running. Part of the reason may be that operators still have a video mindset, and video isn't a "critical" service. Few people recovering from a disaster complain to their cable provider about not being able to watch "Deadwood" or "That's So Raven."
But people rely on their Internet connections for communications, and even if cable operators consider their voice-over-IP (VoIP) telephony to be a secondary line service, think about the potential reactions of customers in a disaster area when they discover the data and phone services they rely on do not work.
"High-speed data is key," notes Dick Rohm, engineering director of Cable One Inc.'s Northwest Division. CableOne has had to deal with a succession of hurricane outages in the Carolinas. "Wired systems are down, and wireless gets clogged–the Feds tie up the circuits all night. HSD was critical for people to get information to family members."
"Standby power is absolutely mandatory," Rohm continues. The company is deploying generators and fuel at all of its locations in the Carolinas. "With high-speed data, voice, even digital video, not having some kind of backup is a serious mistake. You'll lose customers to your competitors."
"You want to be in a position where you're prepared, where you're not the FEMA guy," Hewitt says, a reference to Michael Brown, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who had to explain the federal government's failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina.
Having generators is the safest way to ensure the continuing availability of power. Cox Communications typically relied on battery backup, but after several natural disasters, began to install generators to back up its cable systems. After the hurricanes in the Florida panhandle last year, Cox was the only service company that was up and running. "People noticed," Hewitt says.
All the better if generators are on site, but that may not be necessary as long as they're available in an emergency.
Comcast in Florida purchased hundreds of DC generators (homes run on AC, so DC equipment is less likely to get stolen). But now Comcast is developing at the corporate level plans not to put one generator everywhere it might be needed, but to put multiple generators in centralized locations so that they can be shipped wherever needed within a circumscribed area, an area defined by how long it will take to get the systems installed before battery life elapses. This approach also covers instances when generators fail.
The key question is how much battery backup is enough to provide a cushion to get power back on, whether through a repair of the power system or the installation of generators? Is it one hour or three? Or four? Or eight? There appears to be no definitive answer.
Telephone companies, by tradition, provide backup for eight hours, a number arrived at decades ago and based on a calculation of the maximum amount of time it typically takes to get a generator where it's needed and to clear a place for it.
Brownouts and blackouts, on the other hand, are apt to last no more than four hours, so is it necessary to provide eight hours in areas where the most likely problem is a power system overload?
Furthermore, cable operators have to ask themselves how much backup they can afford. Six batteries, at $100 each, is considered optimum for providing eight hours of backup. But can you get by with a minimum of three batteries?
The addition of voice services complicates the issue. Battery backup is necessary not only in the plant, but also for the eMTA in the home. What constitutes adequate backup there–1.5 hours? Four hours? Eight hours?
Another issue is status monitoring of power systems. Some consider status monitoring unreliable, but others, such as Cox's system in New Orleans, consider it critical to be able to keep track of system performance and reliability.
Mark Dzuban, now with VoIP specialist Cedar Point Communications, has a history that spans cable video, and at Bell Labs was involved with some of the earliest explorations into cable telephony. He observed the best-performing cable operations are the ones that provide telephony and have adopted the phone industry's zeal for availability and reliability.
Cable operators need to understand that they are now providing services people rely on, and have to prepare. Preparing is not that complex, Dzuban says. "Number one, understand what you have to do. Number two, you have to be willing to invest the money."