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The Fourth Annual Pacesetter Awards

Sat, 06/30/2007 - 8:45pm
Brian Santo, Editor

Execs from Cablevision, Charter, Cox and Sunflower showed how to get it done.

CED announced the winners of its Fourth Annual Pacesetter Awards on June 21, at a reception at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo. The Pacesetters recognize individuals at cable and other broadband service providers who have taken leading positions or innovative first steps with advanced services, applications and technologies.

We introduce you to the 2007 Pacesetter Award winners.

Guiding the way in 2007

BUSINESS SERVICES

  • Ed Francois VP Cox Business Services, Cox New Orleans
Ed Francois
Ed Francois

The recipient of the Pacesetter Award for Business Services is Ed Francois of Cox Business Services, Cox New Orleans. Francois is being recognized for the extraordinary efforts he and his colleagues have made in providing business services in a city that is still reeling from Hurricane Katrina nearly two years after it hit.

When Katrina hit, most other communications systems failed entirely, and were not restored for months. In many areas, cable service either never went out or was quickly resumed.

Francois, who had spent much of his career on the telco side, joined Cox right after the hurricane explicitly to help rebuild. “It was like a Greenfield opportunity. It was a rare chance to rebuild a brand new city.”

Fiber was virtually impervious to water, he said, while copper had to be ripped out and replaced. That gave Cox a distinct advantage. In the area, the vast majority of businesses are small or medium-sized, and they all needed to restore communications.

Francois and his team literally went door to door in business districts selling services. “We’d walk down the street,” Francois said, “and if we saw a ‘cash only’ sign, we knew they had no phone service, because they couldn’t take credit cards. We walked in and sold them.”

Small businesses are accustomed to T1, and Cox was able to provide it, through Vyyo. “We’re using Vyyo as a means of extending HFC. Vyyo gives you T1 emulation. You can sell that without necessarily having to build fiber, which can be very expensive,” he said. With 3,500 route-miles of HFC, Cox Business can reach almost any customer, Francois said.

The reputation for reliability Cox Business Services established in the aftermath of the disaster has helped the company succeed not only with local businesses, but also with local and state government offices.

The business opportunity may have been whipped up by Katrina, but the hurricane is still far, far from a blessing. Francois estimates about a third of his staff are still dealing with the consequences of the disaster, fighting with contractors and insurance companies, many still living in FEMA trailers.

Francois expressed amazement that despite all the frustration Cox employees have in their own lives, they all deal with the frustrations of the public with patience and understanding – and that’s helping Cox to succeed.

“I hope never to be tested in that way, but if I am, I hope I’d have the same stamina and fortitude,” Francois said.

The Pacesetter Business Services Award is sponsored by Vyyo.

ON-DEMAND ADVERTISING

  • Patrick Knorr President, Sunflower Broadband
Patrick Knorr
Patrick Knorr

Patrick Knorr, president of Sunflower Broadband, has been a pacesetter for some time. This is merely the first time he’s received a slab of glass for it, with the Pacesetter Award for On-Demand Advertising.

Sunflower’s dynamic VOD advertising business may be a first of its kind worldwide, certainly the first for an operator its size – about 30,000 subscribers.

Sunflower engineers worked with SeaChange International to set up the ability to provide targeted advertising. The most difficult job in rolling out the feature, Knorr said, may have been the effort the company’s advertising department had to make to sell the ads.

For about a year, Sunflower has been doing targeted advertising in local programming – largely sports and news, for a total of about 15 hours a week.

Now, he said, Sunflower’s advertisers see a clear benefit. “The advertisers just embraced it with both hands,” Knorr said. “It was like giving water to a man in the dessert.”

The volume isn’t there yet, largely because the networks have yet to participate. The networks might not be participating because there might not be enough of an audience, since the largest MSOs aren’t doing targeted advertising yet on a commercial basis.

There may be a chicken-and-egg element to the development of the targeted advertising market on the macro level, but the results at Sunflower are nothing but positive.

“We’re seeing the cost per thousand for local advertisers in the $400 range, which is 10 times what advertising in linear programming can draw.”

“Targeted advertising is quantified; it’s like Google,” Knorr continued. “Advertisers know that there’s someone there with a remote in their hand, versus the voodoo of Nielsen diaries. It’s gold. It’s tangible.”

Targeted advertising currently constitutes about five percent of Sunflower’s ad revenue. “But scale that to Comcast,” Knorr said. “If they could grow their ad revenue by five percent, that would be huge.”

“I’m not surprised we’re in it. I’m surprised more companies haven’t embraced it,” Knorr said. “It’s gone surprisingly well. It’s philosophically important. I don’t understand the hesitancy. Maybe people are waiting for standards. The technology is extremely stable. I’m just waiting for more people to get involved. It would take off like a shot.”

On-demand content – advertising too – is critical if you feel, as Knorr does, that cable’s strongest competition is not necessarily from rival service providers, but from the Internet.

“That’s why it’s strategically imperative to master VOD,” Knorr said. “You can get video on the ’Net, but we can still deliver it better. It’s our lead to give up.

“I challenge my staff on how to marry the quality of the video we can offer with the interactivity of the Internet,” Knorr said. On-demand video and targeted advertising is only a start. Other avenues for exploration include:

  • Consumer interactivity
  • Social networking through the set-top box
  • How to create experiences where consumers can profile themselves

Strategic thinking is key for everyone at Sunflower, Knorr said. “I encourage it with my staff. I set time aside to read the trades, to keep up, then I consciously go out to my staff and ask them: what do you think about how this will impact us?”
The 2007 Pacesetter Award for On-Demand Advertising was sponsored by SeaChange International.

DIGITAL VIDEO

  • Kristin Gulasy VP of Digital Services, Cablevision
Kristin Gulasy poses with Tom Nilson
Kristin Gulasy poses with Tom Nilson of
Scientific Atlanta, A Cisco Company,
which sponsored the award.

The 2007 Pacesetter Award for Digital Video was bestowed on Kristin Gulasy, VP of Digital Services, from Cablevision. Gulasy was one of the key people helping to launch both the Sony and Scientific Atlanta digital systems, in charge of Cablevision’s set-top box operations.

Gulasy was still a student when she got a job as a customer service representative at Cablevision, “and I just stayed,” she said.

She is credited with directing the launch of the SA digital system past 1.1 million homes in only about 60 days and overseeing the astonishing growth of Cablevision’s digital penetration rates from about six percent five years ago to over 80 percent today.

Cablevision isn’t always first with a service, but it cedes to no one when it comes to ambition. The goal with digital video was to roll it out not just alone, but with full functionality, including video-on-demand and interactivity in a box with advanced performance.

Cablevision decided it wanted a powerful box with a cable modem. Gulasy and her team worked closely with Scientific Atlanta to develop a DOCSIS-enabled box, that could support Cablevision’s customer user interface. “Their box had to support our software stack,” she said.

Gulasy was also responsible for making sure that when Cablevision rolled out its switched digital service earlier this year with BigBand Networks, the service worked with the installed base without a hitch.

Because nearly every new service the company offers is in the digital domain, and since the company has been so successful with digital penetration, nearly every new service touches the vast majority of its customers. Even so, Gulasy said, “we pretty much roll out changes without significant impact to our customers.”

Looking ahead, there are any number of possible things Cablevision can do next: streaming to PCs, moving video from PCs to TVs.

“We’re going to be able to do a lot with the boxes we have,” Gulasy said. “Maybe we might have to change some software, but we have a great platform.”

The Pacesetter Award for Digital Video is sponsored by Scientific Atlanta, A Cisco Company.

BROADBAND TEAMWORK

  • Marwan Fawaz CTO, Charter Communications
  • Matt Bell, Bob Blackburn, Cathy Fogler, Keith Hayes, Doug Ike, James Pierce, Kelly Ross, Maria Rothschild, John Roy
Marwan Fawaz
Marwan Fawaz

The Broadband Teamwork award recognizes that the way you do business can be as big a contributor to success as devising and implementing a new technology or service. The operations group at Charter Commun-ications – both engineers and marketers – led by CTO Marwan Fawaz, collected the 2007 Paceset-ter Award for Broadband Teamwork.

The team includes Matt Bell, Doug Ike, Bob Blackburn, John Roy, Kelly Ross, Keith Hayes, James Pierce, Cathy Fogler, and Maria Rothschild – some originally from Charter, some who accompanied Fawaz from his previous job at Adelphia.

For any team to work well, Fawaz said, “You have to have the right goals to rally around. You set a team strategy based on corporate strategy. Having clarity about your objective – that helps tremendously.”

That there’s such a great relationship between the marketing and engineering departments was specifically cited in the Charter team’s nomination for the award.

Fawaz agreed that at many companies, marketing and engineering are not always on the same wavelength, but observed that there are several seemingly small things they do at Charter to make the relationship a particularly fruitful one. At some companies, it’s not uncommon for projects to be figuratively tossed over a wall from one department to the next. That doesn’t happen much at Charter, Fawaz said.

Charter Communications - Teamwork Award
Charter Communications’ CTO Marwan Fawaz
(fourth from left) and his operations team won the Broadband Teamwork award.

The two departments invite each other to meetings, and they jointly develop business requirements and together see them through to implementation. “They just do it. There’s nothing structured about it,” Fawaz said. “We try to stay away from structured stuff.”

Communication is eased by one of Fawaz’s dictates: engineers have to refrain from tech-speak and try to interact in English.

“It’s one thing I stress: simplicity in explaining technology,” Fawaz said. “With so many technology terms, the message gets lost. Focus on the product. What do customers see? What’s their experience? I want us to talk about the product, not about the minutiae of how to develop it.”

Among some of the team’s recent endeavors were an expansion of Charter’s VOD library and a complete rebuild of that library’s structure. They stabilized the VOD platform to offer a higher level of consumer activity while providing a broader selection of video content, created a new program menu and added new content, and implemented technology to track network performance and pinpoint popular programming.

“That required engineering to figure out how to make the changes in a way that appeared seamless to the customer,” Fawaz said. “That was one of our more successful efforts.”

The Pacesetter Award for Broadband Teamwork is sponsored by Scientific Atlanta, A Cisco Company.

TELEPHONY-COMMERCIAL SIP/VoIP

  • Scott Weber SVP Engineering & Network Management, Cablevision
  • Robert Covell SVP Program Management & Application Development, Cablevision

It sounds like Cablevision employees have it easy.

Whether it’s Kristin Gulasy helping to launch digital video, or corporate colleagues and fellow Pacesetter Award winners Bob Covell and Scott Weber helping to launch voice services for the small and medium business (SMB) market, they’ll all tell you that Cablevision has been performing massive, system-wide rollouts of varying services for years; that the whole organization is filled with people who are used to planning, organizing, and implementing system-wide rollouts of new services; and that, gosh, really, they’re all just humble cogs in a great big wheel.

...Congratulate Cablevision’s Robert Covell and Scott Weber
(L to R): CED Editor Brian Santo and Camiant founder/CTO Susie Riley
congratulate Cablevision’s Robert Covell and Scott Weber.

Well, maybe. But the fact of the matter is that not a lot of other operators that count their customers in increments of a hundred thousand are willing to risk going live with anything throughout their entire footprints all at once. It is possible for things to go wrong. If Cablevision has gotten good at it, that’s all the more reason for recognition.

The company began marketing its SIP-based VoIP (voice-over-IP) services about a year ago. The company has yet to provide any statistics on the service, and won’t even venture whether or not it’s satisfied with results, but maintains that VoIP for the SMB market is a “huge opportunity.”

At the Pacesetter reception, the presenter of the award, Camiant founder and CTO Susie Riley, said implementing SIP-based VoIP is actually quite hard.

Covell allowed that it was a challenge to do it correctly, but said, “it all rides on the same network.” He spread the credit around, saying that management and marketing were thorough with their planning, that Cablevision employees made it work.

“And we’ve got a good set of vendors: Siemens with the softswitch, Camiant with the policy servers,” he said, explaining that the vendors were extremely flexible and responsive.

That said, the issue was remaining focused on the goalposts, Covell said. “Anything that didn’t improve customer satisfaction or overall reliability – those sorts of things tended to get put aside.”

Weber said the biggest hurdles were actually people-oriented. The two explained that it was a little difficult to change the mindset of people who used to work with 5ESS switches that took up entire rooms who now were confronted with equipment that only filled a few racks.

“We had to retrain the old telephony people to move a little faster,” Covell said.

The Pacesetter Award for Telephony-Commercial SIP/VoIP is sponsored by Camiant.

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