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Installation and repair go commercial

Thu, 07/05/2012 - 1:03pm
Brian Santo

Service providers are taking advantage of consumer technology to make their technicians more effective.

Cable guyWireless broadband, social networking, mobile apps, cloud computing, handheld devices – they’re not just for consumers anymore. The exact same trends roiling the consumer market are having a profound effect on the way communications service providers (CSPs) conduct their business.

While executives and managers at CSPs are certainly making use of mobile technology, the area of their business most affected is customer service. Installers and technicians of all sorts are being equipped with new tools they happen to be already familiar with because they’ve been using them as consumers.

“Devices, the cloud and mobile Internet: These are major forces … that are driving the thinking and the choices our customers are making in the field and the back office,” said Yuval Brisker, CEO of TOA Technologies, a company that provides mobile workforce management systems.

MSOs including Suddenlink, Bright House Networks, Cox Communications and Cablevision are embracing the use of equipment that leverages these major forces. Another example is Dish Network, which at the end of June decided to have all of its installers chuck their ruggedized laptops; over the next two months, the company will equip all of its techs with commercial mobile Android devices.

And while nobody expects a smartphone to double as a spectrum analyzer any time in the foreseeable future – let’s ease out on a limb and say probably not ever – the traditional tools of the trade are beginning to adopt user interface features and communications capabilities familiar from smartphones and tablets.

The top-line goal of equipping techs with these tools is better customer service. Better customer service encompasses quite a lot: monitoring and reacting to the quality of services provided, assuring that installed equipment works, showing up on time for appointments, and more.

Evidence is mounting that there are benefits – sometimes significant benefits – in terms of savings on both operational expenses and capital expenditures.

Every CSP’s reputation is heavily dependent on what their subscribers experience in their homes, which is why installation and maintenance should be critical concerns.

There are all sorts of tensions that can compromise an install, repair or upgrade. Taking the time to get everything perfect on one job can come at the cost of getting other jobs done that need to be attended to. And the bottom line is the bottom line: Both endeavors are costs, and it’s far too easy to shortchange installation and to defer maintenance. The new tools aim to make it more cost-effective to give both installation and maintenance their due.

Many testers come with the Windows CE operating system, Telnet and FTP so that the tester can emulate PCs for testing and troubleshooting. Some similarly have Wi-Fi built in so that wireless routers can be tested.

Of course, once a device has Wi-Fi, it can also be used for some of the technician’s own communications needs – contacting dispatchers, uploading reports or downloading data. Now technicians can access the back office for records including historical data.

As a group, technicians are getting more training and are more capable than they used to be. It’s not uncommon these days to equip them with spectrum analyzers. With Web interfaces, technicians in the field can troubleshoot from end-of-line to node, noted Jack Webb, product manager at Sunrise Telecom.

At the same time, more and more tests are becoming automated.

“An installer can hit one or two buttons to qualify a drop in a couple of minutes. The test is done the same way every time, so you get consistent data. And it’s there if you have to come back two months later,” Webb said. “God knows how many hours it takes to do headend proof of performance validation. Now, with a mouse click, you can leave and come back in an hour and it’s 99 percent done. Automation takes care of the mundane stuff.”

And did we mention the cloud yet? Webb noted that Sunrise will soon introduce a product that will perform cloud-based proof of performance validation.

Standards
Part of the issue with customer service industry-wide is that there are not a lot of standards for installation and maintenance – or for testing procedures; desired parameters; reporting; or other aspects of installation, maintenance and repair.

Last year, the SCTE published The Broadband Premises Installation and Service Guidebook, which includes the fundamentals that installers and technicians require to master the SCTE Broadband Premises Installer (BPI) and Broadband Premises Technician (BPT) certification examinations.

The guide covers technology, systems and requirements; customer service; planning; aerial and underground installations; bonding and grounding; cable entry to the premises; terminal devices; connecting customer equipment; test equipment; troubleshooting and repairs; reducing signal impairments; and safe work practices.

“For too long in the deep past, cable installations varied from company to company, from region to region, and sometimes even from installer to installer,” wrote SCTE President Mark Dzuban in his CED column in January. “The ‘right way’ of providing service resulted in a wide variety of configurations that worked for individual customers. As cable networks have become more complex, and as the services have moved from entertainment to critical telecommunications, operators have recognized that standards-based best practices are a must for efficiency in installations, upgrades and troubleshooting.”

Standards and best practices would have the following benefits:

  • Technicians who need to troubleshoot or upgrade an existing installation do not need to decipher previous work, saving valuable time and increasing the number of trouble tickets that can be handled.
  • Technicians who are working with configurations that adhere to the best practices they know are more prone to effect trouble-free work, resulting in more satisfied customers and significantly reduced truck roll expenses.
  • Technicians who are trained in standardized, best practices installation and troubleshooting increase their own value by providing faster, more reliable service, and by having the flexibility to transfer their skills to new locations should employment needs dictate.

In many cases, even within individual companies, standards and best practices are less prevalent than might be desired.

Test equipment vendor VeEx has established a program called Last Tech Out that its service provider customers can opt to adopt aimed at ensuring that installations, repairs and upgrades are complete and standardized.

The program was adopted by Suddenlink for its testing of both cable TV and DOCSIS network elements to support home certification. The MSO implemented a fairly strict policy for reporting results, along with adopting an onboard dispatch system.

Suddenlink says it has improved the efficiency of its network maintenance, but not without learning some lessons along the way. (For specific details, listen to the archived CED webinar “Last tech out and home certification.”)

Proactive maintenance
Monitoring is great, and it is becoming more prevalent. A growing trend is taking monitoring a step further by acting on the data that comes in – call it proactive, or preemptive, maintenance.

Adaptive Spectrum and Signal Alignment Inc. (Assia) is a new company that has created a software-based product that enables DSL service providers to automate the management and maintenance of their DSL access networks, with the aim of improving performance and return on investment of DSL networks.

Assia’s software monitors the network – every single DSL line on the network. It performs the diagnostics traditional for a monitoring system, but then it also can “repair” individual lines.

It’s common practice to set up a DSLAM so that all of the lines in defined areas have the same profile. But this ignores the fact that there can be huge differences in the amount of noise even adjacent DSL lines might be subject to. Assia can evaluate the data, and if the situation calls for it, change the configuration on any individual DSL line to improve conditions.

“Before, providers tended to be reactive,” noted Assia senior director of product management Jerome Joanny. “They’d get a complaint and only then respond. This is proactive. We profile lines ahead of time, preventing many calls.”

How many? He said that with a company that does a good job of maintaining its copper, AT&T for example (AT&T is an investor in the company), Assia was able to achieve an improvement of about 30 percent in the company’s stability rating (each customer can define what it considers a stable DSL line based on performance parameters it considers most pertinent). With customers less scrupulous about maintenance than AT&T, Joanny said, Assia has seen improvements up to 70 percent.

How long has it been since we mentioned the cloud? Assia’s software can reside on an off-the-shelf server in a CSP’s own network, or Assia can host the server and provide monitoring and line management through the cloud.

Rev2 does something similar with a focus on cable operators. The company has devised a tool that enables MSOs to analyze network data to track down chronic but intermittent problems.

A series of trouble calls might be due to a common problem, but if those trouble calls are spread out over time, or if the problem manifests in multiple ways, the operator almost certainly won't detect the pattern. Alternatively, a problem might be persistent, but it might fail to exceed some threshold level that would trigger an alarm.

Rev2 calls the process “risk concentration analysis.”

“The risk concentration analysis methodology carefully classifies, scores and combines common MSO dispatch metrics such as maintenance activities, telephone calls from troubled subscribers, truck rolls to troubled subscribers and network telemetry data,” explained Rev2 CEO Robert Cruickshank. “By correlating the data, the methodology can tell us where there are concentrations of risk throughout the MSO's service delivery infrastructure.”

Cruickshank joined Rev2 from Cablevision, where – as vice president in charge of the company's Customer Service Operations Center – he helped deploy the Rev2 product suite. Rev2 recently received an investment from Arris, which is integrating the Rev2 RiskView tools with its WorkAssure and ServAssure products.

Apps and widgets
Test and monitoring systems are evolving, incorporating elements of commercial devices, including touchscreens and user interface features. But the focus on installation, maintenance and repair has been widening beyond just the tests and test equipment to the whole process.

Sunrise Telecom's RxTThat includes everything from scheduling, to communications among workers in the field, to interfacing with back office systems so that everything about customer care – from installs in subscribers’ homes to call center operations – are integrated.

Sunrise Telecom’s RxT comes with an app called realAccess that enables managers to remotely access the unit and offer guidance to the workforce from anywhere, anytime, through a Web browser – even through smartphones.

Assia has a smartphone app called Expresse Pro that gives technicians access to the information the company’s software supplies. This includes data that helps identify and, in some cases, locate impairments. Not only does that help accelerate repairs, but it makes sure the field and the home office are working with the same information.

It actually improves compliance with company procedures, Joanny said. “If you give technicians an app that’s easy and efficient to use, they’ll use it.”

Assia's Exresse ProThe app is currently available for Apple iOS devices, and a version for Android is being prepared for a customer in Asia, Joanny said.

TOA Technologies’ workforce management product, ETAdirect Mobility, is entirely browser-based, so it can run on any device. Dispatch is automated. It logs everything the tech does so that it becomes, as Brisker pointed out, the ultimate time management study tool. There is a new social app that enables field techs to talk to each other if they need to tap a co-worker’s expertise. If they need a piece of equipment, they can contact their nearest colleagues instead of going through a dispatcher.

The TOA product on a mobile device enables technicians to do so many things in a relatively cheap device, Brisker explained. “Signature captures, taking pictures, taking video can all be done in the app. There’s a social app in the browser.”

It’s TOA’s system that has inspired Dish to toss expensive ruggedized laptops in favor of commercial mobile devices. As it was, Dish’s employees were agitating to use their own mobile devices for work

“Dish, Cox, Suddenlink – they don’t have the same device management issues they used to,” Brisker said, name-dropping three of the company’s customers.

Great Lakes Data Systems (GLDS) provides a tool that field technicians and installers can use to access customer data. The company’s WinForce product can reside on any mobile PC, tablet or handheld device. It connects via the Internet to GLDS' WinCable billing and subscriber management platform, giving technicians access to assigned work, as well as customer and account details.

GLDS' WinForce techGLDS emphasizes that when technicians have access to this class of information, it can allow them to independently solve problems and provide the best, quickest customer service possible.

Additional functionality is included for Android users, such as the ability to sign work orders and automatically attach them to customer accounts, scan equipment bar codes, GPS navigate to the next job, receive real-time notification of work order changes, and receive real-time location tracking of all technicians with detailed history by technician.

"The two-way communication provided by WinForce tech gives technicians a broad spectrum of subscriber and equipment data and allows them to make certain account changes directly from their handheld device," said GLDS' President Garrick Russell.

The reporting feature is becoming popular and is showing up in the capabilities of the software and equipment that more and more vendors are providing.

“Now you can look at your best technicians, you can figure out what they’re doing, and from that you can identify and develop best practices,” Joanny said.

And, of course, one of the key benefits of automated routing is that if a service provider has detailed analyses of what technicians are actually doing in the field, scheduling appointments can become a much more precise exercise. It’s lost on no one that a major source of aggravation that subscribers have with their service providers is the time they waste waiting for an installer or a technician.

Of course, there are some low-tech – heck, non-tech – things a service provider can do to address that issue.

Mediacom Communications recently initiated night and weekend installation service and a money-back guarantee for new customers. Mediacom promises service techs will arrive within an agreed-upon 30-minute timeframe, instead of the traditional four-hour service window, the company said.

The next challenge, Morelle said, is building in intelligence. “There is so much information. How do you put it on one page so the tech can see what he needs to do?”

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