Playing field changing for small ops? Maybe

Sat, 04/30/2011 - 7:55pm
Craig Kuhl

Net neutrality, retransmission consent, spectrum policy and a plate full of nagging issues that have plagued small cable operators for years showed up once again at this year's American Cable Association (ACA) Summit in Washington.

But this time, according to ACA President and CEO Matt Polka, things went pretty well.

And, as always, with a bit of ingenuity here and a touch of innovation there, small ops are still finding technology-based ways to succeed.

But first, the political front.

Greg Walden, House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman, discussed a number of key issues with Polka, who reported that the "ACA is planning to work with Chairman Walden to ensure that Congress understands the unique economics surrounding ACA members' business plans."

Unique indeed. Most smaller operators are fighting for their very existence, and despite the ACA's tireless work on Capitol Hill to level the playing field, those entrepreneurial-spirited cable folks doing business in rural America are looking for lawmakers to give them a break.

"Chairman Walden knows what it means to meet a payroll as a former small businessman," Polka said. Walden operated radio stations in Oregon for 22 years.

Yet, in the meantime, more small cable operators are making their own breaks on the front lines, where they are crafting new business plans, literally on a daily basis, by finding innovative uses of new and used affordable technology to compete with a gaggle of phone companies, ISPs and utilities.

It's not exactly a technology revolution, but it is enabling them to even the odds and compete.

For instance, Bob Gessner at Massillon Cable in Ohio has developed a home-grown set of tools that use standard cable modem data to locate system problems.

"We've used this to direct technicians to areas in need of the most attention, and it allowed us to be proactive with our maintenance efforts. It has reduced unnecessary and repeat service calls. It works with standard cable modems on a standard plant. It just takes a change of attitude among technicians," Gessner said.

Lakeview Cable in Oklahoma is finding cost efficient ways of deploying FTTH, which according to Mike Rowell "is allowing higher speeds and one-gig capabilities to the home. It's working well for us."

For Patrick Knorr, a long-time technology visionary, small cable operator and now a consultant at Knorr Solutions, fiber and IP are the projected franchise players for smaller cable systems.

"IP is the future game-changer because of its flexibility and scalability. It's a great opportunity for smaller cable operators to leap ahead a generation if they need to upgrade their plants. It's reaching a level of maturity where it's an attractive technology," Knorr said.

Getting access to existing technology already being used by larger cable systems is another game-changer.

But video over the Internet is the biggest game-changer of them all, Knorr maintains. But who will distribute it? Netflix? Google? Cable operators?

"There's lots of opinions. It's a big scrum and will take a few years to solidify the business model. But having a radical change in the video business model could be a good thing."

And there's targeted advertising in the mix, with experts agreeing that once the technology and business models align, it could lead to reduced price points to offset the cost of new technologies.

For now, however, small operators aren't looking for game-changers – they're just looking to continue playing.

In the meantime, the vendor community is getting the message that these rural systems, albeit not exactly high-end customers, actually count. Some have established specific disciplines within their organizations that address the unique needs of smaller operators.

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