In the good ol' days, installers were often vagabonds
Roger Brown
Editorial Director, Broadband

It won't happen overnight, or even this year, but if prognostications about the future come to fruition, front-line personnel like cable TV installers and service techs are about to become some of the most important assets a network operator owns.

The refrain is becoming familiar: front-line personnel are increasingly being viewed as the cable operator's best opportunity to up-sell consumers, provide better customer service than competitors and reflect professionalism with every customer contact.

Life at cable systems in the not-too-distant future will be influenced by two very important types of employees: those who toil in the headend and those who are responsible for the customer premise. Think about it: cable networks are morphing into a new architecture where most of the technological "smarts" are migrating to the endpoints, with mostly dumb pipes running in between.

At the headend, techs will ensure that every signal and packet that leaves the facility and is injected into the distribution network is as good as possible. The old excuse, "garbage in, garbage out" will no longer apply. These guys will have to know and understand satellite communications, data networking, Internet Protocol, video, telephony and interactive applications.

At the home, installers and techs will be needed to debug network software problems, ensure there's enough signal level to provide quality pictures, understand and configure personal computers, set up wireline and wireless home networks, and troubleshoot customer premise equipment like digital set-tops, residential gateways and/or high-speed modems.

With so much riding on these guys, why are they treated–and compensated–like they're entry-level people?

The answer is, of course, because that's what they used to be. In the good ol' days, installers were often vagabonds who focused on one simple task: hooking up as many customers as possible immediately after the cable system was built. Door-to-door salesmen would descend on neighborhoods like hungry locusts, signing up new customers. Installers fell in behind them, running coax from the tap to the house, through walls and to the TV.

They weren't expected to sell products. They weren't expected to educate customers. If there was a problem with a set-top box or a drop, they simply swapped it out with a new one. Speed was key. But if the installer and tech of tomorrow is indeed expected to be as skilled as envisioned above, they'll have to be compensated accordingly. They can no longer be viewed as entry-level employees. These highly trained people can't be retained if they're making $10 or $20 an hour.

These revolutionary concepts will be implemented at evolutionary speeds, but today's installers and techs must prepare themselves accordingly, if they haven't already. The volume of knowledge that will be needed in the future is staggering. Training, training and more training will be the three keys to bridging the knowledge gap.