Being competitive means leaping past the bundle

There was a time not too long ago when offering video service instantly transformed a telephone company into cable competition. That’s the way Bell Aliant, the Bell Canada company, started in 2005 when it launched Aliant TV.

“We were positioned as an analog cable buster; we were a pretty basic service,” says Dana Lohnes, Aliant TV – Operations Prime, who runs the effort for the Canadian provider.

It didn’t take long to learn that providing video might attract a few disgruntled cable customers but wouldn’t keep the masses happy. Besides video, and even a triple play of voice and high-speed data services, Bell Aliant needed a differentiator. It chose to provide home networking – a rarity then in the cable space. But while the telephone company was comfortable delivering the signal to the side of the house, and even into the house, it knew nothing about driving signals throughout the residence.

“We weren’t into home networking really at all,” Lohnes says. “The most home networking we may have done was to connect one PC with a piece of Cat-5e. It was a real change for us to go from that to trying to connect three TVs, or two TVs. It was definitely a big change.”

HomePNA 3.1-based triple-play home network.

“Originally, all of these telco technicians came out of the twisted pair world; coax is very new to them. People would just install Cat-5, and that’s just a bad answer; that’s not a productive answer,” says Michael Weissman, vice president of North American marketing for CopperGate Communications, which worked with Bell Aliant on the home networking challenges.

Being competitive means being productive, and being productive means being proactive in anticipating and sating customer demand. On the other side of the wire, it means keeping the installer technicians happy and productive, as well. Neither was part of the early home networking effort.

“When we first started, we were really challenged to do two TV installs a day … basically running overtime or missing appointments,” Lohnes says.

Since most telcos entering the video space faced similar problems, cable operators tended to be a bit overconfident that the competition would never amount to much. It also turned the advantage of providing better home networks than the cable company into the liability of taking too long to do it while missing appointments and frying techs.

“The installs were so labor-intensive and taking us so long, there may have been an element where we were burning technicians out a little bit, and they were just trying to get to the end of the day as opposed to making sure they did a quality install,” Lohnes admits.

It all started to get better when the parent company, Bell Canada, began toying with HomePNA (HPNA) as a way to reuse existing residential coax. Suddenly, rather than fighting cable, Bell Aliant was using what the cable operator had already placed in the residence. Lohnes estimates that between 90 and 95 percent of “new” Bell Aliant installs are in homes already equipped with coaxial cable. With HPNA, Bell Aliant installers can reuse what is there, rather than install costly and time-consuming Cat-5e.

Now, Lohnes says, Bell Aliant “can comfortably get a couple of TV installs done in a day, and we’ve created enough buffer zone that our technicians can pick up another piece of work, whether it’s a TV trouble call or another high-speed install. We’ve gone from struggling to get two pieces of work done a day to comfortably getting three pieces of work done a day.”

What slowed the process was not the coax, but the connectors used with the coax, says Weissman, because “the connectors are exposed to humans, and they’re exposed to the elements,” and that makes them less than seaworthy for a new, advanced network.

The next step in the home networking evolution was to be able to test the entire network, including the connectors, to certify its worthiness, he says. Not only would this help speed the initial installation, but it would prevent many return calls.

“You can get a good connection for three or four weeks, and one day the connectors move, or a connector is corroded or rusted, or the coax is too long and there’s no contact, or the dialectic is pushed in and you’re not using a pressure fitting [that] is making good contact. If you don’t have good contact, wiring doesn’t work really well,” Weissman says.

Bell Aliant has used CopperGate gear to cautiously jump into HPNA testing. A technician now installs the network with existing coax, then runs a test to verify the stability of the network, including the connections. It’s still a cumbersome process, to an extent, but that’s because technicians are wont to carry around laptops to do the testing. Bell Aliant is in the process of working with CopperGate on more user-friendly portable testing devices.

“We’re still in the beginning phases of rolling out the test tools and truly understanding what it’s going to be for us from the broad perspective,” Lohnes says. “A large majority of our tech base is now using the tools as part of the basic installation process, and then using it as part of the trouble-after solution, as well.”

Weissman says that CopperGate has helped the techs learn a few tricks of the trade, such as how to get the most of the existing cable connections. Cable-installed coax enters the residence through the input port of a main splitter. From there it is routed to the outputs. To avoid reflections and other problems, the splitter inserts impedance between the ins and outs.

"The intuition for an installer is to plug the HomePNA into the ‘in’ on the existing coax splitter," Weissman says. "This is a mistake. The best way is to connect the input of the service into an ‘out’ of the splitter, and then connect the coax to the remaining ‘outs’ on the splitter. This will deliver a much higher signal to noise.”

It’s all part of the learning process for telcos becoming cablecos, he says.

“When you understand it, it isn’t hard; you just have to know what to look for,” Weissman says.

Lohnes knows what he’s looked for: improved installation time, and Bell Aliant has gotten it. That’s important because Bell Aliant – or, more specifically, Aliant TV – is no longer a telephone company.

“We see ourselves now as a competitive digital TV provider. In the areas where we’re serving TV, a huge portion of our daily workload for our technicians is now TV. In most areas, TV accounts for more than 50 percent of the daily workload,” Lohnes says.

The installers better be ready. The telco has taken its next step in the 21st century, announcing that it will deploy FTTH in two cities, passing 70,000 homes this year and next.

“It gave us more bandwidth and more stability in our network. We quickly learned that as you become a competitive digital TV service, it takes a whole lot of bandwidth to provide dual-tuner HD DVRs and still have enough bandwidth left over to provide a large pipe to the customer prem for their high-speed. To remain competitive, you need to get to an access technology that allows you to put a big pipe to the customer’s home, while allowing you to remain really stable in your network,” Lohnes says.

FTTH will change things outside, “but the experience from the side of the house to the set-top boxes isn’t going to change that much. We’re already getting good at that, and we have that under our belts,” he says.