Cable system operators today stand on a precipice, overlooking the opportunities that lay before them. Perhaps never in its short but illustrious history has the cable industry had so many doors to ponder: high-speed data delivery and Internet access; telephony; interactive services; and expansion of pay-per-view toward a near video-on-demand environment.
Choosing which applications and services to pursue first isn't easy, but that's the marketing department's challenge. What the engineering community has to ensure is that the infrastructure is in place to support such services-and today, it's doubtful. Tree-and-branch cable systems have too many single points of failure, active electronics have mean times before failure that are less than acceptable, there's little in the way of backup electronics in most headends and there are problems in the power grid that takes service down much too often. Clearly, there's a lot of work to be done.
Jones Intercable just fired up its newest headend facility in Alexandria, Va. It could be argued that Jones chose that high-profile system to be its flagship, based on dense housing, great demographics and probably because of its proximity to the nation's capital and lawmakers. But it's also under attack from Bell Atlantic, the local telephone provider, which has targeted the area as one of its beachheads in the battle for marketshare. In response, Jones had to build a highly reliable network in order to compete.
The point is that Jones' new headend is an impressive facility and will likely serve as a model for the rest of the industry. Everything in the 750-MHz system is new, of course, but that's not what makes it unique. It's the level and amount of quality and redundancy that the Jones engineers have designed into the headend and the plant that make one stand up and take notice. Clearly, Jones is making a statement to Bell Atlantic that it has built a network that is survivable and capable of being more reliable than the incumbent's.
The reliability message is driven home in several places, including:
- In the plant, where 10 counter-rotating rings of fiber serve the 28-square-mile community.
- In the bank of Scientific-Atlanta frequency agile modulators that have hot standby units ready and waiting to step in if a failure occurs.
- Within the fiber nodes themselves, each of which is outfitted with standby power supplies and status monitoring.
- In the headend, where Barco has installed its ROSA software system that monitors the performance of the satellite receivers.
- In the fiber optic management system designed by Fiber Optic Network Solutions that terminates nearly 3,000 fiber strands in the headend.
What Jones has done in Alexandria is carry out the exact steps most MSOs are simply giving lip service to. Yes, it's more expensive, but Jones believes it can't cut corners in the race to provide multimedia and telephony services to its subscribers.
In the words of Roger Seefeldt, a fund engineer from Jones' corporate headquarters who helped with the project, the headend in Alexandria is the headend of the future. It's hard not to agree with him.