T&M: New Tools, New Strategies, New Tactics

All of the new and exciting services being introduced by cable operators in an effort to please customers will have the opposite effect if they don't work right. If images pixelate and phone calls drop out, subscribers will be annoyed. This will impact the industry's image and, ultimately, its revenue.

It's almost needless to say that keeping cable networks humming is vital. What is important to recognize is that doing so today is far harder than at any time in the industry's history. There are more types of networks -- legacy, IP-based and wireless -- and more services being offered. This means that there are more types of tests, monitoring and measurement processes being conducted on an ongoing basis.

The sophistication of each procedure means that more data is being generated in each case. For instance, a decade ago, it was possible to monitor audio on only a handful of channels. Now, equipment exists that keeps an eye (actually, an ear) on all the channels being offered. Likewise, networks are sprinkled with more probes than in the past, and network elements are designed to provide more data indicating their status.

Overlaid on this increasing complexity is the desire to be proactive. The joke is that the monitoring technology in the early days of cable was the telephone -- if enough subscribers called from one neighborhood, the operator knew there was a problem and, thus, the monitoring system worked perfectly.

This, obviously, is an exaggeration. But the truth underneath is that cable operators have undergone a longer term transition -- one that predates the complexities of IP and wireless networking -- in which the goal is to catch issues before they graduate to being problems that impact subscribers. The evolution of cable from a pure entertainment provider to one heavily involved in lifeline phone and business services pushes the need to be proactive to the forefront.

The industry is doing a good job in keeping services up and running, but the sense is that the addition of IP and WiFi and the steady growth of business services create the need for new testing and measurement tactics and strategies, as well as new gear.

"Despite the fact that things are more seamless for the end customer, they are much more complicated now for the service provider," said Bill Dentinger, the senior director of business development for the service assurance group for Spirent (London Stock Exchange: SPT). "There is an alphabet soup of protocols that are changing more rapidly now than any time in the history [of cable]."

The industry is dealing with this tough situation -- the need to make services more reliable even as their number and complexity explodes -- in a couple of ways. Most obviously, the technology is improving. Vendors report that test and measurement gear is designed to test and monitor the increasingly important metrics. Automated test suites make the quality and consistency of equipment and network assessments more uniform. Test and measurement gear is increasingly mobile -- and links to databases that more effectively put the results from one premises or network element in context.

At the end of the day, the goal is to paint a clear picture very quickly. "What we are seeing is that [technical staffs] have at their disposal a lot more of the 'heartbeat indicators' of how a plant is operating and how well services are being delivered -- or not delivered," said Robert Cruickshank, the CEO and CTO for Rev2.

The other transition is a bit less obvious than better and more equipment -- but no less important. Operators, experts say, have shifted the way in which they approach test, measurement and monitoring. In the past, the focus was on parameters. If a particular threshold was maintained, the network was considered "good to go" and not a concern. Today, the focus is on the real world of what is happening from the revenue and customer experience points of view.

The difference is subtle. Some people -- such as Paul Robinson, the chief technology officer for Tektronix's video product line -- shorthand the change as a shift in focus from quality of service (QoS) to quality of experience (QoE). He points out that it is possible for a network to meet all the requisite metrics (QoS), but for there still to be a problem with the actual audio and video. Likewise, a system can be out of compliance with predefined QoS metrics -- but be performing well in the eyes of subscribers.

There is another dimension to the idea of moving from a strict QoS to a more flexible structure. Cable operators can more actively tie test and measurement tools and technology to parts of the network depending on that area's potential monetization. Thus, the testing and monitoring of a rural plant with a small number of subscribers per mile will be handled differently than a dense urban area in which the network is doing double duty for the commercial services arm.

The bottom line is that cable operators and their test and measurement vendors are faced with a world in which the number of things that must be tracked -- and the complexity of each test -- both are increasing. The good news is that they understand the issue, according to Robinson:

"I think they get it," he said. "In this particular area, the U.S. cable operators are substantially ahead of other video operators in the worldwide basis. They are 18 to 24 months ahead in the understanding that at the end of the day a happy viewer is about making sure the network works correctly" and not just meeting some predetermined statistical goals.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Reach him at carl@btreport.net.

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