My Turn

Sunny in Charlotte

2/24/2009 7:35 AM

The economy’s tanking, it’s a chilly 21 degrees in Charlotte, N.C., early this morning and attendance at the two-day NCTC winter education conference is likely down about 20%. But yesterday, anyway, I heard more optimism from small cable operators than gloom.

For one thing, according to National Cable Television Cooperative communications VP Dan Mulvenon, it was pre-planned to cap operator attendance at 250 and the target of 50 technology vendor firms are here. Last year’s version of this gathering, in Phoenix, saw a spike in attendance as small cablers wanted information about the (still) upcoming broadcast TV transition to digital and were facing a “firestorm” of other issues in Washington, as American Cable Association president Matt Polka said at the time.

And in these days of travel freezes, as Mulvenon pointed out, a 20% decline in a conference’s attendance is par for the course. Maybe even a home run.

The opening panel yesterday featured small cable firms talking about the varied paths they have taken to expand bandwidth. They need to because of phone company and satellite-TV competitors hammering them with high-capacity Internet lines and high-definition-laden video offerings. But it’s always good to hear about companies investing in their futures.

Ken Jordan, of Troy Cablevision in Troy, Ala., which has overbuilt Charter Communications, said AT&T in his markets has been poaching Internet customers with $500 buyback offers. Jordan made an eye-opening presentation about expanding into new territories using Commscope’s BrightPath’s fiber extension product instead of trying to add capacity to his aging hybrid fiber coaxial plant. So far, he said, so good. Capacity on the fiber extension is about 1 GHz, vs. about 700 MHz on the HFC mother ship. High percentages of customers on the fiber lines are buying voice (77%) and high-speed Internet services (63%).  “Overall we feel like this is going to give us a competitive edge moving forward,” Jordan said.

Bob Gessner of Massillon Cable in Ohio updated operators on his company’s ambitious project to convert to all-digital channels, thereby reclaiming analog spectrum. He’s had some hiccups (which I reported here yesterday)  with the digital-to-analog converters he needs to get to subscribers, but was upbeat about getting the transition done by the end of July and about rapidly increasing the HD channel count for his 45,000 video subscribers.

Buckeye CableSystem, also in Ohio, is using yet a different technology, switched digital video, provided by BigBand Networks and reported on by Todd Spangler yesterday. Different approaches for different situations, and Gessner said after the session that both Buckeye and Troy’s approaches had a lot going for them too.

Hopefully the cable operators here learn which approaches will work best for them, and find a way to grow and keep serving their communities. Hey, the temperatures yesterday got into the sunny 40s, and are headed into the 60s later this week.

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