News

Storms Blast Cable in N.E., Canada

1/18/1998 7:00 PM Eastern

The ice storms that blacked out much of the Northeast aswell as Quebec and Ontario last week also smashed many of the region's cable TVsystems.

Cable operators in upstate New York and northern NewEngland said they will not know the extent of the damage until the summer as hundreds ofthousands of homes lost power and cable TV.

Hard hit MSOs include Time Warner, Adelphia andFrontierVision Partners L.P. It was impossible to ascertain exactly how many subscribersremained without cable last week in the Northeast.

In Canada, nearly half a million subscribers lost theircable TV lines. 'This is totally a catastrophe,' said Denis Belanger, CogecoCable's vice president of engineering.

A week after the storm, Montreal's major MSO Videotronis still cleaning up, said Jean-Paul Garleneau, the company's general manager ofcommunications. However, the repairs are taking time. With so much damage to the polesystem, there were 200,000 subscribers still off-line as of Jan. 13.

Cable operators will spend millions fixing their plant.Expenses will include plant replace, lost service revenue and overpriced subcontractors.

'We had no time to negotiate. We're paying higherdollar volumes than we would have, but we have to get the systems back up,' saidWilliam Kent, corporate director of operations for Adelphia Communications Corp.

Time Warner Cable's Syracuse, N.Y., division had toorder 300,000 feet of coax just to start repairs to its systems in upper New York.

The storm cost operators revenue from everything from basiccable to Road Runner cable modem service in Portland, Maine, where modem customers had tocome to the operator's office to catch up on e-mail.

Systems in Burlington, Vt., and Saranac Lake, N.Y., wereespecially hard hit. Workers in Burlington crammed into the regional call center andstayed on the job since the center -- unlike the workers' homes -- had heat andcommunications, Kent said.

FrontierVision serves 200 communities in Vermont, NewHampshire and Maine, but was able to restore 95 percent of its communities by lastweek's end, said regional manager Gary Crosby. Repairs were tough: More than onerepair crew truck had a power pole with hot wires collapse near them.

Some executives said a tornado might have been easier --then all drops would be down at once. But techs had to perform audits last week to finddrops and had to make many repairs repeatedly. Cable needs are secondary to power andphones, and those utilities cut cable plant to get to their repairs.

'Most of our plant is on the ground so the powercompanies just cut it, sometimes just after we'd restored service with a repairelsewhere. We're finding [fiber optic] harder to splice,' said Jeff Unaitis,vice president of public affairs of Time Warner's Syracuse division.

The storm showed the benefits of clustering, Unaitis added.The Time Warner division, hard hit in a series of New York towns near the Canadian border,was able to shift workers from system to system. By the end of last week, many systems hada handful of channels restored, but a couple were still dark.

A third of the 63,000-customer base in Portland, Maine,remained without power late last week. Those who could call were reporting cable damage atone point at a rate of 1,900 calls a day, said Kim Cannon, director of marketing andpublic affairs for the Time Warner system. By week's end the system had worked downto a backlog of 700 repair requests.

In Canada, the sheer scale of the job was hamperingclean-up efforts. Even with over 1,200 employees cleaning up -- including those broughtfrom other Videotron systems in other regions of Quebec -- the hydro pole mess means thatsome areas will be without cable 'for at least 14 days or more,' saidVideotron's Garleneau.

Videotron can't restore service until Hydro-Quebecreplaces downed poles. Technicians are following closely behind the hydro trucks,'giving back service as soon as possible,' said Garleneau.

The blackout -- which at one point knocked out 1.3 millionhomes in Quebec -- also hit Videotron's distribution plant as well. To repower it,the MSO installed gas-powered generators.

Unfortunately, the desperation of some South Shoreresidents -- who face living without electricity for up to three weeks or more -- resultedin three of Videotron's generators being stolen. After the third theft, the companydecided to leave security people at the site,

Garleneau said.

In a final tragic twist, one Videotron contractor diedwhile de-icing a headend satellite dish. Details are sketchy, and it's not knownwhether his death was directly related to the storm.

Meanwhile Cogeco Cable -- whose systems cover many of theaffected areas in rural Quebec and parts of eastern Ontario -- also suffered servicelosses.

Worst hit is the South Shore town of St. Hyacinthe, one ofthree battered towns within what's being called'Triangle of Darkness.'

Asked how severe the damage really is, Belanger replied,'We'll really see the status of the system when the electricity comesback.' Until then, his staff will patch what they can, to get the maximum number ofsubscribers up in the shortest period of time.

Rogers Cablesystems also took a hit in many of its Ontariosystems, including the capital city of Ottawa. Estimating its damage at 'tens ofthousands' of households, Rogers vice president of network engineering CharlesElliott said the repair job is huge. To put it in perspective, '6,000 individualcalls came in over a period of three or four days,' he said. 'We'veresponded to a good percentage of those, but we believe we still have close to 4,000individual network failures out there yet.'

How long it will take for the cleanup to finish -- andwhether the Canadian government will offer cable any form of financial support -- as stillunclear.

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