As consumers become more mobile and their product choices — and service providers — expand, cable companies must morph to meet those customer demands. WiFi and the growth of the mobile ecosystem; complexities in the commercial-services arena; and using big data and analytics to predict and solve problems before they reach customers are just some of the information-technology issues facing operators today. Multichannel News will explore these issues in depth each month. Each quarter, we will speak to industry leaders about the challenges and opportunities of using IT to better serve customers. Kevin Hart is chief technology officer of Cox Communications, which has long been known as a leader in customer service and is currently transitioning its business-services platform to better service its commercial customers. At the same time, the MSO is in the midst of a major digital transition program. Hart spoke about these challenges with MCN contributor K.C. Neel. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: What convinced Cox to converge engineering and IT?
Kevin Hart: We see the trend around convergence and the importance of making applications easy to use and personalizing those capabilities to benefit the customer experience. That takes the interface of both the software and the hardware sides to mine the classic functions of the CIO and the CTO. So, we combined that role a couple years ago. Specifically around the IP video-delivery systems, our goal is to continuously improve the customer experience at Cox; we’ve been known for that and we’re going to continue to focus on making the customer touch points easy to use within the IT ecosystem. Availability, reliability, scalability are the key components in terms of an IT network design and interface. We want to make it intuitive, easy to navigate, easy to understand, easy to integrate into other applications. We have also added a heavy dose of personalization embedded within our IP product.
MCN: What does that involve?
KH: There have been a lot of great advances in identity management, including single sign-on capability, so it’s really about understanding who the end user is, whether it’s a Mac address from a modem in the home or whether it’s tied to their logon account. We’re trying to personalize that experience based on previous use and also making recommendations based on themes and genres. That’s more of the intelligence side of the business.
Obviously, scaling the network is important to make sure we have a high-quality service for delivering the IP streams from the most convenient and local destination to make sure there is high quality and no latency in terms of the video quality. There is a lot of end-user design that goes into the software development interface, and then a lot of classic engineering and hardwareoptimization design to make sure that the quality of the network and the transportation of the bits are as efficient as possible.
MCN: Do you spend more of your time and money on software or hardware issues?
KH: There are complexities with both. There are some components that have been simplified and there are some components that are more complex. Because many of the hardware components encompass firmware or software embedded within that hardware, troubleshooting can be a little bit trickier from time to time in terms of trying to pinpoint root causes. But in general, we’re able to diagnose and troubleshoot and prevent issues more rapidly because of the software and the intelligence that we’re building into the networks.
MCN: What’s your biggest challenge with customer-experience issues as they relate to IT and the rollout of these new services?
KH: The IP technology, the hardware, the software, the plant and the ecosystem have been up and running with many of our IP platforms for a couple years now. So from a technology standpoint, we feel pretty good about where we’re going and where the road map is. The biggest challenge, I would say, is probably the interface of optimizing an existing network while rolling out a new network and then trying to provide great quality of service. It’s not so much the technology but just making sure our operational capabilities are solid.
MCN: How are you managing the increased usage of WiFi and broadband for video?
KH: We’ve been offering WiFi for many years for both residential and business customers. We’re involved with the WiFi Consortium in Connecticut, Virginia and Omaha, Neb. Recently, we launched in Arizona and soon in Las Vegas. And then we’ll be expanding to other markets as well. We’re extending our high-speed data network through the WiFi mobile experience.
It’s a big part of our go-to-market strategy and also a great benefit for our Cox high-speed data customers. You’ll probably see us expand our WiFi offerings even more so in the future. We’ll also offer more commercial-grade WiFi for our Cox business customers and then work with some of the long-haul carriers to provide them options down the road as well.
MCN: What do you have to do to make your WiFi networks commercial-grade, and how important is that?
KH: Very important. We always want to provide customers the best quality service based on the service offering. It comes down to access points and access-point design, making sure there’s good coverage for any particular region or density you’re trying to serve, and a lot of it is access-point placement based on traffic patterns. So we continue to monitor that. The backhaul network that connects the access point back to our backbone and back to the Internet is a key element of the commercial grade to make sure you have plenty of capacity on your physical network, which is the critical piece in becoming carrier-grade.
MCN: How have services like Amazon and Netflix and Hulu and other over-the-top service changed the demands of your customers and the products and services that you’re offering?
KH: In general, we love the fact that our customers are using their Cox IP Internet connection for all kinds of purposes, including streaming video from a multitude of different providers. The over-the-top video providers are a big part of the growth on the Internet and the usage, which makes our high-speed Internet connection valuable to our customers. It’s just different content that they enjoy, so there’s no conflict there. In fact, we’re building our network to handle initial over-the-top video because of the huge demand by our customers, and we also provide information like that through our services like Contour or other video products that we offer as well.
MCN: What are the biggest opportunities for Cox in using big data and analytics?
KH: We have a saying within Cox that we provide life’s most important connections for our customers. So whether that’s their video service, their high-speed data service or their voice service, providing instant connection is a thing that means the most to them. We rolled out Contour about a year ago, providing personalized recommendations based on an individual’s personal preferences. From a network perspective, for example, we’re constantly getting data analytics to understand whether or not there is network congestion. We can then make sure we deploy incremental network investment to reduce any contention on the network based on these analytics that were coming from a real-time perspective. It’s all about providing a personalization for our customers and all about providing a better quality service from a network perspective to our end customers.
MCN: How important is proactive care and how difficult is it to pull off?
KH: It’s very important and realistic. Working with some of our own development internally at Cox, but then also through CableLabs and with other MSOs, we’ve developed a series of different tools that can proactively detect various potential issues on the network we and can dispatch technicians in advance of customer impact and customer calls just based on signal loss. Full-band spectrum analyzers can detect potential trouble on a network. We can monitor that and proactively dispatch repair agents ahead of customer issues. And there will be more and more capabilities like that. You’ll see more and more proactive customer maintenance tools and techniques being deployed with Cox and with other MSOs in 2015.
MCN: Cox is in the process of transitioning to an all-digital platform. What does that entail and how is it going?
KH: We launched our all-digital product [in the first week of November]. Something unique about this is that we spent the last year or so partnering with customer-focus groups, interviewing real customers and really trying to understand the customer journey in terms of the conversion from analog to digital and really trying to simplify the customer experience. We made a lot of investment in customer self-service, being able to enter an order and place a drop shipment or an ATA to be delivered to the home with a self-install kit and to do all that from an ecommerce perspective over the web and have the order flow through and our provision.
We’re trying to take customer experience to the next level and I think we’re making some good strides with our recently launched alldigital product that we launched in Connecticut. So far we’ve done quite well with a 90% self-install rate and we’re getting good positive feedback from the customers so far.
MCN: When do you start transitioning the rest of your customers and how long will that take?
KH: We have plans to go market by market in 2015 and 2016 to really make sure that we can provide a great quality service through this transition on a market-by-market basis. It’s only been a few weeks, but we’re probably 10 times ahead of schedule in terms of the volume that we’ve expecting, so it’s going quite well. Perhaps we can accelerate over time, but it should play out over 2015 and 2016.