Ops: Digital Engineers Hard to Find

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Finding, training and retaining front-line engineers and
technicians who know digital technology is moving to the top of the challenge list for
operators around the nation.

Digitally savvy engineers and technicians are now valuable
commodities, and preparing them for the digital future is quickly becoming a crucial part
of operators' business plans, prompting an all-out search for trainable engineers and
technicians and a re-emphasis on training.

'Digital is in its early stages, and it takes time to
be in the field, so there are lots of theories,' said Roland Hieb, chairman of the
National Cable Television Institute. 'We've been asked for digital courses, but
there's little in the field to offer them.'

Most operators agreed that intense training is crucial if
engineers and technicians are to stay ahead of the digital curve. At Tele-Communications
Inc., which has been at the forefront of digital rollouts, serious digital schooling was
involved in its initial launches, said Colleen Abdoulah, assistant to the chief operating
officer of cable operations.

Hieb is researching and writing a digital curriculum that
will cover all aspects of digital training.

'We began gathering data a few years ago. What's
driving us now is actually having applications and hardware in the field,' Hieb said.
'You need a different mind-set and regiment of testing. Engineers have been hard to
find because digital is so new. But engineers who have maintained analog [technologies]
can certainly handle digital.'

The first part of the NCTI's new digital curriculum
will be ready in mid-1998, and it will include a digital overview and nomenclature
describing manufacturer terminology, Hieb said.

'After that, we'll roll out [courses on]
troubleshooting, setup and an understanding of hardware, like set-top equipment. We have
input from all of the major set-top manufacturers, and we will have dedicated people to
keep the information current,' he said.

Abdoulah said TCI put techs and engineers through a
'hands-on,' two-week training course with NextLevel Systems Inc. (which will
become General Instrument Corp. next month), aimed at allowing staffers to learn at their
own systems.

'There is a definite learning curve, but it's
pretty straightforward -- how HITS [Headend in the Sky] interfaces, and so on,'
Abdoulah said.

After the two-week course, most staffers received three
weeks of on-the-job experience, 'and then they're comfortable,' she said.

One recurring digital challenge for engineers: dealing with
the 5- to 40-megahertz return path, Abdoulah said -- especially considering TCI's
aggressive moves to activate its networks for bidirectional signaling.

'We have an aggressive three-year schedule for
two-way. By year-end 1998, over 40 percent of our plant will be two-way,' Abdoulah
said.

The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers is also
taking an aggressive stance with digital training.

'Last year, our focus was on building a broad
knowledge base of digital, while this year's focus is on building
application-specific deployment,' said Marv Nelson, vice president of technical
programs for the SCTE. 'We're taking a very aggressive stance on producing
training materials.'

Specifically, the SCTE is updating its monthly DigiPoints
publication, along with activity workbooks for students. A two-day 'Data
Communications for Technicians' seminar has also attracted more attendees, Nelson
said.

'In 1997, there wasn't a high level of response.
Now, we're getting a lot of calls for the session,' he noted. The reason:
digital video and data deployments by many MSOs and the resultant need for engineer and
technician training.

Nelson agreed that engineers and technicians who are
already familiar with analog technologies will ultimately be competent in digital.

'We should bring these people up to speed on digital
through their analog training. If they haven't been trained in analog, operators will
have trouble with digital technicians. The goal is for analog and digital to work
together,' he said.

Training digital engineers and technicians is also being
addressed by the Broadband Telecommunications Center, a collaboration of three
universities: Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University and the University
of Georgia. Its purpose is to explore advanced technologies to complete the 'last
mile' of digital communications, and to produce engineers and technicians who can
pave the way.

'Attracting and keeping quality engineers and
technicians is a real challenge for the cable industry,' said Mike Cummins, director
and CEO of the Georgia Center for Advanced Telecommunications Technology.

Companies including Cox Communications Inc., BellSouth
Corp., Sprint Corp., GTE Corp. and others work with BTC students in developing new
technologies and studying new developments and the business impact of digital, Cummins
said.

'Typically, universities have developed
cable-compatible graduates. We want to develop cable-ready engineering graduates,'
said Daniel Howard, associate director of the BTC.

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