Cable operators that have launched self-installation offers to help reduce costs and speed the deployment of digital cable and high-speed Internet access have had some pleasant surprises along the way.
Many consumers actually appreciate the option of installing cable modems and digital set-top boxes themselves. And a vast majority of those who attempt a self-install are able to accomplish the task.
MSOs and their vendor partners have been making a gradual move to the self-installation model over the past year. In large part, that's been to help offset the dearth of professional installers available for hire. As demand for new products heats up and unemployment rates cool down, cable operators are looking at any means possible to deploy their equipment into homes before their competitors in the direct-broadcast satellite or digital subscriber line worlds can beat them to the punch.
"There are two ways to meet the increased demand," Road Runner group vice president of customer operations Dave Temlak said.
One is for operators to hire additional qualified installers. But after a year or so of introducing cable-modem service to a market, Temlak noted, a system has generally reached the saturation point in terms of technicians available for hire.
The other option is to take advantage of technical applications and marketing tools that make self-installation an option, Temlak added.
Professional installers are sometimes wary when their employer starts talking about self-installation, Temlak admitted, but they need not be.
"There's never a need for fewer installers," he said. "But as you continue to grow, you might not have to hire as many new ones" if self-installation is an option.
Adelphia Communications Corp. is adding about 1,800 high-speed cable modem customers each week, and plans to move towards adding several thousand each week next year, director of product marketing Dan Jolley said.
"There's no way we can do that [only] with our own installers," Jolley added.
Set-top vendor Scientific-Atlanta Inc. is working to help its affiliates offer self-installation options for digital cable.
"As the demand starts to increase, it is clearly part of our strategy to help deploy the boxes into the field," S-A vice president of subscriber network services Sherita Ceasar said. Self-installation can reduce operators' labor costs and offer process and cycle-time improvements, Ceasar added.
The bottom line for operators: "They get to deploy a lot more boxes more quickly," Ceasar said.
Removing the need to schedule professional installation appointments also helps operators move into new distribution channels, most notably retail.
Cablevision Systems Corp., for example, has used its retail consumer-electronics chain, The Wiz, to help push both its Optimum Online cable-modem service and its self-installation model.
After its success in launching Optimum Online at The Wiz in October of 1999, Cablevision this year added direct mail, telemarketing and online orders to the distribution mix.
An Optimum Online direct-mail effort earlier this year garnered a 2-percent sales rate. The modem and the self-installation kit were shipped via United Parcel Service of America Inc. from a new fulfillment center.
New customers were able to self-provision and self-install, which means that they could select an electronic-mail address without calling in to Cablevision's customer-service center.
"Self-installation allows us to sell through a variety of sales channels that might not be available to us otherwise," Cablevision senior vice president of product management and sales Patricia Falese said.
Comcast Corp. plans to deploy its Comcast@Home co-branded installation kits through several retail chains, including RadioShack Corp., Circuit City Stores Inc. and 500 independent retailers, national director of marketing Suzanne McFadden said.
"We also have these available in our [mall] kiosks," McFadden said. "This will be a great impulse item. Consumers can have it up and running Christmas Day."
While the benefits of self- installation to operators may appear obvious, there seems to be no need to strong-arm consumers into the option.
"What gets lost is that customers value having more control over the process," Excite@Home Corp. senior director of product development Richard Holden said.
Consumers enjoy the ability to pick up a cable modem at retail and have the equipment up and running the same day.
"That's different from DSL, where line provisioning may take weeks and the wiring another few days," Holden said. "It can be a four- to six-week process or longer."
The same time-saving advantage also applies to digital cable.
"To the consumer, instead of scheduling an installation, they can do it whenever it's convenient for them-a Saturday morning, for example," Comcast vice president of marketing and new products Andy Addis said. "It gives them an option to get this exactly when they want it."
For some eager do-it-yourselfers, the benefits go beyond saving time by avoiding the need to schedule an installation appointment.
"From a consumer perspective, as with other appliances, half the fun is doing it yourself," Ceasar said.
When it comes to self- installing cable modems, consumer concerns often go beyond the self-satisfaction of completing the installation solo.
"A lot of consumers are real jittery about our guys touching their computers," AT & T Broadband vice president of high-speed data operations Kirk Darfler said. "This gives the customer the ability to decide what mechanism to use to do the install."
Though self-installation is presently a hot topic among cable operators, the various MSOs are moving to the self-install model at different speeds.
"We understand, from an MSO standpoint, some systems are more ready than others for [digital set-top box] self-installation," Motorola Inc. digital-network systems director of market development Dwight Sakuma said. "Self-installation is really keyed to plant readiness."
Comcast launched its self- installation option for digital cable in a handful of markets, including Union, N.J., about one year ago, Addis said. The option is not yet universally available in all Comcast Digital Cable markets.
"About 70 to 90 percent of our systems offer self-installation," Addis said. "Where they don't, the plant might be a little older. Installations may be more problematic and require installer tweaking at the home."
Cox Communications Inc. has started to offer digital cable self-installation in Macon, Ga., and is in trials in another nine markets, said vice president of marketing Joe Rooney.
On the cable-modem front, among top MSOs Cablevision leads the way in self-installation. According to Falese, well over 90 percent of the company's cable-modem customers elect to install on their own, and of those, 80 percent do not require a truck roll.
Today, Cablevision customers can pick up a cable modem at retail or order one online or over the phone. With self-provisioning, new customers don't need to call a customer service representative to activate their service or add their names to the billing system.
Full self-provisioning is still a far-off goal for other operators. Many see it as the last step in a multi-stage move towards self-installation.
When Cablevision launched its cable-modem retail model through The Wiz last year, customers had to stop at on-site service desks to get their new e-mail addresses. "The introduction of self-provisioning was an important next step in following self-install last year," Falese said.
Adelphia plans to launch a self-installation offer for new cable-modem customers in the first quarter of next year, Jolley said.
"Initially, we will still require a call for provisioning of e-mail and billing," he added. "We're looking at software to do that. That's step two, late next year."
Road Runner has tested self-provisioning in two of its affiliate markets, Temlak said. "The challenge is the complexity of the billing systems," he added, especially when operators acquire cable companies that use a number of different billing platforms.
In a number of its high-speed Internet markets, Cox allows consumers to do the PC work on their cable modem.
"We call it a 'semi self- install' because there's still some work we need to do in the home," Rooney said. The second stage of Cox's self-install plan will be implemented in the first quarter of next year and will allow customers to do the cable part of the installation as well, he added.
AT&T is conducting a trial of what Darfler called a "basic install" in a suburban Pittsburgh system.
"It's halfway between full [professional] installation and our end state, a true self- installation," he added. "The customer does the data portion on the PC. Our installer does the RF portion and removes the necessary filters."
Comcast offers self-installation options for its cable-modem service in all markets except the ones that still rely on telephone return paths, McFadden said. "About 90 percent of our markets can do it," she added.
When Comcast customers self-install, they typically handle both the in-home cable work and the PC portion. If the customer's nearest cable outlet is two or three floors away, however, Comcast technicians would need to roll a truck to install cable for the additional outlet.
"Most customers in modern locations have multiple cable drops in the house already," Holden noted.
CABLE GUY CONNECTS
Charter Communications Inc. senior vice president of communications David Anderson said the MSO is not yet doing much with self-installation. It is observing how consumers accept such offers from other cable operators.
While Charter has not ruled out self-installation, Anderson said there are some benefits to sending an installer into consumers' homes.
"We like the opportunity for the customer interaction," Anderson said. "It provides us with an opportunity to educate the customer, whether it's Charter Pipeline or Charter Digital. Because they're advanced services, they can have complicated features that we want to make sure the customers understand."
Other operators conducting self-installation trials are looking closely at how removing the installer from the customer education process will affect subscriber satisfaction.
In the nine markets where Cox is testing self-installs for digital cable boxes, "we want to learn how it impacts the call centers," Rooney said. "We want to make sure it's not more costly in repeat calls than what it saves in truck rolls."
Rooney agreed that good installers help upsell new digital customers to additional pay-per-view and premium movie services, and wants to determine whether Cox is missing out on such opportunities if the installer no longer makes a home visit.
A well-stocked self-install kit can go a long way toward keeping the consumer educated. Operators, equipment vendors, third-party service providers and retailers all have a stake in making sure the customer knows exactly what's necessary to complete the installation.
Excite@Home recently unveiled its new Quick Start branded installation kit, which was introduced first through RadioShack stores in select Comcast@Home service areas. The kit includes all the cabling needed to do a self-install, as well as a CD-ROM that "takes the customer from start to finish," Holden said.
Other MSOs, including Cox and AT&T, plan to start testing the kit next month, and other retailers, such as CompUSA Inc. and Circuit City, are also on board. Excite@Home took input from operators, retailers and customer trials in working out details of the Quick Start kit, Holden noted.
"There's always the concern that if customers do more themselves, they'll get more frustrated," Holden said. "That's why we took time in introducing the kit."
The company also took some time in deciding which brand name to put on the box.
Excite@Home wanted to make clear the process was quick and easy, Holden said, "from the perspective that every consumer out there could do this," not just so-called techies.
Road Runner also conducted "tons of focus groups" on its self-installation kits, Temlak said. Its self-installation package, called Road Runner Connect, includes the modem, cable wire, network interface card when requested and a multi-purpose CD-ROM.
The Road Runner CD first pre-qualifies the customer's PC to make sure it meets minimum requirements to run the broadband service. It then installs the Road Runner software.
It also configures user applications, such as e-mail, and verifies the network connection. Software includes a Road Runner Medic that allows subscribers to run self-diagnostic programs after installation.
Like the Quick Start kit, the Road Runner Connect kit is co-branded by the cable operator. Operators can add their own elements, such as promotional coupons and CD-based training, Temlak noted.
Motorola put its own brand name on the self-install kit for the digital-cable boxes from its Broadband Communications Sector.
"We want to start getting the consumer and the subscriber to know the box they're putting in their home is a Motorola box, especially as retail becomes more important," Sakuma said.
Although Motorola customers cannot co-brand the self-install box itself, they can place their names on the oversized instruction sheet that's included inside. The set-top maker also encourages MSOs to add system-specific information to remote controls and electronic-programming guides.
Motorola's instructions offer tips on hooking up a digital- cable box directly to a television or to a VCR or audio receiver.
INSIDE THE KIT
In its nine digital cable self- installation trial markets, Cox uses both Scientific-Atlanta and Motorola boxes, Rooney said. Installation kits include a videotape that walks new customers through the digital programming and how to use the on-screen navigator. A booklet takes self-installers through the hook-up step by step.
In its Optimum Online self-install kit, Cablevision includes an instruction manual, a CD-ROM and sometimes a video.
"The most frequently used tool is the manual, according to our research," Falese said, along with the instruction manuals that come with the various PC peripherals involved.
The attention focused on the education materials seems to have paid off. Although Cablevision provides call center help to self-installers who need it, "the number of calls is low," Falese said, "and the number of rescue calls [that would require a truck roll] is extremely low."
Others report their own self-install success stories.
"Currently we see about a 92-percent success rate on self-installs," Darfler said of AT&T's model, in which the professional technician handles the cable work and the customer installs the software. "That's incredibly successful."
Holden said Excite@Home has found that 85 percent of customers in trials completed a self-install without any help at all. Most of the others completed the installation with phone help, "and a small percentage needed a truck roll," he said.
On the Road Runner side, "about one percent of those that attempt a self-install need a truck roll," Temlak said, down from 3 percent in earlier days.
On the digital-cable side, Comcast diagnoses problems over the phone as much as possible, Addis said. Roughly 12 to 15 percent of self- installers might require assistance from installers.
Yet despite the high success rates, many marketing executives believe there will always be a model for professional installation.
"If you've ever looked behind a TV to all the wires, it can be daunting," Rooney said. That's one reason why digital cable may never go to 100 percent self-installation, especially among customers with sophisticated home-theater systems.
"There are different segments of customers out there," Holden said. "Some will want a full-service install, which might cost one thing, versus a basic self-install that might cost nothing and that they can get the same day."
In the short term, cost is not necessarily what drives self- installation, particularly when a number of MSOs offer free professional installation during frequent customer-acquisition campaigns.
When asked what types of consumer incentives MSOs should offer to encourage self-installation, Rooney replied: "You don't have to offer a whole lot. The advantage is you don't have to wait for the cable guy."
That said, Cox@Home customers in some markets save $50 to $100 by handling the PC portion of the installation themselves.