Small Operators Are Plowing Back

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Despite the recession, small cable operators are still investing in expansions to their networks, out of competitive necessity and to capture customers for phone and high-speed Internet services.

About 250 representatives of those cable companies came to the National Cable Television Cooperative’s winter education conference Feb. 24 to 25, a conference that led off with a discussion of how three different independent operators were upgrading their plant. They also met with representatives of 50 technology firms, eager to help them do those upgrades and add services once they’ve done so.

Matt Phillips, CEO of SinglePipe Communications, which provides cable firms a way to offer Internet-based phone services, said he’d seen no slowdown in his customers’ expansion plans. “We’ve just had our busiest four months,” he said.

In that leadoff panel, Ken Jordan of Troy Cablevision in Troy, Ala., which has overbuilt Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, 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 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 mothership. 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 Massillon, Ohio, updated operators on his project to convert to all-digital channels, thereby reclaiming analog spectrum. He’s had some hiccups with the digital-to-analog converters he needs to get to subscribers — notably a power-supply recall that affected some 70,000 DTAs — 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.

Once Massillon starts reclaiming analog channels, Gessner is eager to begin rapidly adding high-definition programming to compete against satellite-TV and other rivals.

“I want to load up 15 to 18 per week for the first three weeks,” and to have added 80 HD channels by early June, he said.

Buckeye CableSystem, also in Ohio, is using yet a different technology, switched digital video, provided by BigBand Networks.