Tales From the Trenches

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Several years ago, a customer in Englewood, Colo., called her cable company with a complaint: Her TV had become “possessed” after cable was installed.

Hugh Long, a technician working for the local system, was dispatched to check things out, expecting to find a simple explanation for the trouble.

Then he saw the television move.

As he stood dumbstruck, the homeowner suggested he try moving the TV back. He did, and it moved again. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the cable moving between the set and the wall.

When Long went to the window, he saw the outside drop cable, which had not been buried, in the teeth of the family dog — who was waiting for the next tug on his new toy.

In the wooly, wired world of cable installers and field-service technicians, rambunctious pets and oddball customers are regular parts of the everyday grind. After years of just handling video, the technical aspects of the job have grown tougher.

Techs today are responsible for setting up video, voice and data services in an increasingly complex array of configurations. But that aspect may be relatively easy compared with the unexpected roadblocks they run into: stoners, attack dogs, exotic pets and the inevitable seething, sanctimonious customer.

As the economy stumbles, satellite- and telco-TV operators are eager to steal subscribers. Cable technicians, working with the customer-service department, have never been more important as the key link to customers.

“Many times, that premises technician is the face of the company, and many times it's the only face customers ever see,” said Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers director of education and certification Pam Nobles. “That whole first impression is critical.”

But the odds are often stacked against cable technicians, vilified by comedian Jim Carrey in the 1996 feature film The Cable Guy. Close encounters of the animal kind are routine.

Karl Poirer, manager of field engineering and special projects for CableServ of Ontario, Canada, recalls an afternoon not long ago that still makes him shake his head in disbelief.

On his last job of the day, Poirer had strung and stapled cable across the ceiling of a finished basement. But when he went up to the ground floor to retrieve the cable, nothing was sticking up through the floor. He returned to the basement and found the cable and all of the staples pulled out of the ceiling and lying on the floor. The homeowners, still working in their garden, couldn't have perpetrated the vandalism.

He replaced the plant and went upstairs again. No cable. He returned to the basement to find the same result. He installed it a third time — only this time, he climbed halfway up the stairs and waited.

It turns out the homeowners did not tell him they had a pet. Poirer watched as a monkey appeared from nowhere to travel paw over paw down the new installation, again ripping it from the basement ceiling.

A Time Warner Cable tech, on a job to change out a set-top in Manhattan, came across another exotic pet — an iguana — parked comfortably atop the existing converter. It simply refused to dismount the cable box, even when nudged by the owner.

The technician then remembered that iguanas are cold-blooded, reasoning that was why it was so comfortable on top of the warm equipment. He decided to disconnect the converter, allowing it to cool.

The iguana did, indeed, move off. The technician then connected the new one and after it warmed up, the iguana made its way to the new one and stayed there happily.

Uninvited creatures can present bigger problems. John Filipowicz, president of residential markets for RCN, was accompanying a tech to install phone service in a basement-level apartment in New York City.

“The superintendent went down with us, holding a broom,” he said. The trio heard a loud scrabbling sound behind the wall. “I said, 'What's that noise?' The super said, 'That's why I'm here with a broom — there are rats in the wall, and they're the size of cats.'” The phone was hooked up before the mutant rodents showed themselves.

In Anchorage, Alaska, technicians need to be on the lookout for moose wandering through town, according to Kevin Sheridan, vice president of combined-service delivery for GCI. Still, “the traditional nemesis of the technician is the dog,” Sheridan noted, adding: “Our dogs tend to be a little big up here.”

Of course, humans can be as hostile and strange as anything in the animal kingdom. Thomas Dutra, now with Arris Group, related an install he performed for Cablevision Systems in the late 1980s. The affluent homeowner in Westchester County, N.Y., specified emphatically that nothing be placed on her new floor. Kneeling, Dutra tried to keep his installation drill on the toe of his boot, leaning the business end up into his armpit. Meanwhile, he balanced a box of interior cable on the other knee.

Without checking the drill's trigger lock, he plugged it in and it started to spin. He was grateful it was January and he was heavily dressed. The homeowner's response, upon witnessing the extraction from his underarm: “I thought I said nothing on the floor!”

On a recent ride-along with a technician, Cox Communications vice president of field service Catherine Mitchell encountered an irate customer who complained that his Internet router was out. Mitchell and her colleague arrived to find a man who had been “smoking marijuana all day long.”

He was also fuming mad, demanding that Cox restore his broadband router. The tech knew the unit wasn't even one Cox supplied, but the customer, in his hazy condition, couldn't be persuaded otherwise. “I just wanted to walk out,” Mitchell said.

But the Cox technician just calmly played along, she said, and eventually resolved the situation by selling the subscriber a new router.

GCI's Sheridan once dealt with a customer who believed “people could watch her through the television set,” he said. “She said she couldn't sit in her living room and watch TV in her bathrobe.”

During his visit, after inspecting the TV, he told the customer he had installed a special filter on the cable so that nobody could see her anymore — which satisfied her. “Every customer is unique,” Sheridan said dryly.

Sometimes installers — about half of whom are employed directly by MSOs, with the rest working for third-party contractors, according to the SCTE's Nobles — are their own worst enemy. Remember the video of the Comcast technician taking a nap on a customer's couch that ricocheted around the Web two years ago?

A cable field-service supervisor who asked not to be identified remembers a call from a technician who had gone into the attic and smashed his foot through the homeowner's dining-room ceiling. Stunned, the supervisor raced out to the home to help with the paperwork and to calm the homeowner. When he arrived, the hapless tech was on the driveway with the customer, who was now absolutely apoplectic.

When the repairman went back to the attic to retrieve his tools, he had slipped again — this time falling through the ceiling, landing on his back on the dining room table.

Nobles, who previously oversaw Comcast's CommTech training program for field installers, said that when the industry began offering telephony and broadband services in the 1990s, it spawned a new category of specialists. Two technicians were routinely dispatched for an installation.

But by 2005 or so, those tasks were collapsed back into one job, she said. Now, a premises technician is expected to install and service the triple play — video, voice, and high-speed data — and be knowledgeable about home networks, high-definition TVs, home theaters, video-game consoles and any number of other digital devices.

Cox, for one, has set a goal to train at least 70% of its technicians to support data, voice and video. Mitchell said it's tough to train everyone on all services, because “we always have people coming and going.”

The hardest — and most time-consuming — part isn't necessarily activating the services, drilling the holes or stringing cable. Usually, it's educating a customer on all three services and ensuring that everything meets his or her expectations, said Jeff Minnich, RCN's director of operations, training and facilities for Pennsylvania.

Installers generally prefer tech-savvy subscribers, who may have complex equipment of recent vintage and are less likely to require a follow-up truck roll. There's inevitably “someone who wants us to set up Internet service with their Windows 95 computer,” Minnich said. “With older equipment, it can take a couple of calls to fully figure out how to deliver what they want.”

Not all calls are so amusing — sometimes technicians confront life-and-death dramas.

Bob Gessner, president of Massillon Cable TV in northeast Ohio, said one of the company's technicians recently was on a service call at the home of a 95-year-old man. As the worker was leaving, the customer suffered a stroke. “The tech literally caught him as he started to fall to the floor,” he said.

The Massillon employee called 911 and the man was rushed to the hospital. The elderly customer died three weeks later, but Gessner said the family “was very, very appreciative of the attention the tech paid to him and them.”

A far lighter family drama unfolded during a recent service call by Steve Cole, a technician Cox's West Warwick, R.I., office.

In diagnosing a malfunctioning DVR, the tech determined the unit had a bad drive. He explained to the customers, including their 4-year-old daughter, that he'd have to swap out the box. But when he lifted it, he heard something move inside, making a metallic sound.

Cole suspected a blown capacitor. But the girl said, “No, it's the money.”

The child explained she had heard her parents discussing problems paying their bills so she decided to help pay for the cable by putting coins in the slots on the Motorola 6412 DVR. Cole, trying to keep a straight face, advised the preschooler to give the money to her mom and dad in the future.

The embarrassed mother followed him to the truck, apologizing for any damage to the hardware.

Cole responded: “Ma'am, I've had a long, rough day. Your daughter just wiped all of that out and made it better.”

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