Training Issues Concern Small Ops


While small cable operators accelerate their migration to
Internet and other data services, they face the harsh reality of a woeful lack of
technical training, expertise and resources that are crucial to their success.

Outside of the vendor/manufacturer pool of product
trainers, few qualified trainers exist with the knowledge to adequately train engineers
and technicians at smaller cable systems in the nuances of advanced technologies and
computer/telco-related networks.

Consequently, the majority of smaller operators are forced
into seat-of-the-pants training programs while they wait for engineers and technicians to
catch up with technology's advanced learning curve.

"There are just not a lot of trainers out there who
know this stuff [network management, return path and Internet-service provision].
It's tough enough for small operators to get customer-service representatives
schooled. It's a big concern," said Dan Skantar, director of member services for
the Small Cable Business Association.

The problem is exacerbated by the rapid addition of smaller
operators to the Internet- and data-services business, which is now considered to be a
viable revenue stream. And although most smaller operators get the Internet/data-services
message, training their own personnel is a major speed bump to growing these fledgling

"Lots of these services -- like digital, data and
return path -- haven't been done before, so there are not a lot of people who can
talk about them," said Mike Heinze, vice president for new-business development at
Horizon Cable in Michigan.

And Heinze should know: He tried desperately to bring one
of the few existing trainers to his system in central Michigan, with little luck.

"To get them into the cornfields of Michigan to
discuss Internet and data services is difficult," he chuckled. "We couldn't
get anyone to speak to us, so we pooled what knowledge we had and did it ourselves."

Logistics play an important role in new-services training,
as well. Said Ben Hooks, president and CEO of Buford Cable TV, "We have nine areas of
150 miles across, and our technicians work out of their trucks in the field. Training them
for our new data services is a logistical nightmare."

Hooks is improving the situation by clustering enough
systems to have local management teams at various locations throughout its four-state
market, and by using a team of in-house trainers that travels to each system.

"That's really the only effective way to train
our field people," Hooks said.

Interestingly, Hooks noted, Buford's association with
Cable Television Laboratories Inc. has been the most helpful solution to the
company's technical-training problems.

"We can't afford high-priced engineers, so we get
connected to the 'doctorates' of engineering through CableLabs, which our
engineers get valuable knowledge from. They essentially 'go to school' at
CableLabs," Hooks said.

For most smaller operators, however, being schooled in
advanced technologies and their business implications gets down to massive amounts of
technical data, with few teachers having the hands-on experience to effectively interpret
and disseminate the information to small-system personnel. That scenario is leading some
small operators to a home-school approach.

"We do a significant amount of training in
problem-solving skills, including technical problems," said Claudia Richards, general
manager of Cable TV of the Kennebunks in Maine. "At smaller systems like ours, you
want more than one person to know the information. We identify the problem, then find the
person who can interpret the data and find resources to solve it. We try hard to train
people to solve problems."

The information and data, Richards said, are readily
available from a number of sources, including equipment manufacturers, Web sites,
programmers and cable trade organizations such as the National Cable Television
Association and the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers.

Yet each small cable system is unique in its own way,
requiring a system-by-system approach to training, and not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Consequently, a training program that works at one system
most likely won't work at another. And those most affected by the gaps in training
methodologies and the lack of qualified trainers are smaller systems moving quickly into
Internet and data services.

The "big-system" mind-set of plentiful financial
and human resources can also be a factor, according to Skantar.

"There are trainers out there that make certain
assumptions based on their big-system mentality," he said. "I was once asked by
a trainer how many of our headends do ad sales. When I replied, 'Very few,' his
eyes glazed over. Most of our headends were under 1,000 subscribers. That's why we
didn't do it. He didn't understand that."

Understanding the myriad complexities of advanced
technologies and their roles in the new businesses of Internet-, data- and network-related
services is paramount for smaller operators, Hooks insisted. And training its own
employees tops the to-do list.

"Delivering these new services is very complicated,
but we have to make it work. The problem is developing our own hands-on training. How do
we efficiently and effectively train our people to deliver these services?" asked
Hooks. "I wish that I had a secret formula."