The Day the Network Died
There are millions of satisfied customers served by Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) and ADSL over paired copper distribution circuits. Fewer than 5 customers out of 100 call Telcos with problems. The rest just pay their telephone bill every month providing countless dollars in revenue.
Yes, convergence is a great idea and increasingly, customers will be served by wireless and fiber-to-the-home. However, despite predictions that FTTH was imminent, for some time to come copper that is well maintained will serve countless customers while Telcos are moving ever so gradually to the wireless fiber world.
Copper in 1989
The following is from a 1989 column I wrote about deregulation. When re-reading this article last weekend, I was surprised at my predictions and how close the story is to current conditions. Despite being a cash cow, many companies haven’t maintained copper because they were so sure other solutions such as fiber would be their bread and butter.
This 1989 article begins with a short fictional story.
Overshoe, Ohio -- Joseph Digby III, president of Joe’s Own Telephone Company, met today with the press and a gathering of disgruntled subscribers to announce the final and complete service saturation of the company’s outside plant. “I must apologize,” an obviously shaken Digby said. “There’s not a good cable pair left to cut to. We’re out. We just used the last pair over in East Overshoe at 10:30 this morning.” In answer to a question about what would happen next, Digby bristled and said, “Let them go wireless --
whenever it gets here.”
Although a bit farfetched, this is a condition many Telcos are approaching in their distribution plant.
How did they get where they are? Deregulation? That’s part of it, maybe a large part. We’re not saying that deregulation is all bad although why anyone would want to take the best telephone service in the world and muck it up to a point where it is unrecognizable to the customer is beyond us. We are only stating that deregulation has placed managers of all operating companies in an almost untenable position.
With competition, managers are placed in a cost-cutting mode, and the first place to cut costs in this labor-intensive industry is to reduce personnel. At an average loaded man-hour rate of some $150 an hour, this works on paper, but the work itself doesn’t go away. And, because overloaded technicians are forced -- even encouraged -- to put a Band-Aid on a trouble that develops into a festering cancer in the plant, small troubles become terminal.
New terminology is being used by service and cable repair techs to cover the same old quick-fix service. A Get Service Order (GSO) or a Clear Defective Pair (CDF) dispatch demands that the technician get a pair from the CO to the customer any way possible. As the plant gets crowded, even a cut-through (dedicated) pair is stolen to supply new service. A mess by any other name is still a mess.
This condition is caused either by an engineering force that has not predicted growth accurately, or by technicians who are cutting-to-clear rather than finding and fixing a trouble, or both.
Engineering is an administrative matter. But preventive maintenance is probably the most important part of a maintenance program. All too many times it is neglected in the pursuit of customer service at any cost.
Granted, customer service is the only product a Telco offers. But in modern plant, distribution copper (other than POTS service) must be clean and held to high transmission characteristics. The old “if it touches, it talks” attitude won’t work with bandwidth services. Any service offered at the expense of a distribution plant is a kiss of death. Swift attention must be paid to new service orders, as they are a source of additional revenue. Many of these are business customers and any dissatisfaction may send them to the competition.
Out-of-service customer trouble competes with new service. In the rush to please and placate the customer, service and repair bureaus make unrealistic appointments for clearing times. The maintenance control manager overrides the dispatch computer to keep up. This adds to windshield time and totally disrupts the workday.
Rural areas are affected more than urban and suburban areas. Often a technician must drive for an hour or more to reach an isolated area or a small town. Even though statistically there almost certainly is more trouble in the area, the control manager pulls the repairman as soon as the dispatch trouble is cleared, instead of allowing some routine maintenance work while waiting for the next report. This leads to technicians passing each other on the road, wondering where management has placed its head at that particular moment.
Some managers are under the misconception that we can maintain this Keystone-Cops scheduling by encouraging cutting-to-clear, and then bulk recover later. This works well if the manager can either get promoted or transferred in good time. The effect can be dumped on someone else.
If a company is going to continue to grow, and personnel has been cut to the bone, the employees left must be equipped and trained to become complete telephone technicians, able to perform a multitude of tasks efficiently.
Technicians are supplied with multi-function test sets but are not properly trained. Because these test sets are difficult to understand and use, too often the tech goes halfway, opens the cable, looks both ways for the trouble, goes halfway again, etc. This is troubleshooting at its most primitive and time-consuming.
We have here an example of available equipment not used to its fullest capabilities. Unfortunately there is a vast amount of good test equipment lying fallow in work centers, on trucks and in tool centers. These sets are not obsolete; they are accurate, valuable tools. They’re just not completely understood. Understanding comes with training.
Training is an ambiguous expense. Where a test set has dimension, weight, cords, dials, and buttons, as well as a claim of efficiency, training has only the claim. Any “free” vendor training obviously has this cost factored into the total price of the test equipment. But consider also that the manufacturer’s sales rep knows the line of equipment better than most. He knows the limitations of the test sets, and knows how to get the most out of them in the field.
Most plant training schools have been using self-paced courses that are too often geared to the mediocre technician. Training that could be completed by most technicians in a matter of hours takes days, and field managers are questioning the cost-effectiveness of pulling a bored, turned-off technician out of the field for so long. This is changing; more progressive training centers are sending trainers to the field to work as a hands-on team with their students on the plant the technicians see in real life.
When managers schedule technician training, they expect to get a return on the monies spent. This includes all costs associated with the schooling (salary, per diem, time out of the field, etc.), and should project a future profit in increased efficiency on the job.
If it costs the Telco $2,000 to train a technician to recover pairs instead of using another pair to restore service, it would take a total of 2.7 fixed pairs (which normally would have been cut) to recover training costs. And, of course, more pairs are available for future service needs. And profits.
If Joe’s Own Telephone Company could turn back the clock and put into place a program of supported preventive maintenance performed by a skilled, informed, trained OSP crew, all those jammed cables and lost pairs could be avoided; new services could be supported.
The network doesn’t have to die. It doesn’t even have to age all that fast. It’s a matter of priorities. The customer always comes first; he is our employer. But first is a relative term. If you keep the customer in service in well-maintained plant, there won’t be a disgruntled crowd attending the funeral of service in Overshoe.
Today to 2012
There’s no doubt in my mind that wireless and fiber will bring tremendous advantages to our demand for more, better and faster but for today and for many years ahead, copper is supporting most homes -- it’s paid for, so take care of it.
What do you have to say? Has your company been among the smart providers who’ve taken care of the copper infrastructure? If so, I’d love to hear more. And I’d like to hear from those of you who work for companies that haven’t take care of copper: How are you dealing with the problems? Contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 831.818.3930.