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Cable Operators

Technology VP Focuses on Basics in ’06

2/17/2006 7:00 PM Eastern

There is no doubt that Eugene White, vice president of engineering and technology for Bright House Networks’ Tampa division, is a throwback to an earlier era.

The man responsible for the engineering side of the system, which delivers hundreds of video channels, hundreds of thousands of phone calls and millions of bits of data over high-speed connections each day, entered cable when all systems offered were a handful of off-air TV signals.

“I started in the cable business in 1972, after the oil crunch, and never left,” says White, who grew up without television in Colorado. Now he’s charged with making sure Bright House’s customers receive all the services they’ve paid for every day.

White spent most of his career at American Television & Communications Corp. before arriving in Tampa in 1996, when the system was owned by ATC affiliate Paragon Cable.

“We have 63 hubs in seven counties, all wired via fiber,” White said. The systems’ high-speed data and phone service originates from an operations center in Hillsborough County.

On the video side, Bright House operates two master video headends using Scientific-Atlanta Inc. gear — one in Hillsborough County and one in Pinellas County.

The high-speed data, phone and video-origination points are connected to the 63 hubs with fiber through one of 11 OC-192 fiber rings Bright House has deployed.

White also spearheaded the deployment of fiber deeper into the network. “We have a hybrid fiber-coaxial design with 500-home nodes. On average, there are 330 active homes on each 500-home node,” White said.

Tampa was an early pioneer in deploying video on demand in 2001. At the time, White put video servers in every hub, at 60-plus sites. With advancements in fiber, White’s been able to pull content back into the network.

The system now stores on-demand fare at 11 sites. Fewer servers makes maintenance and network monitoring easier. And it is still able to handle 3.5 million to 4 million VOD sessions each month.

White is in the midst of adding more capacity to handle Internet traffic. The current capacity of 28 Megabits per second is being upgraded to 42 Mbps.

The biggest challenge in launching digital phone wasn’t the technology, White said, but resolving the back-office issues. Bright House owns its own Cisco Systems Inc. soft switch in Tampa.

“The old switches were mechanical, but new ones are basically computers,” he said. “It’s really a new discipline. You hire a good switch guy and a guy good with databases.”

White’s also responsible for keeping his workforce trained on new services. While most technicians can handle video, voice and data issues, White does have a group of 20 to 25 specialists that handle high-speed data-only issues.

“The rest of the technicians are generally cross-trained for everything,” he said. “There is continuous training going on for customer-service reps and repair service reps.”

There are certain technologies that White remains cautious about. Time Warner Cable has rolled out switched broadcast video, which allows operators to send out less popular channels only to homes that tune in, but White isn’t sold on the concept, yet.

“Right now, we’re considering all options, but we haven’t activated anything yet,” White said. “My personal view is that I’m not really big on switched unless it’s the least viewed channels. … There is a lot that can go wrong with switching.”

He’s also looking at digital simulcast, but offers the same cautious advice. “Personally, if all-digital is that important, I’ve probably lost those subscribers to satellite,” he said.

Even with the system’s 750 Megahertz plant, which carries 75 analog channels, White said the system has room for, say, 10 more HDTV channels — on top of the 17 its carrying — if needed.

With the digital phone rollout behind him, White intends to focus on the basics in 2006. “The first thing is to just keep the train on tracks, with the growth of the business and the new services going out,” he said. “Just keeping up with that is hard enough.”

September