Front Line Smarts

3:15 PM -- Hiring third-party contractors to handle service installations may make bottom-line sense for many cable operators, but that continued (and sometimes growing) reliance can likewise make MSOs vulnerable to bad installs if those contractors don't live up to a certain set of technical standards.

Cable tech training specialist Jones/NCTI Inc. claims to have identified this problem and hopes to help MSOs remedy it with what it calls the Installer Qualification (IQ) program, which aims to ensure that techs who pass the test at least demonstrate a standard, base level of technical and operational competence before they are awarded a passing grade and allowed to enter the wild.

Depending on the MSO program, those techs, on average, will need to obtain a grade of 75 percent or better to make it through an individual course.

Jones/NCTI has already developed an installation curriculum consisting of courses for video, VoIP, and high-speed data Installations -- enough to round out cable's consumer "triple-play." Although the courses are considered self-paced, a tech could conceivably make it through the triple-play program in about two-and-a-half weeks. A version tailored for small and medium-sized businesses is expected out in March.

Jones/NCTI developed IQ at the behest of its cable MSO partners. Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Charter Communications Inc. started using the program last October. So far, Jones/NCTI has conducted 30,000 IQ "assessments," which are administered via the Internet. But, to keep everything on the up-and-up, those contractors are required to take the tests at one of several thousand sites operated by Performance Assessment Network (PAN). In addition to serving as test proctor, PAN also culls the grade reports and sends the results to the MSOs.

Neil Sullivan, VP of business development at Jones/NCTI, admits that contracting firms grumbled about the IQ program at first. After all, IQ can come off looking like a training watchdog. But, he adds, those contractors are starting to see value in the program, as well, because they are finding themselves on the hook for fewer MSO charge-backs caused by bad installs in the field. On top of that, Jones/NCTI also offers those contractors some career path help in the form of college-level distance learning courses and accreditation programs.

Besides, proper installations also reduce the chance that the customer will readily jump to a competitor.

"There's a lot at stake to do this right the first time," Sullivan says.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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