Cable Tech

It's Time to Be Proactive

Those who know me well know that I'm a bit of a procrastinator. When there are many tasks to do, it's sometimes advantageous to work on the most urgent tasks while letting other tasks linger on the to-do list. When some of those uncompleted tasks are no longer needed, procrastination pays off. Other times, however, those lingering tasks can converge in a flood of activities that need to be completed urgently. Primarily, the biggest casualty of procrastinating too much is that important but not urgent tasks seldom get completed.

Years ago, I was introduced to Stephen Covey's bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which explains the difference between urgent and important tasks. Stephen divides tasks into four quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1 – urgent and important
  • Quadrant 2 – not urgent but important
  • Quadrant 3 – urgent but not important
  • Quadrant 4 – not urgent and not important

Most of us spend most of our time on urgent tasks. This is especially true for anyone in operations, where degraded service, outages, and customer complaints must be attended to immediately.

Hopefully, those of us working on urgent tasks are in quadrant 1, where we are doing important work. But sometimes, without taking the time for proper analysis or due to circumstances beyond our control, we can get stuck in quadrant 3, where we're doing urgent tasks that really aren't that important. This can easily happen in large companies where paperwork and documentation that might have originally served a good purpose are no longer useful, but still must be completed on an "urgent" basis. Regardless of the importance of our urgent tasks, the fact is that they are all urgent and take all available time.

The valuable lesson I learned from my study of Stephen's book is the need to force myself to spend time in quadrant 2. Without making a conscious effort to spend time in quadrant 2, many important but not yet urgent tasks will not get done. You might be wondering what this conversation about urgency and importance has to do with communications networks. It's simple: Taking care of important tasks before they become urgent increases overall productivity for providers and network performance for customers.

Historically, network maintenance was always done on an urgent basis. When things broke, they got fixed. Although companies had periodic maintenance programs and procedures, the network was so large and so complex that there was no practical way to proactively fix the right components before they became issues. This all changed with the creation of robust proactive network maintenance (PNM) tools, which enable us to find and correct issues before any customer's services are impacted.

Some basic PNM tools, such as evaluating equalizer coefficients, have been around for a decade. But the deployment of DOCSIS 3.1 modems was a game-changer, with every modem having a built-in, full band spectrum analyzer capable of making amplitude and phase measurements. A decade ago, a piece of test equipment with such capability would cost tens of thousands of dollars, and now it's available for every customer's home!

Earlier this year, CableLabs released an update to the Primer for PNM Best Practices in HFC Networks (DOCSIS 3.1), which is a treasure trove of practical information about using PNM features to proactively detect imperfections in the network before they affect service. One of the most useful features is the full band spectrum analyzer in each cable modem, referred to as full band capture (FBC), which allows detection of frequency response signatures. The signatures of modems in the homes in a neighborhood can be compared and correlated to predict exactly where the network has degraded and what the likely cause of the imminent failure is.

Examples of some impairments found using FBC.
Examples of some impairments found using FBC.

One of the more interesting recent discoveries from using FBC is the ability to detect drop cables that are damaged by water. When cables are saturated with water, the FBC response has a non-periodic wave shape with higher attenuation at higher frequencies. An excellent paper on the use of FBC was presented at the 2020 Fall Technical Forum during Cable-Tec Expo and has spectrum plots of various impairments, including water-damaged drops. Recent testing has shown that PNM can detect drop cables that are affecting the DOCSIS signals but are not yet affecting customer service. When those drop cables are removed and carefully inspected, most have small, imperceptible abrasions that would never be discovered by simply looking at the installed drop cable. By using PNM, service to the customer's home can be fixed before the customer ever detects any issues.

Proactive network maintenance tools allow the service provider and the technicians responsible for network operations to operate in quadrant 2 – focusing on very important but not yet urgent tasks. Service providers who actively use PNM tools have seen increased productivity and decreased customer complaints and downtime because proactive maintenance – that identifies and repairs issues before they are urgent – is more cost- and time-efficient.

Take a moment right now to pause your urgent activities and check out the resources that will help you be proactive:

— Dean Stoneback is the senior director of Engineering and Standards at SCTE, the not-for-profit member organization leading the acceleration and deployment of cable telecommunications technology. He is responsible for the development of standards and operational practices for the broadband communications industry. Prior to joining SCTE in 2014, Dean spent 26 years with General Instrument, Motorola and Arris. For more information, visit www.scte.org.

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