Battling ‘Crappy Pictures’

8:05 AM -- TORONTO -- Airing their dirty laundry about digital video quality, Canadian cable operators say they’re still grappling for ways to measure and resolve the signal quality problems plaguing their customers.

In an unusually frank panel discussion at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Canadian Summit here last week, engineering officials from three top Canadian MSOs admitted that they often don’t have a good handle on the video and audio problems that their subscribers suffer. Although they have plenty of network monitoring tools at their disposal, they complained that these tools don’t tell them nearly everything they need to know about customers’ video problems.

Michel Lapointe, senior analyst in the digital video technologies development group at Videotron Ltd. , said current network analysis tools simply can’t measure many digital signal quality problems automatically. As examples, he ticked off such problems as audio phase reversal, audio channel misplacement, total audio distortion, video field reversal, and what he termed “annoying macro-blocking.”

“As of now, the test equipment I’m using are customer calls,” he said. “That’s not good.” Noting that few of those viewers who encounter “crappy pictures” actually call to complain about them, he half-jokingly said that he “could kiss” the customers who call because that’s the only way he often finds out about any picture problems.

Mark Shinozaki, director of the two-year-old network quality assurance group at Rogers Communications Inc. (Toronto: RCI), said “a major challenge” for the MSO is that it’s tough to craft network signal quality metrics that truly reflect the customer’s experience. So the MSO is now developing “customer-based metrics,” including reductions in customer calls and service-related truck rolls, and conducting more frequent customer surveys.

“Our belief is that by focusing in on our customer experience in our day-to-day activities, it would have a significant impact in terms of return on investment,” Shinozaki said. “However you get the information to understand the key problems that your customers are having -- whether it’s call volumes, anecdotal information, someone who can replicate the problem, whatever -- focusing on network-related initiatives to try to resolve some of these key issues that are affecting your customers has tremendous value.”

Despite the limitations of such network monitoring tools, Stephen Shaw, a digital cable engineer for Cogeco Communications (Toronto: CCA), urged his colleagues to embrace network-wide monitoring platforms immediately. He noted that Cogeco has learned a great deal about its digital signal quality problems since adopting monitoring tools in 2008.

“If you’re not using a monitoring platform presently, then go out and get one because you have no idea what’s happening,” Shaw said. “You need to monitor this stuff. You’ve just got to do it.” He estimated that such a platform “pays for itself in probably the first two months.”

Dave Higgins, vice president of quality assurance for Comcast Media Center (CMC) , said finding the best ways to measure the customer’s quality of experience is key. He noted that one way Comcast Media Center has tried to do this is by recruiting subscribers to participate in its “Golden Eye” program, which asks viewers to watch out for six different types of signal problems, including macro-blocking, loudness, haloing, and smearing. But even these methods have their limitations.

“At times, I feel a little bit like Columbo, Higgins said, referring to the fictional TV detective. “You get the [customer] phone call and you’re like a detective. You get these problems that just go on and on and on for weeks and, in some cases, months.”

— Alan Breznick, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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