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ISE Columnist Don McCarty, OSP Expert

Save the cable, keep your technicians, and develop loyal customers.

March 1, 2022
Each cable pair that is placed from a central office or a remote to a customer costs a few thousand to the telco for engineering, placement, heating up, and installation. […]

Each cable pair that is placed from a central office or a remote to a customer costs a few thousand to the telco for engineering, placement, heating up, and installation.

  • When a technician cuts away from such a pair it takes 6.4 years of base-rate revenue before that customer will again show as profit to the telco.
  • In addition, when a section is going bad, each cutover will decrease revenue on that pair and will bring additional costs due to the eventual major costs of section replacement. 

A retired General Manager from a large telco I often worked with once said: There’s a gold mine out there in revenue pairs whose original minor problems were cut to a vacant pair to restore service. 

Today, most operating companies are using the customer for quality control and the identification of cable problems by waiting for complaints before they take action. This occurs despite the fact that these same companies have very elaborate computer programs to indicate potential problems in the field. For example, large telco’s have a program that will indicate a potential cable failure weeks, and sometimes months, before service is affected. However, in my experience, many ignore such problems until the customer complaint is filed. Were proper preventive maintenance required, all these potential problems would be invisible to the customer. And that creates satisfied customers.

Maintenance technicians, who should be handling these cable problems, are, instead, spending most of their time fixing one-pair problems such as a buried drop repair or fixing a single pair for new service. A maintenance technician who finds himself primarily in this business is in repair, not maintenance. The need here is to shift efforts to find the causes of service interruptions, not the effect. If this is done, the cost per access line can be cut in half. 

The Toughest Cases

Over the years, I’ve learned that many sections of cable could have been repaired had the cause been identified. This proper analysis approach could possibly save hundreds of thousands of dollars and eliminate many, many dissatisfied customers.

Usually, the cause was a splice that leaked or a damaged cable sheath. Left to time, these sections were inundated with water and they needed to be replaced. Training and working with many fine, innovative technicians, eventually we were able to save better than 50% of the bad sections by identifying and fixing the cause, rather than replacing them. 

When the cause of the problem wasn’t found, the section was given to engineering for replacement. 

When a section is given to engineering for replacement, it can sometimes lie fallow for years before engineering gets around to replacing it. That’s not always their choice but the higher ups want to see those budgets go towards fiber install and not copper. 

In most instances, all this could be avoided if these copper problems were fixed by the first technician sent out on the trouble ticket. This person must be well-trained because these are tough cases and they must be given the time needed to do the job right. Additionally, this must be a team effort with cooperation between maintenance and engineering.

Free up the maintenance technician to handle cable problems and put a stop to the cut-to-clear approach. Get back in the maintenance business instead of repair business.

An Example: A company develops a strategic approach to proactive approach.

I worked with a company in Tucson, Arizona, that had a major problem with bad sections and unacceptable cable conditions. 

  • Cross-boxes and ready-access terminals needed replacement. 
  • The high ambient temperatures were playing havoc with PIC insulation. 
  • The plant in general needed to be locked up for its own protection. 
  • Customer demands for new service, along with service-affecting and out-of-service troubles, were pulling the maintenance technicians from preventive maintenance into the trouble load. 
  • Plant quality was rapidly deteriorating. 

The telco administrator and his staff recognized the need for thorough preventive maintenance. 

They Devised a 3-Step Approach 

Step 1. ANALYSIS. The lead technician I worked with had 49 pages of high-priority projects that needed fixing. In order to attack these, the maintenance crew needed to be free from the trouble load.

Step 2. IDENTIFYING AND TRAINING A STRONG TEAM. He and his staff trained and equipped the service technicians to handle the one-pair problems including: 

  • Defective drops, wires pinched or opens in associated terminals. 
  • Cross-connects that were caused by other technicians in the course of their daily activity. 
  • Supervisors and managers who did not have a cable maintenance background were also trained to assist the technicians. This released the cable maintenance crews for the priority projects.

Step 3. QUALITY AND TEAMWORK. Each and every technician, supervisor, and manager became part of a quality team, with customer service as their primary goal. 

When following up a service tech’s plant condition report, the maintenance tech would identify the long-term problem.

  • A bad cable needing replacement.
  • A terminal needed to be rebuilt, locked up, or replaced.
  • Any repairs that couldn’t be made on the spot. 

Then the maintenance technician became the coordinator between engineering and construction. 

When the job was completed, the maintenance technician personally informed the service technician who originally identified the problem that correction had been achieved. This communication helped morale and commitment to team-building; all participants are critical to the process. 

Results didn’t occur overnight, and many obstacles had to be overcome, including old habits and resistance to the new order: We’ve always done it like this; it’s worked fine. And The test sets don’t work. Training and constant communication between departments resolved most of these obstacles.

A Company That Doesn’t Believe in Proactive Maintenance

The antithesis of the Tucson philosophy is exemplified by a manager we’ll call Ike, who works in a similar climate elsewhere. Ike has an interesting approach and program: technicians are encouraged to cutover. Later, Ike sends out a restoration team to bulk-recover the cut pairs. This practice has problems:

PROBLEM: Pair problems are shot-gunned throughout the distribution plant. Some are single pair faults which could be fixed on the spot, and some are actual cable trouble which will eventually affect multiple pairs and force section replacement. 

The bulk recovery theory masks potential cable faults which must be found and fixed at once.

PROBLEM: Preventive maintenance is hindered to the point where its cost becomes prohibitive. Analysis of bad sections can take months. By the time the cable is fully analyzed, the original trouble has caused the total destruction of the section. The only solution is mass cable replacement, and untrained technicians will destroy the new plant in a very few short years using the same bad practice. 

The general defense of the cut-to-clear bulk recovery practice is that we are going fiber-to-the-house, anyway. But here we are in 2022, the time of full fiber is clearly not happening as quickly as originally anticipated. And by the time customers have struggled many years with unresolved problems, when fiber does reach them, they are more likely going to go to a competitor’s fiber. 

Excellent, hard-working, well-experienced technicians are out there and they know their stuff. They must be listened to, and they need to be treated as a critical part of the team so they can see and hear about the fruits of their labors. 

The telco team in Tucson communicates. They are continually working to improve customer service and prepare their technicians for the fiber world, however far or close that is. Training and quality are a lifetime commitment by the staff, and they have the type of service that is transparent to their customers. Take a look at Tucson and their cost per access line and you’ll see what quality service is. They have an attitude; the industry should study it.

For more information, call or text: 831.818.3930 or email [email protected].

About the Author

Don McCarty

Don McCarty is the OSP EXPERT columnist for ISE magazine, discussing the issues around provisioning, testing, and maintaining copper for all services from POTs to IPTV. Don is also president of and the lead trainer for McCarty Products, a technical training and products company training field technicians, cable maintenance, installation repair, and Central Office technicians and managers. For more information, email [email protected] or visit