The Cable Company Installation Blues

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The Cable Company Installation Blues

Subject: Re: Cable access?
Date: Sun, 22 Oct 1995 17:53:16 -0700

>It is clear that the cable companies have many hurdles to >conquer if they want a piece of the Superslowway. However, >the alternative connectivity solution (competition) they >bring to the table is good news for all users.

I concur, even if they will ultimately compete with us. However, they may well raise false expectations of universal high-speed service right to the home, yet not be capable of delivering on promises. This screws everyone up, including themselves, and may cause unrealistic pricing wars down the road which only hurts the end user who has to endure their experimentation and possible rate hikes on the cable TV side. (Remember the adage about no free lunches? Hell, we're throwin' in breakfast and dinner as well!)

My main reservation about cable companies is their lack of quality control, particulalry when it comes to installation. [I have to watch what I'm saying here, because one of our POPs is located in a building also shared by a cable company, and our private phone trunk to PacBell passes through their space. 8-O] The telephone companies are all held accountable for their own wiring, since phone service can be considered vitally important in an emergency, and also because they used to own and maintain all the equipment and it was in their interests to make sure it all worked. TV cables, on the other hand, are considered a luxury item, and the only repercussions when they fail are no Playboy channel and angry customers.

Also consider the phone company's Central Offices (where all the switching gear lives) to any given cable company's head-end site. The CO's are part of this country's strategic communications infrastructure - they are usually well guarded, seismically reinforced, have redundant power generators (in Cambridge, MA, the Nynex generators also provide back-up power to the nearby hospital and courthouse), and have multiple backup links to the rest of the network in case of cable failures, at least for the main backbone circuits.

[For an impressive example of this check out our CO on Second and Folsom sometime; nine stories high, no windows, big exhaust grates for the cooling and generators, and an overall no-nonsense Death Star apprearance that says, "We mean business, kid, what are you looking at?"] The cable offices, by comparison, are small-potatoes high-tech wannabes with a few dishes out back. For all the trouble that PacBell has given us, I still respect their overall approach to infrastructure, and would much sooner trust my critical data circuits in their bureaucratic hands than any cable company I've ever seen.

But again the worst aspect of cable service (to me, anyway) is their slipshod installation at people's houses. Electrical contractors have to conform to building codes with their work, as do certain telephone installation jobs for lightning protection and weather resistance. The cable companies, OTOH, play by no such rules and hire any flunky who can swing a staple gun and cordless drill to show up in a minivan and do his own brand of damage to your home or apartment. I realize I'm unfairly generalizing here, and am probably besmirching some honest, hard-working cable installers, but I've seen enough examples of downright unacceptable cable wiring to cast a wary eye any time they arrive in the neighborhood:

- At my father's house near Boston, a cable installer showed up to wire the house as part of a promotional deal. He started by screwing an ugly, untreated steel hook right into the trim of a second story window, where he could have just as easily moved it over two inches onto the shingles where it wouldn't have shown so much. My father ended up re-doing it with a stainless steel anchor after he left, but this is a minor quibble.

The house is a converted stable built in the 1800's and there is a 2-3 foot crawl space under the first floor where all the pipes and electrical wires run. At first the cable installer wanted to simply staple the cable atop the custom-milled baseboard trim from one end of the house to the other, but my father intercepted him and insisted he use the crawlspace. We got some minor amusement listening to him bitch and moan under the floor while he scrambled around in the dirt, but my father had spent many more grueling hours down there installing all the plumbing. Since we had a full machine shop set up there for auto restoration, we actually helped out by custom-fabricating a special splitter enclosure, stainless steel strain-reliefs and metal wire grommets, and drilled holes through the 3" wood floors that the installer's flimsy little Makita drill couldn't touch. All told the installer with our assistance did a decent job, keeping the wires hidden and managing the unsightly loops at the splitters where multiple cables all tie together. There was even a full week of flawless service before the first failure occured, when the strain-relief attached to the telephone pole across the street pulled loose, taking three other neighbors out as well.

But the ugly secrets revealed themselves a year later when my father and I went under the floor to re-arrange some water pipes while renovating the kitchen. The main water feeds and waste pipes run lengthwise under the floor, pretty much parallel to the foundation. From the point where the cable penitrated the floor at one end to where it split out at the far end to multiple outlets, there was a clear and obvious straight path beside the pipes in which it could run unobstructed. In fact, to deviate from that path would constitute _more_ work, as one would have to go out of their way while laying the cable.

The installer apparently felt his freedom of artistic expression would be compromised, however, by taking such a boring approach to his work. He somehow managed to stretch the cable away from the path, and wrapped it around the pipes not once but twice, in two different directions, including a half-turn around a valve that we now needed to work on. To make matters worse, he left _no slack_ (Subgenii take note), thereby making it almost impossible for us to hold the cable out of the way while we heated the valve with an aceteline torch to unsolder it! Fortunately, once we got the pipe undone we took that opportunity to straighten out the cable, but to this day I can't figureout what the installer had on his mind (other than, perhaps, resentment for having to crawl under the floor in the first place - "I'll show those bastards for not letting me run this cable diagonaly across the living room under the rug! There, now it's hopelessy tangled around these pipes!")

- While walking around Brookline with a friend, I noticed a horrible snarl of cables stapled to the side of an otherwise impeccable Victorian house. Tracing the main feed up the side to the eaves (run slightly diagonally, btw; cable installers apparently don't believe in the concepts of Plumb or Level), I spotted a nylon tie-wrap holding the cable to the mounting bracket of a bird feeder. Mind you, this was not for the sake of merely tucking the cable out of the way along its path, this was the only strain relief for the cable where it bent right-angle and stretched to the pole!

Upon closer inspection we noticed that one of the three screws holding the bracket was pulling loose from the force, and the first major ice storm the next winter probably finished it off.

- Speaking of winter, anyone in northern climates knows the unbounded pleasure of clearing ice off their front steps. More often than not someone walks down the steps on fresh morning snowfall, compacting the snow underfoot, leaving tightly compressed clumps behind that invariably turn to ice before they get the chance to clear them off. These clumps then resist easy removal, yeilding a minor battle with a shovel or scraper on behalf of the person charged with clearing the steps.

It was the above scenario that called my attention to yet another superb cable installation, with cable vulnerabilities an unfortunate by-product of some installer's quest for ultimate expediency. I was out and about one fine winter morning, admiring a fresh 4" snowfall, when I arrived at a friend's apartment to watch the step-clearing ritual described above. My friend was busily hacking away at a combination frozen-footstep and ice-puddle from an overhanging icicle, slashing away with the squared-off shovel when suddenly a strand of thick black wire emerged from the chipped-off ice. We discovered that the path for the TV cable ran from the left side of the stairs (where the obligatory splitter snarl resided, nailed to the side of the building) over to the right hand side where it entered a crude hole drilled into the clapboards on its way to some awaiting Magnavox. Rather than route the cable _under_ the steps and small deck (where the installer might have to, God forbid, wrestle with some shrubs to pass the wire underneath), the installer instead chose a simpler route for those trained in the skills of the staplegun. The cable ran forward along the side of the deck, across the front where the stairs connected, and then around the other side back to the outside wall of the building. This installation sin wouldn't have been so bad if the Cable Deployment Professional had only tucked the wire up under the lip of the top step, out of harm's way. However, we cleared the rest of the snow and ice away and found the cable stapled down along the lower back corner where the tread meets the riser, precisely in the path of any agressive snow shovels or footwear with extremely pointy toes.

The best part of this story was when someone showed up from the cable company six days later. (Their service turnaround time can be impressive, no? There again, they probably had their hands full repairing all the other damaged cables that had pulled bird feeders loose all across the city.) I missed the actual encounter, but heard the story afterwards about how first the repair person couldn't loosen the fittings at the splitter, and then tried to refuse doing the repair because he claimed it was the customer's fault, and then ended up running a replacement cable not under the deck but over it - in fact up one side over the whole doorway and overhanging wooden awning, and then back down the other to the splitter. For good measure he left the old broken cable in place, as a reminder of previous installation excellence.

- At my sister's house the cable service fails a minimum of once a month. The cable company has received so many complaints that the towns it serves are considering cancelling its contract renewals for pole rights early to allow another company to take over. In one incident a cable repairman showed up to fix a broken splitter up on the pole, and in the process of setting the ladder up damaged the junction box belonging to the phone company. I watched out the window as a telephone repair truck arrived while the cable guy was up on the ladder, and some heated words were exchanged. The phone repairman apparently decided to call his buddies over in two other huge trucks with hydraulic cherry-pickers, which surrounded the cable company's minivan. I was secretly hoping they'd get in the cherry-pickers and rise up to meet the cable repairman in mechanized aerial combat, but instead the cable man backed down and left, tail between his legs. My sister's phone service was out for another 12 hours following that, so he must have done some serious damage.

- The best (or worst) cable job I witnessed entailed a rather innovative method of getting the cable into a building without damaging any of the exterior siding. This was at an admittedly lower-income area where fine worksmanship often goes un-appreciated, but nonetheless I can only guess that someone had just shelled out a lot of money for a fresh vinyl siding job, and wouldn't have any nonesense with holes drilled defiently through the wall. I never stopped in to ask the owner about it, but imagine that he probably left explicit instructions with the cable installer to _not_ drill any holes into the new siding, dammit. Instead, the cable ran down from the eaves (slightly diagonally, natch), not once touching the vinyl, and was stapled to the wood trim under a first-floor windowsill. However, the siding was off limits, remember, so the installer had to figure out a different plan of attack to get it inside. The solution - a brainstorm upon retrospect - was to drill a hole in the lower corner of the window frame itself, a mere three-quarters inch away from the glass! From there it was undoubtedly dropped down to the baseboard inside where the installer was once again in familiar territory, staple guns a-blazin'.

What drew my attention to this stellar example of cable management was the fact that it was a warm day out, and the occupants of the household had cracked the window open for ventilation. Notice the word 'cracked' here, as sliding the window all the way up was a technical impossibility, since the TV cable stretched from the staple outside on the trim, up through the hole in the partially raised frame, and back down inside to a similar anchor point below. I can't imagine what the building owner thinks about the job, but I wouldn't hesitate to find the largest pair of wire cutters available and gather everyone around, while simultaneously dialing the cable company to report a service outage.

I've seen many lesser transgressions, some of which are no worse than what you'd expect from recent high-school graduates learning on the job. And I've also examined some rather clean installations, where the installer went out of the way to route the cables properly and keep things tidy. But by and large the cable companies set their own standards, most of which appear to lean towards the quick and dirty. I can't comment on the actual service itself, other than what I hear from other people, which isn't very promising. Before the cable companies jumped on the Internet bandwagon they first announced intentions of offering phone service over those same wires. In my less-than-humble opinion, I'll take my chances with PacBell.

-- Don

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