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Going After All Those 'Nonresponders'

And there it sits — a plastic lump. Maybe it hears the queries, but doesn't answer. Maybe it doesn't hear the queries, so it can't answer. You don't really know.

Month after month, billing cycle after billing cycle, the taciturn lump inside your customers' homes just sits there. Stubbornly, it refuses to say whether it holds any data worth retrieving.

In the language of machine misbehavior, this unsociable slab of plastic is known as a "nonresponder."

In the lore of unspoken industrial patterns, nonresponder boxes typically comprise around 10 percent of the installed base of two-way set-tops, both analog and digital.

Deaf as posts

Put another way: Say you run a system with 100,000 digital video customers. Right now, as you read this, 10,000 of those customers could be using boxes that seem like they're as deaf as doorknobs.

Up until now, nonresponders haven't really mattered. They've been pests, but not reasons for panic: more like the check that doesn't clear, statement after statement.

Historically, nonresponders weren't even important enough to roll a truck. The primary downstream video service still worked, and the lost-revenue risk was fixed.

That's because set-tops are usually installed with a pay-per-view maximum. Let's say it's 20 events. If the billing system still hasn't been able to retrieve event purchase information after the 20th event, no more events. (The customer then becomes the mechanism to report the nonresponder.)

These days, though, the upsurge in services that lean on the upstream part of the signal path is equating non-responders with outages. The logic: A revenue-bearing service that isn't working, for whatever reason, is an outage. In the world of two-way, there are now upstream outages, and downstream outages.

It follows that what was once a niggling issue — finding and fixing non-responders —is now a readiness criterion in most U.S. video-on-demand deployments.

Hear me now?

Most MSOs — or at least those ops active with VOD and subscription VOD — now strongly encourage single-digit percentages for non-responder boxes, in the 3 to 5 percent range.

Finding and fixing nonresponders becomes part of the get-ready list for VOD, just like buying equipment and training staff.

In general, a box is considered a nonresponder if it hasn't heeded a series of two or three "ping tests" a day for a few weeks.

Queries happen at least monthly, and are sequential: Each box is polled for information, one by one, in a big circle. The best results come at night and on weekends, when more people are watching TV.

There are lots of reasons why boxes become non-responders. Most of the reasons — north of 90 percent, by some engineering estimates — start inside the house. The set-top plugged into the electrical outlet that's wired to the wall switch, for example, becomes a non-responder each time a hand flips off the light switch.

Or, consider the fix-it type, who outfits the house with an elaborate maze of splitters and house amplifiers, probably purchased from the corner store, probably not of a grade that a professional installer would use.

Cheap or loose fittings, as well as connectors clamped on with whatever hand tool is closest, instead of a specific crimping tool, can make a box into a nonresponder real

Bad traps

In other cases, the problem is a filter (also known as a "trap").

In the 1990s, when the last big plant upgrades began, some MSOs decided to take a shortcut to the two-way finish line. They did so by installing "band-stop" filters on the houses of customers who didn't subscribe to a two-way service. That way, any electrical noise from those homes wouldn't gunk up the already noisy upstream path.

A box operating inside a house with a band-stop filter is automatically a nonresponder: The filter blunts the upstream transmission.

Or, in some cases, the box may have been a nonresponder since it began its working life. Ask any installer how long it takes to get a "ping" to a freshly installed set-top, once the customer care department has been contacted to initiate the order.

In a perfect world, the care agent instructs the billing system to "ping" the box, which happens immediately. In reality, there's sometimes so much other stuff going on that it takes longer than even a patient installer wants to wait, to get that first, confirming ping.

Fixing the ping

When you ask engineers if they have the necessary diagnostic tools to wipe out non-responders, the resultant smile registers somewhere between "you're kidding, right?" and "may I speak freely?"

Most say the situation is much better than it was a year ago, and that such diagnostic tools continue to evolve to meet the tighter non-responder rules. Most also say there's more to be done — like a handheld ping generator that sidesteps the need for the installer to phone the customer-care agent, who interlaces the ping with whatever else the provisioning system is doing.

Regardless, it's probably time to revisit your nonresponder elimination plans, especially if you're getting ready to launch VOD.

Questions? Suggestions? Write to Leslie Ellis at