The Cable Guy: For this Charter technician, it’s all business

Jason Andrew, 36, has worked as a Charter Communications broadband technician for about two years. He enjoys the freedom of the job, working on his own, problem-solving, and meeting people of all stripes. It’s a far cry from his previous job as a financial specialist at UW-Madison. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy that job, but after four years, he yearned to be out and about, and not necessarily tied to a desk.

Andrew is one of 85 area technicians who show up at Charter customers’ homes when their cable doesn’t work, or their Internet fails, or they’re installing new service. The company recently added new shifts to allow for more evening and weekend service calls, and as a result, Andrew now works four 10-hour days each week, Sundays through Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. In his position, he is not “on call.” That duty is left for others on the telecom totem pole.

“The misconception … is that for an appointment scheduled between 8 and 10, we’ll be there at 8. We could also show up at five minutes to 10.” — Jason Andrew, Charter Communications broadband technician

On this dreary day, Andrew is problem-solving at what happens to be the home of another Charter employee. Apparently, the Internet signal at this Sun Prairie house is fluctuating, and he’s on a mission to figure out why.

His Charter van is parked outside, with the required orange cones strategically placed around the vehicle. “Those aren’t for traffic,” he notes. Rather, they force the workers to circle the trucks before they leave to check for any children, pets, or possible hazards. It’s a safety measure all must follow.

The van is loaded with anything Andrew might need for a service call: coaxial cable, tools, fittings, and even a large container of water that can be used for flushing a technician’s skin or eyes — an OSHA requirement.

He wraps a tool belt around his waist and hoists a knapsack over his shoulder containing diagnostic meters and devices. It all appears heavy and cumbersome, but Andrew doesn’t flinch under the weight.

Wire tapping

In a far corner of the backyard, he searches for the “tap” from which a buried cable will feed a line into the home and locates it behind a thick shrub. “If at all possible, we try not to trample anyone’s plants,” Andrew notes, pushing aside some leaves to gain access. “But a lot of people don’t realize that there is a radius around a tap where, if something’s in the way, we can cut it down. Whenever possible, we try not to do that. Keeps everyone happier.”

He has used wire cutters in the past to do some selective pruning, but he laughs at the suggestion that he should carry a chainsaw. He does not.

Charter techs go out in every kind of weather — driving rain, snowstorms, ice. That’s an unpleasant part of the job, he says. Appointments are scheduled in two-hour windows, but from the technician’s standpoint, it’s more important to correct any issues that might arise.

“If a one-hour job takes three hours, we just do it,” Andrew says. “Most of the time the scheduler can shift jobs to other techs. The misconception, though, is that for an appointment scheduled between 8 and 10, we’ll be there at 8. We could also show up at five minutes to 10.”

Equipped with a handheld meter and a computer tablet, Andrew removes the tap cover and checks that all connections at the post are secure and corrosion-free. Each cable at the tap has a tag attached with a number that coincides with each Charter customer, ensuring that he’s working on the correct line.

“We track the tags to make sure nobody’s been messing with them,” although recently he has seen fewer and fewer cases of piracy. “Since Charter switched to all-digital, it’s harder to actually pirate cable now because you have to come up with a box that will actually [access] the system, and without signing up for service, that’s almost impossible.”

He uses the handheld meter to connect to the Internet. Once connected, he measures the signal levels at the tap and the house.

The meter reads about 15 decibels at the tap, he reports. By the time he crosses the yard to where the cable enters the house, the reading has dropped eight decibels. That’s not unusual. “We lose about six decibels per 100 feet,” Andrew says. “If we dropped from 15 down to five for a loss of 10, that would require a fix.” His job is to diagnose any problems occurring between the outside tap and into the home. If he finds problems before reaching the tap, system techs get called in.



As temperatures drop and the wind howls, Andrew checks all the connections as they enter the house, mindful to use a voltage protector before he touches anything metal. “Our lines don’t carry any electricity, but if this air-conditioning unit was wired wrong and the whole chassis was energized …”

Everything checks out fine.

Checking his meter again, he notices an abnormal reading that indicates some sort of interference. It’s not overly concerning, he assures, but it’s also not normal. “We’ll go inside and I’ll see what’s causing that,” he says.

Inside job

After finishing his work outside, he slips some blue booties over his shoes and enters the home. The homeowner and Rusty, a golden retriever, greet him at the door before he heads into the basement. Andrew works quickly. This particular home has Internet, telephone, and cable TV service (for four televisions). In the basement, Andrew tries to determine, from a beehive of cables, which cable leads to what, and he uses special devices to help him do that.

Charter provided all of Andrew’s training, which he says lasted about six months. He also had to undergo a driving-record check and a drug test prior to his hire. He loves working on his own and solving problems, but his biggest frustration is when he can’t solve an issue and is forced to call for extra assistance. Other than that, he notes, “There isn’t much that makes me crazy.”

He locates the modem line, rechecks the signal, and again sees a fair amount of interference in the home. Turns out, the home has 12 cable ports but only four are being used. Each of the vacant ports can allow interference in, he says. To alleviate that issue, he will deactivate the unused ports.

“I’m pretty sure the Internet is sharing a line with a TV upstairs. I want to isolate the lines that hooked to the four TVs. That will help boost the signal to the modem and to some of the TVs.”

As part of the company’s “total home certification,” it is standard protocol for Charter techs to check and correct any problems they find in the home during their visits. One old fitting in a vacant port in the kitchen appears to be the primary interference culprit in this instance, and Andrew quickly replaces it. A new router was also installed to alleviate the Internet fluctuations.

With the homeowner satisfied that the issues have been resolved, Andrew heads to his next appointment, a new installation at an apartment on Madison’s east side. He is on schedule within his two-hour time slot and expects the setup to take about an hour.

If all goes smoothly, Andrew can make between eight and 10 calls a day. However, more complicated jobs, such as first-time installations, can cut that number in half.

He’s thankful for the van’s GPS system, which guides him from appointment to appointment. Prior to GPS, techs had to locate addresses the old-fashioned way … with maps. “That could be a problem,” he says.

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