Armstrong Evolves, Reinvests as Cable Industry Changes

BUTLER, Pa. – Think of the Internet as one giant highway that every second becomes more congested.

Voice data, mobile devices, the need of large and small businesses to transmit sizeable packets of information from one place to another at lighting speed: All have transformed the communications industry over the past decade.

And among those businesses at the forefront of this digital revolution is the Armstrong Group of Companies, based in Butler, Pa. The company, which started in business in 1946 as Armstrong County Line Construction and later Armstrong Telephone, today is one of the 15 largest cable multi-system providers in the country.

“It’s estimated that in 2015, the amount of data generated on the Internet will be 7.9 zettabytes,” says Dan Conrad, vice president and general manager of commercial services at Armstrong. “That’s the equivalent of 18 million times the total digital assets stored by the Library of Congress. One day’s worth of blogs on the Internet is the equivalent of 72 years of published Time magazines.”

This demand has completely changed how business is conducted throughout the world. It’s also a substantial force in everyone’s personal life every day. To maintain and manage this demand, Armstrong continues to reinvest in its own systems to assure that all these data are delivered reliably – a service critical to the smooth operation of commerce.

“The Internet is growing about 50% a year,” says Mike Giobbi, Armstrong chief technology officer. For this reason, Armstrong is devoting “millions and millions” of dollars to upgrades in its cable and fiber networks in the Mahoning Valley and elsewhere. In these markets are customers in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Kentucky and Maryland.

Armstrong’s network today contains more than 12,000 route miles of hybrid fiber-coaxial cables that support more than 14,000 business customers with business-class telephone, Internet services and commercial cable TV. Some 6,000 of these customers are in Ohio, and Armstrong purchases from more than 650 companies within the Buckeye State, the company says. Armstrong employs 2,300.

Cable and communications services is its core business, Conrad says, but Armstrong also operates companies that engage in commercial real estate development, restaurant operations (it owns a substantial number of Ponderosa steak houses), small circuit-board manufacturing, and home and business security services.

When Giobbi started in the industry 38 years ago, Armstrong was a company with a primary focus on cable television, he recalls. As the digital age took hold during the 1980s, he continues, Armstrong and others in the industry formed a Colorado-based consortium – Cable Television Laboratories, or CableLabs for short. The think tank – now with sites throughout the world – serves as the research and development arm of the industry, and members can share the proprietary technology and innovation hatched there and put it to use.

“In 1997, we did a business and technology trial that moved fast Internet over cable,” Giobbi says. “That technology was developed at CableLabs.”

This technology continues to evolve and be put into practice at Armstrong, Giobbi says.

“They built standards to deliver voice on top of a cable modem,” he says. “We built infrastructure, Internet and telephone applications.” In 2005, Armstrong began offering Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, services to its customers.

The most recent upgrade involves an overlay to Armstrong’s fiber network, Conrad says. Unlike a wire cable, optical fibers are made of glass as thick as a human hair that can transmit data through pulses of light at much higher speeds.

“Demand for fiber among businesses is substantial,” Conrad says. Years ago, fiber optic cables were assigned to larger companies that generated an enormous amount of information. “Now, it’s characteristic of any engineering firm, architectural firm and car dealerships,” he says.

In the Mahoning Valley, for example, much of the health care industry uses high-speed fiber because the volumes of data these institutions transmit have grown exponentially over the years, reports Erin Sheader, business development executive at Armstrong, whose territory includes Boardman, Canfield and Poland.

“I would say the largest customers in Boardman using this network are health care and nursing homes,” she says. Car dealerships in the area are also converting from broadband to fiber because these companies are showing more videos and images of new vehicle models on their websites. And, as the legal profession becomes more electronic, law offices in the region are upgrading their networks.

Sheader adds that some of the more popular hotel chains today require a fiber connection so they can meet the needs of their guests, especially business travelers. Most recently, Armstrong outfitted the new Courtyard by Marriott in Canfield and the new Best Western hotel in Poland with fiber.

Still, the challenge in the industry is delivering uncorrupted data through the network as quickly as possible, and more important, finding a way to give priority to these data in what has become a very crowded Internet pipeline, Giobbi says. The answer for Armstrong was to commit millions of dollars and add multi-protocol label switching, or MPLS, technology to its fiber network.

“We realized we needed something with more intelligence,” Giobbi says.

MPLS technology allows Armstrong to assign priority to data that moves through its network, explains Mike Scardina, director of Internet protocol technologies. As more data are shifted to cloud storage from hard drives, Internet traffic is increasing at a rapid clip. “If there’s a break in the network, then everything has to converge into a pipe that’s not as big as you thought it was,” he says.

Certain data are assigned a higher priority as they’re pushed along the Internet highway, Scardina says. The trick is to identify what types of data are transmitted. “If I’ve got to push more through the pipe than it can take,” he explains, “I’ve got to understand that this data is more important than that data.”

Voice, for example, holds a higher priority than someone shopping on the Internet, Scardina says. A consumer who fails to log on once at a shopping site can try a second time and get through with little hassle. An emergency phone call, on the other hand, doesn’t have that luxury.

“Through different layers, we can determine what type of data is moving through our network,” Scardina says. Each package of information contains an IP address – the signature that tells technicians the specific nature of the data. “If it’s a certain IP address talking to another IP address, we can determine that it’s a phone call.”

All of this information moves through two data centers Armstrong operates, Giobbi notes. One is housed at the company headquarters in Butler while the other – called a “super head end” – is nearby in Zelienople, Pa.

The company is making other strides in delivering data with mobile carriers, Scardina adds. Cellular providers, for example, are moving toward smaller, more stealth communication points rather than the larger cell towers. “They’re hard to build, cost a lot of money, and people don’t like to look at them,” he remarks.

Carriers are affixing smaller transmission devices to structures such as light posts, he says. Although a single transmitter doesn’t have the range of a large cell tower, several of them could.

Meanwhile, Armstrong is preparing to build out its community wireless services to its customers. “What we want to do is to take that WiFi into the community,” Giobbi says. The service is available in some “hot spots” – the Canfield Fairgrounds is a good example – but Armstrong is looking to expand the scope for its customers.

The premise is to allow customers to roam between areas served by other providers, a concept born in New York. All that would be required is an Armstrong password, and once signed in, a customer can roam anywhere. “There’s no more acceptable-use policy to click on,” Giobbi says. “You log on one time as long as you’re a customer.”

It’s through such measures that Armstrong is laying the groundwork for its future, which could – ironically – be a cable company without a network of cables. “There will come a day when the concept of wires will be gone,” Giobbi says.

Pictured: Dan Conrad, vice president and general manager of commercial services at Armstrong.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.