CableLabs CEO Liao Looks To Create Bigger Tent


Paul Liao, who took over the reins of CableLabs last month after serving as Pansonic's top technology executive, said one of his top priorities will be make the cable consortium more open and engaged with companies and groups outside the industry.

"There's a lot to be done to move the cable industry in the direction of more openness and inclusiveness," Liao said, in an interview this week with Multichannel News. "To me, there's a tremendous amount of contribution that can be made by other industries... consumer-electronics companies and so on."

Liao, who was selected by the CableLabs board from among more than 100 candidates, officially started as president and CEO at the cable research and development consortium July 20. He takes over for Dick Green, who had run CableLabs since its inception in September 1988 and whose contract officially expires in December.

"You can't overemphasize is the job Dick Green has done in building up this organization," Liao said, noting that CableLabs now employs more than 150 people. "The first thing we're doing is looking at CableLabs and putting fresh eyes on it, and figuring out how to build on what's already been done."

Paul Liao

Right now, Liao said he's in fact-finding mode. His agenda includes a tour by CableLabs senior management of all the MSOs, and meetings with technology suppliers and CE companies to get their feedback and suggestions.

For example, Liao has planned a tour of Silicon Valley companies in the next few weeks "just to see what's happening. That's something I'd like to see expanded -- that outreach into the venture-backed community," he said. "I think CableLabs needs to have its pulse on the technologies no matter where they're coming from, whether it's from universities or startups."

Cable has been criticized from some quarters for a relatively slow pace of technical innovation. In Liao's view, that perception stems from the industry's relative insularity.

"People complain that cable is slow is because they don't see themselves as being a part of what's happening in the cable industry," he said. "The fact that they're not is to the detriment of the industry."

In a similar vein, another big focus for Liao's CableLabs will be to take advantage of open systems.

"Whereas in the past it may have been okay for cable technologies to be just cable, you want the industry to be global in reach," he said. "Internet protocols are certainly of that nature. Taking advantage of that will be another big opportunity."

Liao said CableLabs also will explore ways to standardize operational elements of cable operators' infrastructure -- such as service activation, provisioning, maintenance and proactive monitoring of network elements -- to ideally replicate the success the industry has had with the DOCSIS cable-modem specifications.

"When you look at the operations systems of the cable industry, it's not dissimilar to where the network side was many years ago, in terms of being disparate and proprietary," he said. "It's a very complex world, so we don't want to bite off more than we can chew, but there's real opportunity there."

In the nearer term, CableLabs will be focused on making the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format and advanced advertising deployable, according to Liao. The EBIF spec is central to the goals of the cable operators to offer interactive TV ads across a wide range of set-tops.

The six cable operators that formed advanced-advertising startup Canoe Ventures -- Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems and Bright House Networks -- are aiming to have EBIF enabled on some 25 million set-tops before year-end, Comcast COO Steve Burke told Wall Street analysts earlier this month.

"It's one thing to write a specification," Liao said. "But it has to work in a way that's not a burden to the industry, and the applications developers must know that the applications will work smoothly and seamlessly." The next CableLabs interop event around EBIF is scheduled for the week of Oct. 5-9, at the consortium's Louisville, Colo., headquarters.

Before Liao joined Panasonic in 1996, he was in the telco world, having worked for Bellcore and BellLabs. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University and is a recipient of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Millennium Medal.

In general, Liao doesn't see that many differences between his spots at Panasonic and CableLabs. "There's a tremendous amount of commonality in a technical organization, no matter what industry you're in. It's finding ways to evolve and trying to revolutionize the technologies that are relevant to your industry."

As for relocating to Denver, Liao said he's found temporary living accommodations in the area, while his home in Fairhaven, N.J., is on the market.

"It's a nice town, if you know anybody who wants to buy a house," he quipped.