CTOs Talk 25 Years of Cable Tech


Multichannel News canvassed the top chief technology officers at the major MSOs to gather their thoughts on cable’s significant technological achievements over the past 25 years, and where the industry is headed. Among the breakthroughs: fiber and Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification implementations. What’s ahead: switched digital video, downloadable security and wireless offshoots. The edited e-mail responses from Comcast Corp.’s Dave Fellows, Cox Communications Inc.’s Chris Bowick, Charter Communications Inc.’s Wayne Davis and Cablevision Systems Corp.’s Wilt Hildenbrand appear below:

MCN: What, exactly, were you doing 25 years ago?

Dave Fellows: I was a research scientist at GTE [Laboratories Inc.], assigned to a consultant named Bill Johnson, who was hired to settle a fight between GTE’s circuit switched division (Automatic Electric) and its packet switched division (Telenet) over the timing of packet telephony. It turned out the packet division was only 20 years ahead of its time!

Chris Bowick: Let’s see, that would put us way back to August of 1980 — if my calculations are correct — which would put us at a point in time about five months before I joined the cable industry with Scientific-Atlanta [Inc.]. At that point in my career, I was a design engineer with Rockwell International’s Collins Avionics Division down in Melbourne, Fla. I was helping to design Collins’s next generation of avionics (navigation and communication equipment) for the general aviation light-aircraft fleet.

Unfortunately, that family of avionics never got off the ground, because of the gas crisis and subsequent economic crash, which killed the general aviation industry. It also caused me to look around for a job that was a little more stable — hence my move to Scientific-Atlanta early the following year.

But as both an engineer and pilot, the Collins gig was a dream job that allowed me to combine my engineering skills with my passion for flying. We were actually able to design and prototype new ideas, and immediately take them flying in the company plane to test the concepts, while they were still nothing more than a bundle of wires and a “hodge-podge” of electronics.

Also, on the home front in August of 1980, I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t getting much sleep, because my first child, my daughter Zoe, was born just a few weeks earlier.

Wayne Davis: Twenty-five years ago, I was a CATV underground construction contractor. I had been working in small systems across the state of Florida, hoping for the Tampa franchise to be awarded so that we could get work. Because the franchise was awarded, but then sold, the build didn’t happen soon enough for me. So my wife and I packed up and moved to Phoenix, where we took part in the buildout of that franchise.

We worked there for about six to eight months, until we realized the ground was so hard we needed bigger trenchers. We lost our shirt and headed back to New York, where I got a job with a small family-owned cable operator in Saratoga Springs.

Wilt Hildenbrand: Probably trying to avoid having to talk to anyone from Multichannel News. A secondary area of focus for me at that time was preparing our Boston cable franchise, which included quad trunk/dual feeder two-way cable and addressable boxes to every residence, and multiple headends interconnected by FM microwave.

MCN: What, in your mind, have been cable’s three biggest technology initiatives in the past 25 years?

Fellows: Fiber optics, going digital and Internet protocol technology (starting with cable modems and DOCSIS). Transmitting wideband analog signals over fiber was just not possible 15 years ago. Digital conversion and compression at the bit rates needed for high-definition video was also a dream. And the Internet is only about a decade old on cable systems.

Bowick: First, fiber-optics and HFC [hybrid fiber-coax] architecture deployment, which provided us with outstanding service performance, excellent reliability and expanded bandwidth, all of which were needed to remain competitive so we could launch new products and services, including telephone, and grow and scale the business as successfully as we have.

Second, digital video, including improvements in MPEG [Moving Pictures Expert Group] video compression, modulation and multiplexing. This innovation allowed us to provide even more choice to our customers with relatively minimal bandwidth requirements.

Third, DOCSIS and high-speed Internet deployment. It’s still amazing to me the huge business this technology has created while using only a very small fraction of our bandwidth. In the revenue-per-unit-of-bandwidth contest, high-speed Internet over DOCSIS is the clear winner.

For Cox, I would have to add a fourth: HFC telephone technology, whether circuit-switched or [voice over Internet protocol]. What an amazing business these technologies have enabled for us.

Davis: Of course, the transmission of signal over satellite was big. But as I look back, I think it was probably the advent of the HFC architecture incorporating fiber optics for the first time, the launch of high-speed Internet over cable and the use of digital in the network. High-speed Internet has been the engine for growth in the industry for nearly 10 years now — hard to believe it has been that long. I was working at Jones Intercable when we launched our first residential high-speed data service in 1995. We still haven’t fully realized what digital has the potential to do for us.

Hildenbrand: First was the adoption and absorption of fiber optics into the core cable network, moving from a one-way to a very robust two-way platform. It was the one thing that everyone said cable couldn’t do. Two-way, or interactive, was the domain of the phone companies.

Second, for me, would be the development of the DOCSIS standard, which really made broadband data go into widespread, high capacity and performance deployments on those very networks.

Third, and building off the previous two, is the development and deployment of VoIP services that have become the first real competition to landline telephony since the days of Alexander Graham Bell.

MCN: What do you think will be the three biggest technology initiatives in the next five years?

Fellows: Downloadable security, the move to all-digital (the removal of some analog services, which will enable even more digital services — HD, HD on demand, more on-demand content), and achieving a retail presence for our video products.

Bowick: First, next-generation network architecture (NGNA) — including downloadable conditional-access security (CAS), and advanced compression (MPEG4), which, when coupled with [OpenCable Application Platform] and OpenCable deployment, will change the set-top (or CPE) landscape forever.

Second, switched digital video, which will help us make the most efficient use of our available spectrum, and provide an almost unlimited capacity for content. This, when combined with the ubiquity and depth of on-demand technology and content, including network-based DVR technology, will provide the customer with the convenience of “whatever they want, whenever they want it.”

Third, product portability and mobility (video, voice, and data) through a combination of wireless-overlay and portable-media technology. This will not only give our customers whatever they want, whenever they want it, but will add “wherever they want it” to the mantra.

Davis: I think the initiatives over the next three years will be the result of the convergence of platforms, the transition to all digital and in transport. The set-top box with the promise of what OCAP can enable is compelling. I believe it will kick off new applications that we haven’t even begun to think about. Morphing voice and data features into video will create a whole new experience and capabilities our competition doesn’t have the platform to deliver. All digital has the possibility to transform what our product looks like, in addition to recapturing bandwidth. And of course, transport across MSOs, peering and capturing scale will enable transport to do much more than what is doing today.

Hildenbrand: Wireless, a resurgence of cable advertising – capitalizing on interactivity as well as eyeballs, and cable providers moving more aggressively into the small- and medium-sized business market. That particular market is going to be huge for this industry.

MCN: What will the cable platform (video, voice, data, even wireless) look like five years from now?

Fellows: The video platform will have more on-demand (up from today’s 7% to 10%), it will be more obvious that various on-demand initiatives (simulcast, switched broadcast, start-over service, networked DVR, shared edge-quadrature amplitude modulation) are all related to each other, and more services will have a combination of voice, data, and video attributes.

Wireless is not a service, as are voice, data and video — but it enables a service called mobility. We have wireless in our networks today — WiFi in the home — and we will have more wireless in five years.

Bowick: It will be a more converged and integrated platform, integrating the best of video, voice, data and wireless applications, services and technology. Our products will be auto-provisioned, cross-platform, seamless and on multiple interoperable devices — whether they are fixed, portable or mobile. The technologies and interfaces in support of these services will be more “open,” thus allowing more vendor choice, but also requiring excellent and very robust systems and software integration.

DOCSIS 3.0 will provide us with the capability of providing over 100 Mbps of downstream capacity per user — regardless of whether or not we choose to market those kinds of speeds.

Davis: Five years is a pretty short period of time, but I would think that we will have some true all-digital cable systems out there, with no analog left in the network. I don’t think it will be everywhere, but certainly I think there will be some.

Switched digital will also be deployed in some systems, and OCAP will be in full swing, with new applications hitting the market.

I think there will be some wireless partnerships in place, with some emerging wireless-platform convergence hitting the customer.

Hildenbrand: Node size will be smaller, available bandwidth higher. Wireless will emerge as a real extension of our networks, while current wireless phone services will integrate with our platform for a better and more reliable cell phone experience within the home and therefore on the network. And at the same time the lines that differentiate our voice, video and data services will continue to blur as integration becomes a defining characteristic of our consumer value proposition.

MCN: What was the biggest thing you thought would happen, but didn’t?

Hildenbrand: Given all the time and money cable companies have spent improving customer service, and reversing longstanding negative perceptions of the industry, I’m surprised we aren’t given more credit today for the very high level of customer care we are providing for all of our services, some of which are on the cutting edge of new technology.

With the really notable gains in digital cable, high-speed data and voice penetrations, we are clearly getting the recognition from the most important audience of all — our customers — but it would be nice to see the industry get some external recognition for improvements that are as dramatic as they are unheralded.

Davis: The biggest thing that I thought would happen but didn’t was the continuation of Jones Intercable. We had a great team and we were poised for growth, but it didn’t happen. As it turns out, many of the folks who were with Jones are in key leadership positions across the industry today, so I’m proud of that.

In technology, I think the buzz 10 years ago of convergence hasn’t yet happened as was envisioned. Of course, that was during the dot-com time, so there was a lot of hype. I think over the next three to five years we are going to see the promise of convergence across triple play products in a way much grander than was ever envisioned.

MCN: Magic Genie question: If you could build one device, or develop one technology, what would it be?

Hildenbrand: I’d like to find the magic key to better navigation, because everything else revolves around giving our customers better ways and more powerful tools to navigate through all the choices and features we are throwing at them. We’ve had some meaningful successes in this regard, but the work is not done, it is just beginning, and this is something we are aggressively focused on.

Davis: The one genie device or technology would be a media center device that the consumer didn’t have to interface with. It would be a home-networked device that handled all services delivered into the home. Having to install a high-speed modem, a digital set-top in one room, a possible MTA for telephony, a DVR in another room, for every device is expensive, confusing for the customer, and costly to install and maintain. If a networked device could be attached to the side of the house or attached to the rafters, and it could handle whatever we send into the home and be provisioned from a call center at the request of the customer, it would be a dream.