Grim Jim's Technological Fairy Tale


Now hold your horses. Just be patient, OK? I'll get to the fairy tale in a few minutes. But first you've got to learn what we engineers are doing this week at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' 2003 Conference on Emerging Technologies, and why.

And in order to learn that, you've got to read some of my philosophy on life — or at least my philosophy of engineering. Or maybe it's my philosophy of cable TV. It doesn't really matter, so just call it my philosophy.

Just what is cable TV anyway? Is it a collection of headend gear, distribution plant and maybe a few set-tops and modems in subscribers' homes?

Is it a mode of providing entertainment, information, and phone service to millions of people around the world? Is it the umpteenth rerun of some old TV show or an uninterrupted movie? Is it that service you are thinking of giving up for satellite? Is it the world's greatest entertainment bargain?

Is it ancient technology being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century? Or is it a marvel of modern technology, bringing together the best of digital and analog processing and transmission technology, along with a unique business structure, all designed to provide subscribers with a cornucopia of telecommunications services the likes of which have never been seen before?

I guess how you see cable television depends on where you are coming from. I know people who have each one of those views of this industry, the industry that has been my home — not to mention my bread and butter — for longer than some of you have been alive.

This week our top technologists are gathering in Miami for the SCTE's annual Conference on Emerging Technologies to learn about the latest and greatest advances in the technology that makes our industry run. They probably see cable television in terms of a collection of gear that has to be made to work together. Certainly that's so — if all that gear didn't work together, there wouldn't be any services to sell to subscribers. And need I mention no revenue?

There is no such thing as standing still. If you try, you wind up peddling backward with all your might. You either keep moving forward, or you fall back. Badly.

Us techie-types see ourselves as part of the big picture of what it takes to deliver this cornucopia of services to our subscribers. So, we gather once a year for this conference to learn about the new technologies that are going to help move the industry forward into new businesses and new profit streams. We call this the SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies because that is what we are studying—not the stuff that is being used today. This is the chance to look at what is developing, that could mean big business in a few years.

The conference starts with an optional Paul Kagan summit on operational support systems (OSS). If you don't know what that is, you need to be there.

Then the tutorials start, with one on OSS by an industry expert, Gene White of Time Warner Cable's Tampa division. Next we have a Cable Television Laboratories Inc. tutorial by Glenn Russell, to bring us up to date on the technology being explored there.

Paul Kagan gives the keynote address on Wednesday morning, before we go into the program, which features four sessions over two days. The first session is about the interface between cable and consumer electronics, with a lot of information on the latest in home-networking trends.

A number of cable systems are looking at the opportunities to serve business as well as residential customers. What technology does it take to serve this market, different from that used to serve residential subscribers? Our second session is on that very subject.

We all have heard of everything-over-Internet protocol, and the third session covers the latest in sending video — and just about everything else you can think of, except a pizza — over IP. Finally, we have a session on networking and what it is going to take to handle advanced services, moving to a world where everyone has his or her own personalized information service, whatever that may be. To keep us grounded in reality, each session will have a reactor, someone from an operating company who can interpret the information in light of real-world needs of the users.

And now for Jim's Fairy Tale:

You've got to stay up to date when you're an engineer. The technology changes so fast that if you sleep late one morning you may find yourself hopelessly left behind by the changes that took place while you grabbed those extra winks.

Why, I remember the supposedly true story of an oil company that shall go unnamed. It undertook to build a huge new plant to produce an oil-derived chemical important to a number of industrial processes. This plant was to be the largest in the world of its type, and would therefore be the most efficient at producing this chemical.

Sure it was expensive to build, but think of the money it would make when it came online! Why, the shareholder would be so rich (remember that old fairy tale?) that they could take vacations in the most exotic places, even in the jungles of Indonesia if they wished.

Now the problem was this: While they were building the new plant, they ignored a new production technology that seriously undercut the cost of production. So they had this new and incredibly expensive plant that came on line at about the same time their competitors build smaller, cheaper plants. Their expensive plant could do nothing but produce the chemical at a cost higher than what their competitors could sell it for.

What happened next is straight out of the book, and I'll bet you already know what it is. Yep, the whole oil company sold for pennies on the dollar, to a smarter competitor who kept up with the technology. And the shareholders did not
live happily ever after.

The moral of this story? It can cost real money to ignore new technology. And that's a chance that this industry can't afford to take.