The Human Equation

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When I worked in broadcasting — with ABC, CBS and
then at PBS — I would look at the cable plant from afar. I didn’t have a
lot of working knowledge of cable at the time, but I always admired the
cable technologists, because it’s not easy to make a network with that
wide an amount of spectrum work. I saw people had solved this problem
and were making it work.

I had planned to stay in broadcasting for the rest of
my life, when I was approached about this idea for Cable
Television Laboratories Inc. in 1988. The formation
of CableLabs was done very professionally. The National
Cable Television Association, as it was called then, did a
good job of looking at what the cable industry needed and
took models from other industries to come up with a plan.

Now, I was working for a consortium — PBS — with a
contentious group of members. I had experience with and
some trepidation about consortia.

But I became convinced that CableLabs was going to be
something special. I liked the idea and I liked the people.
They had really thought about the consequences of doing
things in certain ways.

The motivating factor for me to join CableLabs was clearly
the people. I shared their thoughts, and when I met with
them, I was truly impressed by the executive core of this

I also looked at the cable plant, and thought, “My God,
what a wonderful network! It’s broadband. It can carry all
kinds of stuff . It’s a segment of the spectrum protected and
encased in this cable.”

I was jazzed by the capability of this plant and what you could do with
it. I still believe that it’s the most powerful platform for terrestrial distribution
in the world.

The first two areas of technology we adopted for CableLabs to work on
were high-definition TV and fiber.

On fiber, we got the cable-operator chief technical officers together
in Stamford, Conn. Each one got up and said how they were going to incorporate
fiber into their networks. Jim Chiddix, who was CTO of Time
Warner Cable, was one of the presenters. We all sat and listened to these
ideas and it became pretty clear that what Time Warner Cable was doing
would really work.

As a process of formal synthesis, we came to an industry position, which
was hybrid fiber-coax, HFC. Later we decided
to formalize that by specifying an
average node size of 500 homes passed.

The cable industry had a lot to do with
the development of high-defi nition TV.
All of the other proposals for HD were
digital/analog hybrids, while CableLabs
supported an all-digital solution. It was
all-digital, efficient and was able to carry
a lot of information.

The story on the Data Over Cable Service
Interface Specification is that there
was a CableLabs executive committee
meeting in New York, in September
1995. Each of the members was buying
proprietary modems from a few manufacturers.

Bill Schleyer, then the president of
Continental Cablevision, said, “Why
don’t we ask CableLabs to develop a
common standard so we’re all using
the same technology for our service?”
Th e rest of the committee chimed in and
thought that was a good idea.

This was in September, and they
wanted the specification by the end of
the year! I said, “Th at might take longer.”
But in development terms it was quite
rapid. Four cable operators — Tele-
Communications Inc., Time Warner Cable,
Cox Communications and Comcast
— had formed a joint venture called Multimedia Cable Network System
(MCNS), which provided the basis for the DOCSIS specifi cations, and we
issued DOCSIS 1.0 in March 1997.

DOCSIS was probably the tipping point for the industry. Up to that
point, there had been no unified specifications on any hardware. With
DOCSIS, the industry made economics and interoperability
the priorities.

DOCSIS has done more for the cable industry both strategically
and economically than any other development.
It was much larger than I ever thought it would be, in
terms of the value. I didn’t think all those things through.
I thought, “This gives us a great competitive edge.”

People often look at CableLabs and think it must have
been rough because of the differences of culture among
companies. Honestly, the reverse is true. There is huge
benefit and power in bringing multiple opinions to the
fore to solve a problem. Compromise doesn’t have to be
an elephant designed by committee.

Early on, it was really clear that if you got reasonable
people together and you went over the rationale and the
options, you made good decisions. That was true especially
with respect to introducing fiber to cable.

I was lucky: People trusted me. They helped me. And
they never said, “OK, whatever you want.” It was, “Here’s
what I think — but you have to talk to the other guys.”

I think it would be very difficult for other industries to
do this. The people in our industry are special. That combination
of being able to work together, to talk about the
technical issues and come up with ideas, has really worked for them. I’d
like to take credit for this, but the truth is, it was very collaborative.

As an industry, we have moved from one paradigm to another. Now
we’re going to go all-Internet protocol, and that’s a stimulating problem
to address.

Transitions are never easy for any industry. But you can look at how
an industry addresses a transition and you get some idea of its depth of
competence and its capability. And every time we’ve done it, we’ve shown
we’re really good at it.

Dick Green was president and CEO of CableLabs from its inception in
1988 until December 2009.