Jerry Holland may oversee the technical operations for a company just cutting its teeth in the video business, but FiOS’s vice president of video network service operations grew up in the cable business.
Holland’s grandfather, Clyde Watts, was a cable pioneer, launching Watts Cable TV out of his radio repair shop in Delbarton, W.Va., in the 1950s.
Watts, who also worked as a coal miner, started the cable system after locals began bringing TVs to his repair shop, complaining that they couldn’t pick up broadcast signals, says Holland, who began working for his grandfather during high school.
Signal theft was rampant at the time, so a regular task for Holland and Watts was to drive around their service area, looking for homes that had tapped into their plant.
“You would go around at night, and if you saw a reflection of the television, and you could see the flashing coming out of the house, then you knew that person wasn’t on our system,” Holland said.
If Holland or his grandfather determined that a home had tapped into their plant, they would yank cable from the line running to the house, making it “harder for them to steal the next time.”
On one occasion, his grandfather climbed a tree, and pulled so hard that a TV inside the house crashed to the floor, Holland says.
Holland began working fulltime for his grandfather after graduating from high school. On New Year’s Day 1981, they installed their first earth station — a satellite dish that allowed Watts Cable TV to offer Home Box Office.
“I was just blown away by the technology — being able to point something to the sky and get a signal,” he says.
Holland began studying engineering at West Virginia Institute of Technology, but returned two years later to run the cable system after his grandfather passed away.
Holland’s family sold the system in 1985 to Boston-based Cooney Cable, and he returned to college to earn a degree in electrical engineering. When the system was sold, it had 1,500 subscribers connected to 28 miles of plant.
Holland began working as a network analyst for independent telco Contel Corp. in 1987, which later merged with GTE Corp. Holland moved up the ranks at Contel and GTE, which merged with Verizon in 1999.
He says some of the lessons he learned at Watts Cable come in handy today, such as the need to explain to people that sometimes problems are caused by devices connected to a network — rather than the plant itself.
Holland used to carry a portable TV with him while on service calls at Watts, so he could explain to some customers that the problem with their video signal was with their TVs, not the cable plant.
“The very first time I did that, the guy looked at me, and said, 'Well that’s a small TV. It takes less signal than a big TV.’”