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Cable Operators

Green: Creating Standards That Worked

11/08/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Ask any cable executive to highlight the technical accomplishments of CableLabs founding president and CEO Richard Green, and the conversation almost inevitably turns to DOCSIS and the creation of cable's high-speed data services.

“[DOCSIS] completely changed not just the business model for cable, but the face of communications in America,” said National Cable & Telecommunications Association CEO Kyle McSlarrow. “One can make the case that the advent of broadband, where cable led the way, and the delivery of digital phone on top of that has done more to create competition and change the way people think about communications than anything else you can think of.”

Without the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, according to industry executives, cable's broadband revolution might never have happened at all.

“Dick was responsible for making broadband a viable product on the cable platform, by creating standards that really worked,” Tom Rutledge, chief operating officer of Cablevision Systems and a CableLabs board member, said via e-mail.

CableLabs outgoing CEO Dick GreenThe creation of standards for the first DOCSIS-based high-speed cable modems and other subsequent technologies, such as PacketCable and digital phone, also transformed the economics of cable.

“Dick [Green] drove the whole industry towards standardization with multiple vendors [for technologies],” said Liberty Media chairman John Malone, who, in his days as head of Tele-Communications Inc., was the first chairman of CableLabs. “That drove down costs and allowed the implementation of all of those technologies, up to and including DOCSIS 3.0, that give cable a huge edge in terms of broadband. If cable hadn't done that, it would be toast.”

But the legacy of Green, who announced his intention to retire from CableLabs last September, goes far beyond DOCSIS.

“Certainly, CableLabs had a hand in the fiber-coax architecture we all use, as well as PacketCable [which allowed operators to deploy phone services], Tru2way,” and many other technologies, said Bright House Networks president Nomi Bergman in an e-mail exchange.

“Under Dick's leadership, CableLabs and its partners laid the foundation for innovation across our industry,” said Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, the current CableLabs board chairman, via e-mail.

One example of that foundation was cable's early embrace of fiber optics technology. Engineers at American Telecommunications Corp., which later became Time Warner Cable, had demonstrated the use of fiber to transport video in 1987. But the first lasers were extremely expensive, costing over $20,000 recalled Jim Chiddix, who led the effort to develop fiber delivery at ATC and later was Time Warner Cable's head of engineering and technology.

“Dick [Green] had worked on lasers in the past and really understood the importance of fiber,” Chiddix said. “He really helped get the industry behind it.”

With the industry-wide support engineered by Green, the cost of lasers dropped. By the mid-1990s, the industry was aggressively deploying hybrid fiber coaxial architecture, which created the bandwidth needed for a plethora of new services.

“Without fiber, the industry was frankly at a dead end,” Chiddix said. “Basically, you couldn't do all the things that we've done subsequently [to develop a two-way digital platform] with high-speed data and telephony and VOD.”

During his tenure, Green also pushed the cable industry to embrace standards.

“When CableLabs was founded and we hired Dick Green, the cable industry was highly balkanized technologically, because there were no standards in the industry,” Malone recalled. “This was a key weakness to cable. The standards were proprietary to the vendors and the equipment was not compatible with each other. This prevented the industry from having the advantage of scale” to reduce costs.

This was particularly a problem with the first cable modems, which cost over $400. “We were really in the iron grip of a few vendors,” Malone said.

Once CableLabs created the DOCSIS standard, though, new vendors could enter the market and costs dropped dramatically, said Charter Communications executive vice president and chief technology officer Marwan Fawaz. Prices dropped to less than one-tenth what they had been, Fawaz, said, making rapid broadband rollouts economically viable.

Said Malone: “The savings for the industry were enormous, many billions of dollars.”

Green, who was CEO of CableLabs from 1988 to 2009, attributes much of the organization's success to the backing it has received in the last two decades from the cable industry and the early efforts by several cable entrepreneurs, notably Richard Leghorn, who came up with the idea for an industry-wide lab, and Malone, who was the first chairman of CableLabs between 1988 and 1999.

“When I read over the documents and the structure they'd put together, I could see that these people had really thought through the issues,” Green said. “They saw the opportunities and understood the pitfalls. I realized these people were special and I wanted to work with them.”

Others stress however the importance of Green in the organization's early success.

“Dick Green made CableLabs what it is,” said Cox Communications senior vice president of technology Jay Rolls. “The fact that CableLabs is so relevant to the industry and has played a role in so many important technologies is a tribute to him.”

Green's talent for diplomacy in getting a diverse group of large and small cable operators — some with outsized egos — to work together on complex technical issues for the first time was a key factor in CableLabs' success.

“One of the things that Dick did really well is that he herded cats, and there were some very big cats he had to herd,” said Time Warner Cable executive vice president and chief technology officer Mike LaJoie.

“He certainly has been a great representative of the cable industry in front of the FCC, Congress and the world stage,” Robert Miron, chairman of Bright House Networks parent Advance/Newhouse, said in an e-mail. “His continuing involvement is a testament to his passion” for science and technology.

That involvement includes service on the board of John Malone's Liberty Global and working with a number of educational and nonprofit organizations, including the University of Colorado and the Space Sciences Institute.

One current passion of Green's is encouraging the development of a new generation of researchers.

“I'm very concerned that so many research laboratories have closed and that there are not enough people going into science and engineering,” Green said. “I feel like we're eating our seed corn. I'm doing everything I can to help persuade these bright young people to enter science.”

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