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Cable Operators

SCTE: Meetings Of The Minds

6/22/2009 12:00 PM Eastern

In the beginning, they were fraternities for the front-line cable-pullers, who just wanted a place where they could talk with people who spoke the same language.

SCTE 40th anniversaryThe Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers officially got its start on June 22, 1969 — exactly 40 years ago — at the NCTA's annual convention in San Francisco.

“We aimed the SCTE at the technicians themselves: the guys who were going to get their hands dirty,” said Bill Karnes, one of the group's founding principals, who was then president of MSO Sammons Communications.

Added current SCTE chairman Tom Gorman, “It went from commiseration in the early days to, 'Hey, how do we solve those problems?' ”

The SCTE now has swelled to more than 14,000 members, from 79 in the founding year. The association produces two major conferences, Cable-Tec Expo and the Conference on Emerging Technologies, as well as hundreds of seminars each year and recently held its first Canadian summit. It also maintains key standards for cable telecommunications and provides certification and ongoing professional training to its members.

Now, the association is embarking on a new era under SCTE president and CEO Mark Dzuban, who started in February.

Dzuban, a former AT&T and Cedar Point Communications executive, remains committed to the focus on bits and bytes — the nitty-gritty technical details of cable networks. At the same time, he sees an opportunity to raise SCTE's profile and to expand by delivering tools and information for network professionals that are rooted in business strategy.

“There's 40 years of very good history here,” Dzuban said. “But I'm here for a purpose … you have leadership brought on to do very specific things at specific points in time.”

GETTING PROACTIVE

The overarching goal is to anticipate the cable industry's future needs in a business context, according to Dzuban. “One approach is the bloody-nose strategy — after the fact, trying to figure it out,” he said. “The other is proactive, to let me develop the skills of my people, optimize my capital expenditures and operations.”

SCTE chairman Gorman, who is also vice president of field operations for Charter Communications, said the association had become somewhat reactive in the past few years.

“The SCTE honestly may have gone and developed stuff just in time or maybe just a little bit behind,” he said. “We need to start building programs for things that are coming in three to five years.”

Case in point: Cable operators this year are preparing to widely deploy Tru2way, the CableLabs advanced interactive-TV specification. That has implications for not just headend engineers, but chief technology officers and cable CEOs. The SCTE is looking at ways it could provide resources to assist companies in managing Tru2way infrastructure, Gorman said.

“There's a lot of stuff on the SCTE white board right now,” he said.

Originally, the SCTE was strictly focused at the local level, providing forums for cable technicians to exchange ideas and information. The association, patterned after the pre-existing Society of Broadcast Engineers, wasn't envisioned as setting standards or hosting national conventions.

“The genesis of all this was some of us at the time felt the technical side of the business was getting left out in terms of attention from the cable owners,” recalled Karnes, 79, who now lives Plano, Texas.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (then known as the National Cable Television Association) was more geared to higher-level executives. “We felt like the technical issues were pushed to the side while they argued over congressional policies,” Karnes said.

Today, SCTE has 68 chapters and meeting groups in the U.S. and Canada, which remain a key piece of the organization.

In the early days, one of the biggest challenges for the fledgling SCTE was concern from cable owners who believed the association was actually an attempt to organize a union for cable technicians.

“The MSOs also didn't want their guys to go to a place where they might get job offers,” Karnes said with a chuckle. He had to persuade several that the SCTE was in fact promoting professional development that was in the interests of cable companies.

The group, known as the Society of Cable Television Engineers until 1995, grew slowly at first and operated on a volunteer basis for the first several years. SCTE hired its full-time paid staff in 1977, and that year opened an office in Washington, D.C.

In the early 1980s, though, the SCTE was “teetering on the verge of bankruptcy,” according to a historical overview the association published this year.

The association credits then-president Tom Polis with righting the ship. The SCTE has honored Polis with a golf tournament held for the last seven years in Exton, Pa. Proceeds from the event go toward the association's educational grants program.

In May 1983, SCTE staged its first “Expo,” in Dallas. That first event attracted 700 attendees and 118 exhibitors. The show has grown into the 25-year Cable-Tec Expo franchise, which last year in Philadelphia brought in more than 10,000 attendees and more than 400 hardware, software and services exhibitors.

Even with the rise of Internet-based meetings and conferencing tools, the SCTE expects continued demand for a physical meeting of cable's technical community.

“In the future, we need to adapt and change to what the industry needs,” said Lori Bower, SCTE's vice president of national conferences. “From what we hear back on surveys, there's still that need for the in-person, face-to-face meetings.”

The SCTE's expansion into cable-industry standards, an effort begun in 1988, was another major strategic initiative. In 1995, the year it changed the “T” in its name to “telecommunications,” SCTE was accredited by the American National Standards Institute as an official standards-development organization.

To Gorman, the standards activities have been among SCTE's biggest contributions to cable, with technical standards ranging from drop amplifiers to advanced-advertising systems. “We've driven out a lot of cost for the industry,” he said.

SETTING THE STANDARD

Consider the SCTE standard for the F-connector — the ubiquitous coaxial radio-frequency interface — which was the first of the association's standards accepted by ANSI, in 1996.

“We were going down a path several years ago where everyone was building their own version of the F-connector,” Gorman said. Now, since SCTE standardization, the cost has dropped from 50 cents per unit to the 20-cent range, or in some cases less, he said.

In training and professional development, SCTE has concentrated on certification and programs for field technicians and headend engineers.

But cable professionals are increasingly coming in “horizontally,” according to Gorman, by which he means they're coming from, say, Internet protocol networking backgrounds rather than “vertically” as entry-level cable technicians.

Gorman, for one, got his start in cable as an installer in 1976 in Annapolis, Md. The SCTE's programs will need to address new breeds of cable telecommunications professionals: “We're really talking about the launching pad in the future,” he said.

The association now is looking to increase its coverage of emerging disciplines, such as automated network-operations and energy-management strategies, said Marv Nelson, vice president of professional development for SCTE.

“Our mission is to be the technical leaders in the industry,” Nelson said. “To do that, you have to get past our challenges today and see what they will be tomorrow.”

In any new program it embarks on, SCTE will remain focused on the core areas of technical leadership and professional development, said vice president of marketing and business development Debra Swann.

“Sticking to your knitting is the best thing,” said Swann, who spent 28 years in the telco industry before joining SCTE in 2007.

Karnes, looking back on the growth of SCTE from its origins, said he believes the organization has not only fulfilled the mission defined by the founding members but has expanded to provide technical leadership for the industry.

“Standards-setting was not one of the thoughts in my mind at the beginning, but it's definitely where we needed to be and where we need to be today,” said Karnes. “SCTE has met all my expectations, and it evolved in ways I didn't expect.”

AT A GLANCE
Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers

SOURCE: Multichannel News research
Description: Non-profit association for cable telecommunications engineers dedicated to professional development, certification, training and standards
Headquarters: Exton, Pa.
Web site: www.scte.org
Members: More than 14,000
Local chapters and meeting groups: 68
Major events: Cable-Tec Expo; Conference on Emerging Technologies
Technical standards: 220 standards approved (as of May 12); of those, 211 have been approved by ANSI
September