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Vanguard Award for Science & Technology

3/28/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Given the incessant momentum of the Internet, and its tendency to morph into some new service offering every time you turn around, it's reassuring to have a guy like Jay Rolls on the home team.

That's because long before any of us were even using dial-up modems, Rolls was building the rudiments of what we now call the Internet.

“We were a bunch of old cable people, but Jay had background and knowledge in data and IP (Internet protocol) — which we lacked at the time,” recalled Alex Best, retired chief technical officer of Cox Communications, who hired Rolls into cable in 1995.

As senior vice president of technology architecture for Cox, Rolls oversees strategy for the 6 million-subscriber MSO — meaning network evolution and intelligence for the company's core bundle of video, voice and data services, as well as its sizeable leap into mobile broadband. He's also an active contributor at a broader, industrial level, driven by a natural affinity for collaboration.

“The Internet is this constantly changing thing — it's like a living creature,” Rolls said. “The moment you think it's static, and you know the rules, and whatever you do today will work for a long time — you're just wrong.”

He should know. After graduating with an electrical engineering degree from the University of Virginia in 1983, Rolls entered a trajectory that would propel him into the early days of communications systems. It began when the CIA snapped him up to work on communications cryptography, followed by a brief stint for a communications contractor, where he reverse-engineered a commercial fax machine.

Then, in 1986 he made the leap that would seal his fate as an Internet pioneer: to BBN Technologies (Bolt, Beranek and Newman), the company that worked with the U.S. government's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to build what would become the underpinnings of today's Internet.

“Jay is one of the top five best engineers I know — and I've worked with some very, very bright engineers,” said Bob Bartlett, Rolls's boss at BBN. “He's got a lot of common sense. A lot of engineers don't.”

One month into his BBN assignment, Rolls accepted a one-year assignment in Germany, to help expand a packet-switched network connecting all of the military bases in Europe. “We had a 64 Kbps backbone,” Rolls mock-boasts. “We were living large.”

Rolls would remain in Stuttgart for nine years, ultimately running the 36-person BBN team before shifting into a technology development job at Alcatel. (“The first four months at Alcatel were excruciating, from a language perspective,” Rolls said, noting that the BBN work occurred entirely on base, where English is predominant. “Then, boom, it all started clicking.” By the time he returned to the U.S., he was thinking and even dreaming in German.)

One of his Alcatel assignments was to develop an early VOD system, running over telco DSL plant. That's what caught the eye of Cox's Alex Best, who received Rolls's resume in a circuitous, pass-it-on kind of way: Rolls's sister gave it to a friend who was married to an engineer at Cox Radio, who got it in front of Best. “Anyone with a VOD background in that timeframe [circa 1995] was pretty rare,” Rolls said.

Best hired Rolls, and moved him to Atlanta. “Alex said, 'There's also this Internet thing that might get interesting,' ” Rolls said. Three months later, he was kicking tires and digging in to early, proprietary cable-modem systems.

That's when Cisco came calling, to describe its plans for cable-modem systems. At the time, the data-networking giant was six months deep into an 18 month product-design cycle for a proprietary cable-modem system, said Jim Forster, then a senior engineer at Cisco.

Then, in late 1997, they secured a meeting with Rolls. “Jay told us in no uncertain terms that the industry had decided to use this [DOCSIS] standard, exclusively. He said the spec would be published 'real soon now.' ”

They changed their road map. “We didn't relish the idea of backing up,” Forster said. “But on the other hand, we'd be crazy to launch yet another proprietary product, 12 months after a standard came out.”

Rolls' career path zig-zagged to the West Coast in 1998, with senior engineering stints at the @Home Network (“I left about a year before the implosion”) and Pacific Broadband Communications (PBC), an early maker of cable-modem termination systems.

Cox's Alex Best was PBC board member. And when PBC was purchased by Juniper, Best made his move. “I said, why don't you come on back,” Best recalls. “And I was very glad to get him back.”

By that time, Rolls had married (Terri) in 1999, and in 2001 became a proud parent to fraternal twin boys (Gavin and Ian). “It was time to come back and be closer to family.”

Friends know Rolls as a big-hearted, easy to be with, keep-in-touch kind of friend.

“We both were traveling a lot, and we had this thing for postcards,” said longtime friend Glenn Zorpette, now executive editor for the IEEE Spectrum, a highly respected engineering publication. “This was pre-e-mail. So wherever we went in the world, we'd try to find the weirdest postcard we could. I still have them all in a box.”

And then there's the adventure streak, which reads like the bucket list of an adrenaline junkie: Climbing the 15,781 ft. Mont Blanc. Cycling from Hanoi to Saigon. Cycling with Terri through Europe, three years in a row (pre-twins). Cycling in Hawaii, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand and Chile. Running the Berlin marathon (“my one and only.”) Getting a black belt in karate. Becoming a private pilot, with an instrument rating.

While most people might attempt one adventure on Rolls' roster, he learned early to savor life: He's a cancer survivor. “I had melanoma when I was 25. I had my face cut up, and my lymph nodes removed, so none of the rough stuff like radiation and chemo, but it's a big deal for me.”

Says BBN's Bartlett: “Cable-land is lucky to have Jay. With people like him, you feel like a father — glad to see your kids doing well, but kind of knowing that's what would happen.”

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