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Out in front on new network technologies

Sun, 12/31/1995 - 7:00pm
CED Staff

Wilt Hildenbrand's office doesn't look like those normally inhabited by vice presidents of technology at the big multiple system operators-it's small, almost Spartan in its appointments. It's also more cluttered than most, and it's filled with toys.

Not kid toys, mind you, but fun things like personal computers attached to high-speed modems, and a TV outfitted with interactive guides and services. But Wilt's cluttered office doesn't mean he has a cluttered mind; this is clearly one technologist who has a vision of where he wants his company to go.

This self-described oddball has quietly put himself and Cablevision Systems Corp. at the forefront of new technology by launching numerous important technology and market trials. Today, Wilt oversees tests of high-speed data transfer, cable telephony, telecommuting, interactive TV and digital video compression over perhaps the most unique system architecture the industry has seen.

It is in recognition of this desire to push the technology envelope that Hildenbrand has been chosen as CED magazine's 1995 Man of the Year.

Hildenbrand's rise to the top at Cablevision is the classic rags-to-riches model that probably can't be duplicated today, now that degreed engineers and doctoral candidates have taken over cable television engineering departments as cable companies have grown up to be huge media conglomerates.

In fact, those who knew Wilt 30 years ago might be entirely surprised to discover what he's done with his life. After entering Oneonta Teacher's College in New York with the intention of becoming a chemistry teacher, Wilt admits he "didn't buckle down real hard" and found himself enlisting in the Air Force to avoid being drafted.

Once there, his fortunes changed dramatically. He ended up touring the southern U.S. doing airborne radio repair and discovered he actually enjoyed learning about electronics. "I learned some basic concepts," recalls Wilt, "but I also learned a discipline . . . ways to follow rules and ways to duck rules-both of which turned out to be incredibly important."

After his military discharge, Wilt literally fell into a job at a Louisiana cable TV station, where he ran the studio console, inserted commercials and did some directing. In addition, he repaired the board and aligned the cameras when necessary. Suddenly, a new career path was laid out: "I knew that's what I wanted to do," Wilt says.

Eager to return to his native New York, Wilt parlayed a recommendation from a TelePrompTer office manager into a job as assistant warehouseman in Islip, on Long Island. "They didn't have a studio, so they took a chance and offered me that job," Wilt remembers. "They hadn't hired a warehouseman yet, but they certainly knew assistant material when they saw it," he laughs.

During that time, which was characterized by all-out construction and a mad scramble to acquire new franchises, Wilt spent a good bit of each day pre-setting amplifiers on the bench so that the turnkey contractors could hang them and turn the system up quickly. From there, he gradually moved up the ladder: spending time as a service technician and performing installs. By 1975, Wilt had found a new home in the headend as chief tech.

The following year, Wilt took a job with neighboring MSO Cablevision, following the footsteps of Bill Quinn, his former supervisor at TelePrompTer. At that time, working in the headend was the place to be: Cablevision was starting new local programming services that kept technical personnel hopping. Those services, which today are known as American Movie Classics, Bravo and SportsChannel, and distributed by Rainbow Programming Holdings, required innovative approaches to distribution.

"It was wild and wooly," Wilt recalls, "and there were no rules." So he worked with Eastern Microwave to develop a microwave network and bought time from Western Union's land, satellite and microwave network to feed services or provide backhauls of live sporting events.

Within a couple of years, Hildenbrand became a key member of the Cablevision central engineering group, where he supported the frenetic franchising effort through construction planning, site inspections and other roles. He also built an uplink site to support Rainbow's programming distribution efforts and used the facility's "down times" to send CNN news feeds and sports feeds from a variety of broadcasters.

"That was an interesting experience, not only from the technical aspect, but from the business aspect, too, because we brokered time over the satellite," says Wilt. "It turned out to be a valuable learning experience."

As Rainbow grew, Hildenbrand became director of engineering. He stayed there for about four years until his perennial supervisor Bill Quinn was named general manager of Cablevision's Long Island system, which opened up a new opportunity. Suddenly, Wilt was vice president of engineering and customer service.

Unlike other industry engineering VPs, Wilt was responsible for making sure Cablevision customers were given the best possible service in addition to overseeing the engineering department. Although it was an odd job combination at the time, Wilt says it's one that made a lot of sense. "New developments and (the way the network is engineered) impacts customer service," he notes. And while the combination may have been unusual, it offered another advantage-the beginnings of an education on telecommunications.

"Part of customer service is dealing with the telephone system," he says. "So, in a rudimentary way, you had to understand call volume, how to design a system, waiting times and the like." In short, it was a basic primer in traffic modeling.

The intense customer service focus caused Cablevision to develop its own set of internal performance standards long before the Federal Communications Commission formalized them. Wilt admits his "to-do" list was never completed, but "we did a lot of things," he notes.

Learning other disciplines also taught Wilt another lesson. "You can't ever just focus on the technology engine, you have to focus on the impacts that are made across the organization," says Wilt. For example, in a video-on-demand environment, it's important that customer service reps have access to billing information in real-time, not from a batch, so they can answer customer inquiries immediately. "All these different pieces of the puzzle interrelate and impact the ability to roll out new technologies."

And then, the industry exploded into a brand-new technology age, where the introduction of fiber optics changed the way networks were designed and promised to revolutionize the types of programs that could be offered (read: interactivity). In order to remain focused on new technologies, engineering and technology was split from the customer service function about four years ago.

But the experience was invaluable. Wilt's knowledge of the other disciplines led him to one inescapable conclusion: when it came time to rebuild, Cablevision had to construct the most flexible, transparent network possible. A whole new slate of applications was coming, and no one could accurately predict which would win, and which would fall by the wayside.

While the rest of the industry began constructing fiber optic networks driven by lasers which operated at 1310 nanometers, Wilt and his crew took a long, hard look at 1550 nm transmission gear-not to be different, but because of fiber's inherent lower attenuation and ease of amplification at that wavelength.

"We wanted to take the network out of the equation," he says. "We wanted a network that was extensible-one that wouldn't be (adversely impacted) by new technologies." By using 1550 nm devices, Cablevision could use high-power devices and essentially split the outputs in the headend and still provide analog signal performance that was more than adequate. If there is a future need to improve signal performance or drive fiber deeper into the network, amplification is possible. (For a detailed discussion of how Cablevision built its network, see "Rethinking traditional CATV architectures," CED, September 1990, p.50.)

Under fire

At the time, many people were flummoxed by Cablevision's design choice. Wilt's brethren had all chosen to use 1310 equipment, and Cablevision's support for 1550 was apparently, and inexplicably, seen by many as counterproductive to the industry's goals. Some-even a few who today are using 1550 nm technology-lashed out against him.

"It certainly caused a reaction," recalls Wilt. "There are very few things that have happened in this industry that have caused a reaction like that. To this day, I don't know why. To us, it wasn't a case of right or wrong-it worked for us. We weren't trying to tell anyone else what to do. Maybe it was an extra distraction no one needed during a time when fiber was brand new. Maybe rallying around a single standard was important, and we were being non-standard. I don't know.

"But that's an old wound that has finally healed," he continues. "It doesn't matter to me anymore. We use 1310 gear for certain applications. We need all the tools we can get, and this is just another tool." In fact, Cablevision for the past six months has been wave division multiplexing 1310 nm signals on top of the 1550 nm video streams.

But did that experience taint his view of his colleagues or make him reticent to become more active in the industry, something for which other industry engineers continue to criticize him? Wilt says no.

"Some of it's company style," he explains. "We don't usually talk (about planned deployments) before we've done it. But we're more open than we used to be, and that's important. Anybody who wants to come in and see what we're doing can do that. We'll show you everything we've got."

In fact, Wilt argues that because Cablevision doesn't enjoy the same cache as a TCI or Time Warner, the company's announcements don't get the media play they might deserve. "Maybe we're not as silent as everyone says-we just don't draw the attraction. We're small, we don't have that much staff, and we're busy. This is a high-task company, so we don't spend a lot of time pontificating, we just go do."

It is true, however, that Wilt doesn't seek an audience or ratification from others that his plans and strategies are sound. What matters is that his strategy makes sense for Cablevision and its customers.

"I fit into that model because I'm the same way. It's not important to me that the outside world understand me personally or what I'm doing. It's important that what I'm doing makes sense for here."

Although he bristles at the thought he's a contrarian, Wilt does admit he's, well, different. "I cherish that. I really do. I think differently about a lot of things. I'm just weird. I accept that."

Oddball tendencies aside, Wilt and his crew are today busy on several fronts. With nearly 1.6 million customers clustered in the New York/Long Island/southern Connecticut corridor, Cablevision has a unique ability to test new services on an educated, willing and financially attractive subscriber base. So Cablevision obliges-the MSO is soon planning to roll out high-speed modems for data transfer and Internet access; enhanced pay-per-view; telecommuting services to employees of a large Long Island company; low-level interactivity via GTE Main Street; residential telephony services; and digitally compressed movies.

Is that overkill? While Wilt likes to be on the cutting edge, he insists that all these trials and tests serve a purpose. "We're looking to leverage the network and differentiate ourselves from our competitors. We're not just doing this for the sake of the engineering department."

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Wilt in front of video-on-demand transmission equipment

A year ago, Cablevision contracted with AT&T Network Systems to deploy digital enhanced pay-per-view and video-on-demand. Although the roll-out has slipped somewhat, the MSO has begun taking delivery of a set-top manufactured by AT&T that enables those services to be delivered to subscribers' homes.

For this service, Wilt chose to deploy a digital-only box to avoid having to be compatible with existing analog set-tops and services. He also decided he wanted a "dumb" set-top, reserving the intelligence for the server, making it easier to control security.

As of last month, there were about 25 set-tops deployed, and Cablevision was offering 10 movies at 10-minute start times. Meanwhile, new software for VOD was due last month, and service was due to roll out to about 50 "friendly" customers in the first quarter of 1996.

Unlike other MSOs that integrated several different parts from different vendors, Wilt chose to work solely with AT&T because it could deploy the server, the set-top and the network components. "I didn't want three vendors because they'd never agree, and everybody would spend more time pointing fingers than working on the problem."

But is EPPV and VOD a business? Does it make sense to offer digital services over a dedicated set-top? That's precisely what Cablevision hopes to find out.

In the meantime, Cablevision is also working with GTE Main Street to determine if there's any market pull for interactive services. By wrapping a custom-built sidecar that houses the Main Street technology around a standard analog set-top, Cablevision will be able to test some low-level interactive services.

"We'll roll out about 300 sidecars, put them in people's hands and see where it goes," he says. "We're not quite sure what to do with it yet, but we're very enamored with interactive technology."

For nearly a year now, Cablevision has been testing as many high-speed modems as it could get its hands on. In Boston, it used LANcity equipment. Out on Long Island, it's testing both the Intel unit and Zenith's 500 kbps Homeworks unit over two-way HFC in 500-home cells, 2,000-home cells and across non-fibered coaxial plant. That technical trial, which has about 300 users, is about to grow into a full-fledged service launch.

In spite of a hostile RF environment, Wilt says running data shouldn't be any more difficult than transporting video, providing the cable plant is clean. In fact, Wilt says it's noise, not ingress, that has been the limiting factor for him, probably because there is so much two-way plant. "There's stuff (noise in the RF spectrum) floating around there that surprised even us," he reports. But in terms of noise, "it's not the way it used to be. You get most of the work done just by meeting the signal leakage rules."

What about dynamic bandwidth agility, where return frequencies can literally "hop" away from dirty spectrum? Wilt says while the idea has merit as a solution, it could potentially consume too much spectrum, which is already in short supply. "There's no magic bullet," he says. "I think you have to operate these systems as if you can't move away from the ingress."

Cablevision is also ready to launch a telecommuting trial with a company out on Long Island that wants to provide its employees with a method to access its internal network. Although details of this trial were unavailable, Cablevision already has telecommuters in Yorktown, N.Y.

There, 1,400 employees at IBM's Thomas Watson Research Center can log onto the digital data network to send and receive computer programs and files at speeds approaching 4 Mbps via Zenith modems. The interconnect is also used by two local high schools so that students can receive multimedia science programs.

Cablevision executives, including Wilt, are high on data transfer as a potential revenue source. "(Data) is probably my favorite project," notes Wilt. "It's the easiest to bring to market, the technology is not tremendously hard to do and it begins to act and feel like residential telephony, but it doesn't have all the reliability requirements. And it's something our competitors can not do."

Cablevision knows all about competition. With a firm foothold in southern Connecticut, the operator sits squarely within the sights of Southern New England Telephone (SNET), whose aggressive deployment of HFC networks for video have been well documented in this and other publications. "My job is to be afraid of everybody," says Wilt, who admits it's the telcos who are closest to offering real competition. "If you don't keep up, everybody's a competitor."

Just as SNET hopes to lure away a few Cablevision customers, Wilt and his clan hope to snare a few telephone customers. Cablevision is already running a handful of Nortel 's Cornerstone Voice residential subscriber units and plans to deploy up to 50 more to understand usage patterns, traffic needs and other operational issues. By April, Cablevision should be deploying "hundreds" of the units. In addition, Cablevision has tested equipment from Tellabs, West End and ADC Telecommunications and hopes to soon test gear from Motorola.

Haste makes waste

Even though Cablevision may be far ahead of other MSOs, Wilt says he favors a go-slow approach, mostly to make sure everything goes well. "I don't think we'll screw up, but we want to be very careful. We're assuming we only have one shot at this."

Of course, Cablevision already has some telephony experience through its competitive access provider subsidiary, Cablevision Lightpath, which has deployed a class 5 switch and today switches about 1 million minutes per month to about 150 commercial clients. "Lightpath has been a great learning tool," says Hildenbrand. "I wouldn't want to try to get into telephony without having had it."

Can cable MSOs really compete in the telephony world, where perception of reliability and customer service are everything, or is switched voice service biting off more than the cable industry can chew?

"It's clearly Mecca from an engineer's point of view," Wilt says. "It's held up as the service I have to be able to support." He says there are two key issues that must be overcome: powering and operations issues. "If we can get past some of the powering issues, I think we have exactly the same capabilities as the phone companies. It may even be possible to be more reliable by keeping voice quality higher than they do. I also don't have a legacy infrastructure to deal with. And my network doesn't have a limitation regarding second lines for fax or modems.

"So, no, it's not more than we can chew, assuming that we recognize we now have that responsibility. We have to get our operational mindset into the fact that this is on-line all the time. And we can practice with the PC modem, where I don't have the same benchmarks, but I can set the same standards for myself."

Wilt recognizes that reliability will be a key benchmark in the future, but argues that cable systems have already made tremendous strides. "You're not really allowed to be off the air anymore," he notes. "It's not an emergency communications device yet, but there really is no outage time that's acceptable. Short of third-party power, these networks almost never go down anymore. This fiber to 500-home node stuff is just amazing-it's so bloody bulletproof."

Hell week

It wasn't always that way-and no one knows that better than Wilt. In what could have been his worst week as an engineer, he recalls miscalculating a microwave link back in the '70s that caused a sports service to be off the air for about 100 hours. "The only reason I'm still employed is that it happened back when the stakes were different. But the impact on me was the same: it scared the hell out of me." He also says that's why he's always asking equipment suppliers for an escape valve when it comes to upgrade strategies. "It's a very hollow feeling to find out there's no net."

One man who knows what it's like to deal with Wilt is Dave Robinson, VP and general manager of General Instrument's digital network systems business unit. Between stints at GI, Robinson also worked with Wilt while he was at AT&T. "Wilt is a truly brilliant engineer who constantly demands to know more, and to know why not," Robinson says. "He has a striking degree of intellectual curiosity and is one of the best out-of-the-box thinkers I've encountered."

Perhaps owing to his original intent of becoming a chemisty teacher, Wilt is also able to effectively communicate complex technical thoughts to others within Cablevision. "Coming into the telecommunications industry with a completely non-technical background would have been a much more difficult task if I could not have run to Wilt every 20 minutes to discuss megahertz, Ethernet and other technical subjects," says Joseph Cece, president and COO of Cablevision Lightpath.

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Hildebrand and Cablevision CEO James Dolan (right) show off the MSO's Internet Home Page during last month's Western Cable Show

James Dolan, Cablevision's new CEO, agrees: "I've known Wilt for almost all of my career. His extraordinary knowledge has guided the company through countless technical initiatives."

Not that he hasn't had help. Like all success stories, Cablevision's ability to build new networks and test new services is the result of a team effort. And Wilt has one of the best unsung teams around.

First, there's R&D director Rudy Welter, who came to Cablevision from Bellcore, where he worked on advanced telecom networks. Scot O'Hare came from Grumman and has a doctorate in mathematics and a background in LAN networks and security. And Zizi Zhao, who holds a doctorate in applied math, is chief scientist and does a lot of Cablevision's Internet initiatives.

"I have no idea why three doctors are working for me," laughs Wilt, "it just worked out that way. But because I understand cable TV pretty well, I wanted to have people around who could smack me and say, 'you're an idiot; this isn't how the rest of the world works.' They look at and understand things now that I don't know about just yet."

And, of course, there's the support group at home, which consists of Lynn, Wilt's wife of 26 years; son Marc, who's attending Brown University and majoring in computer science; and daughter Mandy, who turns 14 this month. It's a close-knit clan that still takes vacations together, Wilt reports.

In short, while Wilt is out there testing new technologies, he's surrounded himself with a support infrastructure that virtually ensures he won't fail. But he's convinced his biggest hurdle isn't technical anyway-it's mental. "It's understanding that as we move into services that are more interactive and potentially life supporting, we have to change our mindset and keep our heads in the equation."

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