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Keeping Continental on the fast track

Tue, 12/31/1996 - 7:00pm
Roger Brown

It's a dark and chilly morning outside, but Dave Fellows is already awake and out of bed, lacing up his running shoes, as he prepares to hit the streets of Beverly, Mass. It's been a long time since Fellows ran competitively, but taking on a sedentary lifestyle is unthinkable. For the quiet Fellows is driven to win, whether it's in sports or his professional life, and working out keeps him in good mental and physical shape.

But the fact of the matter is that both seem to come maddeningly easy to Continental Cablevision 's senior vice president of engineering and technology. Because ever since he was in grade school, he has excelled in sports and academics.

In fact, Fellows' personality is made up of that rare combination of bookish brains and witty humor. He's extremely intelligent, but hardly a nerd. He's soft-spoken, but driven to win. He's an accomplished academic who uses humor to its best advantage, all the while laughing at himself, too. If you don't think so, ask him about the time he was confronted by gun-toting security guards in a Phoenix field while digging up shrubbery.

And he's responsible for propelling the country's third-largest cable operator into a new, competitive era where it's simply not enough to offer entertainment video and expect to survive. For his pioneering work in data communications over cable systems, his efforts to develop standards and his experimental work with digital TV and telephony, CED magazine is proud to present its Man of the Year award to David Fellows.

Handy with tools

Like a lot of cable engineers, Fellows' interest in electronics goes back to his childhood, when he was often caught examining the guts of the family's TV or radio. "I was terrific at taking things apart," he recalls, but most of them were never put back together," he now sheepishly admits.

It's that brazen curiosity that led Fellows to be a straight-A student throughout school, as well. The As didn't come without effort, but it was that pursuit of knowledge that Dave enjoyed so much. In fact, Dave drove his high school advisors crazy when he decided to take mechanical drafting his senior year. Because it was a vocational-level course, and Dave was on an honors track three levels above that, his A in drafting equated to a D and actually pulled his grade point average down.

No matter. "I wanted to know about drafting and how the drawings were done. I didn't care about the grade-point average," he says.

Fellows, who was lanky even then, also excelled in sports. He played defensive end, cornerback and even tackle in football, and ran track, too. He enjoyed running through the woods while training.

His high academic marks made it possible for Fellows to attend Harvard University, where he entered as a physics major. One early course he took Physics 55 was physics for geniuses. "I was halfway through my sophomore year when it dawned on me that while I was very smart, I was not a genius," laughs Fellows. "So, I went to being an applied physics major, which was just enough of a sideways step that I caught up again."

Keeping up with sports on the Harvard campus turned out to be something Fellows could do. Shortly after entering the school, Dave received a letter from the rowing coach, asking him to try out for the eminent team.

"At that time, my upper body was as skinny as a rail, but I had big legs," Dave remembers. "I thought rowing would build my upper body, so I decided to try out."

It just so happened that rowing was mostly legs and did little to develop a muscular upper body. But Fellows turned out to do a lot for the Harvard team his sophomore year, he just barely missed making the 1972 Olympic rowing team.

Success on the water
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More determined than ever, Fellows kept working, improving his technique and time. In 1973, he had improved enough to be named to the team, the first of seven U.S. teams that he would be a part of. At the World Rowing Championships in Moscow that year, his boat took fourth in the world. In 1975, he came home from the Pan American Games with a bronze medal and was looking forward to captaining the 1976 Olympic team to a medal as well.

But there was dissension and difficulty between that team and its coach, and the team finished a dismal ninth. "I haven't had the nerve to look through history, but that was probably the worst showing by a U.S. eight-man team ever," he says dejectedly.

By 1977, Fellows retired from competitive rowing. "By that time, I had been married for two years, but was away from home training during 12 of those months, and the 12 months I was home, I was attending graduate school at Northeastern University."

Dave also had a full-time job to keep him busy. After returning from the disastrous Olympics, a former professor gave him two names to forward his resume to. The first one went to a man at GTE Laboratories, who offered Dave a job at the conclusion of the first interview. "Teaching and coaching were the only two professions I knew, so I accepted on the spot."

While at GTE, Dave became an expert in digital signal processing, satellite communications and fiber optics and worked on the technology that would eventually be dubbed ISDN.

"I was very lucky I was able to start my career in research," Dave now says, "because fiber optics is something I've been around for 25 years now. I also had a chance to introduce the technology in the telecom world, take it to the cable industry, and now, I get to follow it as a product I'm deploying in my role as a service provider."

He was also lucky in that he kept working out, rowing at 5:30 a.m., running during his lunch hour and returning to the boat house after work to row some more before going home. In 1979, with the competitive juices still flowing and a deep-down desire to bring the U.S. some Olympic glory, Fellows returned to competitive rowing, capturing a spot on the 1979 Pan Am team (when his two-man boat took home a silver medal) and the 1979 U.S. team.

With the team coming together just in time for the 1980 Olympics, Dave's hopes were dashed when then-President Jimmy Carter announced the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. "By that time, I had a full-time job at GTE, I'd been married for six years and so, I retired again."

A few years later, Fellows and a friend made an attempt to make the team again, but job duties, physical distances and life conflicts made the effort futile. That hardly means Dave quit, however.

"I still row and I still run," he reports. This year, in fact, on the Olympic course in Atlanta, a regatta was held that brought together past and present teams from Oxford, Cambridge, Tale and Harvard. Fellows' boat won the Master's division. Just last autumn, Dave came in second at the Head of the Schuykill regatta.

A whirlwind...marriage?

All the while that Dave went to graduate school, worked out and traveled with world-class rowers and held down a job at GTE, he managed to keep his marriage to April afloat, as well. He actually met her at Harvard while wiring an illegal telephone extension for her roommate and, after a two-year courtship, married her in late 1974.

"To set the tone for our marriage, we were married on a Saturday, had our honeymoon on Sunday and Monday (the Columbus Day holiday) and drove back that night because my wife had to work that evening, and I started school the next day.

"That first two-year period was the hardest part," recalls Dave. April traveled a lot (she would go on to become a group brand manager with a division of the Colgate Palmolive Co.) and so did Dave. "But we always had the weekends. We lived in an apartment in Cambridge and bought a cabin on Lake Winnipesaukee (N.H.) and spent just about every weekend up there."

Back at GTE, the research continued, and Dave began publishing papers, attending conferences and moving his way up to lead scientist. One day in 1980, Dave returned from a digital local loop conference in Munich and found a note on his desk, asking him to report to the office of the president. Thinking it could only be bad news, Fellows walked into the room and sat down with several of GTE's most senior research executives and a consultant.

Dave's employment fears turned out to be misplaced, however. Instead, the group wanted his input on the cost of a yet-to-be invented integrated circuit in multi-million quantities but the information was needed in 24 hours.

Undaunted, Fellows went back and did what he thought was a very good analysis based on present knowledge levels, state-of-the-art design and manufacturing and cost extrapolations. The well-thought-out analysis was well-received. "I like this guy," the consultant told Dave's boss.

Packets, anyone?

Later, the same consultant would again call on Dave's help during a grueling, hellish 16-day period when a presentation for Dr. Tom Vanderslice, who at that time was head of GTE, had to be completed. The presentation was a critical one and would determine whether GTE should continue with circuit-switched products or go with new, packet-switched voice products.

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It was highly irregular for someone of Dave's low rank to be chosen for such a critical assignment, so a few director-level colleagues joined him at least initially. But the pace and length of the assignment did them in, and Dave was left to complete the task at hand.

Each of the 16 days consisted of 16 hours of meetings, followed by briefings from Dave to help the consultant understand the various arguments and counterarguments. Leading up to the final day, Fellows had been awake for 46 straight hours, helping to put the presentation together, leaving no stone unturned. Just prior to the presentation, the president of GTE Labs called Dave and inquired about the presentation's contents. A little giddy from his marathon meetings, Fellows said, "It says you have to be crazy to trust packetized voice. There are so many unknowns about whether it will work or what the costs will be."

The caller blew up. "He starts off by firing me and then says firing would be too good for me," Dave recalls. Unbeknownst to Fellows, GTE Labs' previous advice was to adopt packet-switching for voice switches.

After being torn apart for several minutes over the phone, Dave finally recovered his faculties and recalled that the presentation concluded that the company should stay with circuit switching, but added the caveat that the capability for packet-switching should be included along the backplane of the equipment. "It became known as the dual-bus approach and became famous in voice switching circles."

Dave's skills and work ethic made an impression on the consultant, who once again asked for Dave's help to formulate GTE's technology strategy. So, for 26 months and 14 days ("but who's counting?" Dave asks), Fellows commuted from his home in Wellesley, Mass. to GTE's headquarters in Stamford, Conn. to work with the consultant. The consultant was William E. "Bill" Johnson. Although a few years would pass, it was not the last time the two would work together.

"I went into this assignment as a bottom-line research scientist who honest-to-God wore a white lab coat, and I emerged at the vice president level," Dave says. He returned to the Labs as a liaison to the product divisions and a short while later was named VP of R&D for transmission products, focusing on digital loop carrier and fiber technology.

Time to move on

But he also started to get restless. "I started to get frustrated because they had all this great technology, but it never saw the light of day. There was no technology transfer to the real world. We were good for a mention or two in the annual report, but that was about it. I thought there ought to be more to life."

Right around that time, while Dave was attending the Supercomm trade show, his secretary called him, saying a Mr. Bill Johnson had called. "I was wondering if it was the same Bill Johnson, when my secretary said he wanted the booth phone number, the hotel I was staying in, my home phone number and wanted me to call him back within 15 minutes. I knew then it was the same one."

At that time, Johnson had been brought in to Scientific-Atlanta as the heir apparent to Sid Topol and wanted Dave to join him as a strategic planner. But Dave wanted more of an operations role, so the compromise was struck, and Fellows became a VP of strategic operations for S-A's satellite division.

A short time later, Fellows was advising the cable TV division on fiber optics, a technology which was just emerging. "We decided to aggressively pursue fiber optics, even though it meant obsoleting a very profitable trunk amplifier business," Dave says. "We decided it should be ourselves who puts us out of business instead of someone else."

The timing proved to be fortuitous because the three large U.S. long distance carriers had just completed their OC-48 networks and were curtailing their spending. "I went over to Japan and visited the laser manufacturers and helped convince them there was a market for their lasers in the cable TV industry."

Dave would, of course, continue to advance his career during the six years he was at S-A. He became vice president of marketing for the transmission products line, then added the headend product line to his responsibility. Later, he became president and general manager of both areas, with engineering and field support reporting to him. It was at this time that S-A acquired Nexus Engineering and its line of headend equipment.

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Working at S-A meant long hours, responding to customers' requests, developing new products, traveling and myriad other duties. It wasn't made any more predictable by Johnson, who gained a reputation as an intense CEO who thought nothing of working late into the night or over weekends. In fact, it was that intensity that eventually contributed to internal dissension and, eventually, Johnson's downfall.

But Fellows says some of it was a matter of perspective, too. "Bill was very intense, but I enjoyed him because he was so smart. Professionally, I found him very stimulating. No matter how smart you were or how far you carried an analysis, he could follow it and then ask you two or three more questions. You could either complain about that or take the attitude I did, which was to be happy he was interested and engaged in the conversation.

"But you worked long hours and never knew until late Friday night if you'd be dismissed for the weekend. It was a very fine line between Bill being very successful and driving everyone crazy.

"I went to work for him a second time because I knew he was smart enough to know he had to back off. What I misjudged, and what he did too, is that he didn't back off quite enough, and he drove everybody crazy. It was hard on my personal life, but on the other hand, I was in the middle of everything. It was very intellectually stimulating, if not exhausting."

Perhaps too exhausting. In 1992, Continental Cablevision came calling for a corporate head of engineering. "The move from S-A to here was not one I was looking for or really sought," says Fellows. "I always knew that if I wanted to move back home that Continental was up there, however."

Apparently, Bill Schleyer and Amos Hostetter were persuasive, because in 1992, Fellows became the first corporate-level engineer Continental ever had, and moved into the historic Pilot House headquarters of the company.

Making the transition from manufacturer to service provider has been an interesting one for Fellows. Instead of entertaining customers, he now is one. Instead of returning every phone call immediately, he answers about 20 percent of them ("if something doesn't have a direct benefit to Continental subscribers, I don't have time to do it," he says). Instead of designing and selling products, he's implementing services.

Under Fellows' supervision, Continental is launching its Highway 1 high-speed on-line data service, the culmination of several years of work and foresight. "We were among the first to realize that the Internet, the World Wide Web and hybrid fiber/coax plant would come together and define a new business for us," Dave says. "We tried to launch three years ago, but the modems didn't support it."

Standards to the rescue

To make sure those modems don't remain the gating factor in the future, Dave has been working closely with CableLabs and the MCNS consortium on an interoperable modem specification. As of this writing, the spec was being circulated around the manufacturing community for input. The spec reportedly takes the best attributes of several vendors and puts them all together. It's an approach Fellows thinks will work, although it has ruffled a few feathers.

"If I was still in Atlanta, I would consider this threatening because I wasn't in control," Fellows admits. "On the other hand, with digital set-tops, we picked a winner and tried to get (General Instrument) to cross-license it, and it didn't work that greatly." So, instead, the group took the approach Hughes did for its DirecTv service and designed the hardware first. "As I sit here, I don't know if it will be successful," Dave admits. "We think we have involved the manufacturers enough that we haven't designed a platypus." Time will tell on that score.

There remains considerable skepticism that manufacturers will agree on an interoperable spec soon enough to make high-speed modems available in 1997, but Fellows has a good feeling. "I will know the answer to that after attending the Western Show," he says. "It could all fall apart, but with my background and knowledge of manufacturing, I think we can get product in about nine months."

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Outside of CableLabs and MCNS, Dave also chairs the IEEE 's 802.14 committee is. There are subtle differences between the SCTE and IEEE work that could be bridged, but it's unclear whether the two interests will come to agreement. Fellows believes he can make a strong statement.

"In some forums, I only have one vote," he explains. "But because I have control over the purchasing specifications of this company, and because our capital budget next year will be over $1 billion, I have a billion votes there."

Digital TV

Continental is also preparing to roll out digital video services, and plans to contract with TCI's Headend In The Sky (HITS) service for some of its systems. "Our plans are to be ready to deploy digital everywhere in 1997," Fellows notes. "That doesn't mean we'll roll it out everywhere, but we'll be prepared." To get to that point, Continental is locating programming sources, installing headend controllers to insert ads locally and developing the necessary information technology support for unique service bundling/billing, integration of digital with analog channels, developing an electronic program guide and other support. "Preparing the plant and getting boxes in the home doesn't appear to be the problem," Fellows says.

That's because both GI and S-A have agreed to make their digital set-tops interoperable, which makes deployment by Continental and others less risky and potentially a whole lot cheaper as the manufacturers fight for market share. That interop spec "is great news for everybody," exclaims Fellows. "It allows me to launch now, in the face of competition, with a GI box and come back later with the Pegasus box (that's the name of Time Warner 's digital two-way set-top, which should be built by S-A and others later this year)."

And now, with the recent merger with US West completed, Continental will benefit from extensive telephony expertise, as well as vast resources that will ensure the company remains a player in the communications world.

"The merger brings us human capital and money to be able to afford the network upgrades," notes Dave. "We intend to compete by launching high-speed data and other interactive, two-way services, including telephony, and the merger keeps (telephony) a high priority."

Would Continental be as bullish without the cash infusion? "We'd still be doing a lot with high-speed data, but we'd be eyeing telephony—not jumping into it," Fellows surmises.

The merger simply had to happen for Continental to remain active as a player, Fellows says. In order to effectively compete against some of the world's largest communication companies, "you've got to get big," Fellows notes. As the third-largest cable operator, Continental was taking in about six percent of a $22 billion pie. With long-distance and local telephony added into the mix, Continental was taking in about 0.6 percent of the revenue. "We didn't feel we could survive."

Does that mean the cable industry loses a "telco vs. cable" war? "I firmly believe that cable is going to win," Fellows argues. "If the definition of winning is buying someone, then OK, the telco wins. But no one at Continental feels that they've lost or that we're now a telephone company."

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After all, the approach US West took in building Atlanta looks a lot like what Continental is doing in New England, Fellows says. "They did a serious study of switched digital video and hybrid fiber/coax and the architecture they came up with is the same one we're using. Our budget for next year has been approved, and it's 30 percent higher than (last year)."

As for Continental, the focus is now on getting the 750-MHz upgrades done, and the return path activated. Fellows says the company is about 40 percent finished with the bandwidth upgrades, but only 20 percent finished with reverse activations. "There is a sense of urgency to get those done," Fellows freely admits. "We want to get that done before ADSL is out there. If we do, we can deploy a high-speed data service no one can match."

A few caveats

Clearly, Fellows sees a bright future for Continental, or Media One, or whatever new name the company will be given under US West's ownership. But just as clearly, competing in the brave new, untamed communications world isn't a slam-dunk. Outside of all the marketing and political challenges, there are a host of technical issues.

"The thing I worry about is powering," admits Fellows. "What reliability level should we be shooting for? Someone at Bellcore said it should be 99.99 percent, but I worry—should the objective be 99.999 percent? Or 99.98 percent, which is about where HFC plant is today."

Another obstacle? Training. In the future, where network uptime is critical, field personnel become the key to the network, Fellows says. "People will have to realize it's not just video (going over the network) anymore. Any (service) interruption brings the whole thing down, and it's a demanding thing to bring back up. But people who view this as an exciting opportunity will thrive."

Management Catalyst

Although Fellows rightly gets a lot of the credit for Continental's success and technical leadership, he quickly points out that he's been made stronger by those around him.

"One of the reasons I'm successful is because I know a lot of people in several different industries, and I talk to them often. A sculptor once said sculpting is easy, you just chip away everything you don't need. Well, I do the same thing. I take ideas from everybody and everywhere and retain the ideas that fit the vision of the future I have."

Consequently, Fellows does a lot of traveling to visit manufacturers and to see what's going on in the field. "I need to see new products in the lab and talk with engineers to understand things," Fellows says.

Internally, he views his role as a catalyst for the five VPs of engineering in Continental's five regions. As such, he helps determine what they need, provides support at the corporate level and gives them a real, live person to talk to. "Managers tend to have an open-door policy, but I have a vacuum door policy," Fellows says. "Anyone who comes within sight of the door, I suck them into my office and ask what they're doing and what's going on."

In spite of all those travels, Dave still feels in tune with his family, which consists of his wife, April, and their three boys, Christopher, Thomas and Michael. "Even in this electronic age and our access to electronics, cable and computers, we still have story time every night, where I tell them stories about their parents or grandparents, or they try to tell me stories," says Fellows. "They're without me a lot, and they have every right to feel gypped, but my favorite thing to do with the kids is storytelling."

It's perhaps a little too early to tell which of Dave's kids might be following in his footsteps, but all three are already actively taking part in sports. Between them and impending competition, you can bet Dave will keep running to stay in shape.

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