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Helping Cox make emerging technologies pay off competitively

Wed, 12/31/1997 - 7:00pm
Roger Brown
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Alex Best has been having visions. No, there's nothing wrong with Alex's health. Quite the contrary. The visions Alex is having are good ones, related to the future competitive landscape. Like many of his cable engineering brethren, they revolve around his company becoming the primary provider of video and telecom services. But unlike the many who have dared to dream of launching new services only to eventually fall back to Earth, Best and his crew at Cox Communications are (hold your breath) actually doing it.

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Alex went to RCA right after graduating from Georgia Tech, and hoped to get an all-around exposure to technology. Later, he would make his living working in rural headends and designing products for Scientific-Atlanta in cable's early days.
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"It's the ability to offer an integrated combination of services that will determine whether we succeed in the long-run," notes Alex. With Cox aggressively deploying fiber optics and kicking off three new lines of business — digital video, telephony and high-speed data services — the company is poising itself to win the competitive clash. The secret, according to Alex, is the all-powerful cable network. "I don't see any other network out there that can touch what we can do," Alex boasts.

It's because of that can-do attitude and decidedly clear vision of the future that CED proudly names Alex Best, senior vice president of engineering at Cox Communications, as its 1997 Man of the Year.

Starting early

With high marks in science and math while in high school, "It was only logical that I should go to a technical school, which for a Georgia boy meant Georgia Tech," drawls Alex. This "rambling wreck" graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1963 and in short order accepted a job with RCA in the Northeast. RCA was an appealing employer because of its policy of putting new-hires on a several-site rotation that exposes them to numerous different technologies — giving employees a chance to pick the type of electronic work that most appealed to them.

Alex spent six weeks in Burlington, Mass., where RCA designed broadcast television equipment, but was soon sent packing to Indianapolis. It turned out to be a long-term assignment, and the only other stop Alex would make on his high-tech rotation. Says Alex: "It was somewhat disappointing, but quite frankly, the TV industry was fascinating to me."

During those revolutionary early 1960s, companies such as RCA were transitioning from tube technology to solid-state circuitry. Alex was focused on developing a new AGC system that helped make TVs more immune to noise sources such as automobile ignitions and vacuum cleaners.

It was interesting work, but after a couple of years, Indy's cold climate — and perhaps a touch of homesickness — got the better of Alex. "Evidently, my blood was too thin, because there was one Monday morning that I'll never forget. I opened the door to my apartment and the snow was level with the hood of my car. I realized this wasn't the right place for a Georgia boy."

So, in 1965, Best took a leave of absence from RCA and returned to Georgia Tech, where a year later he earned his master's degree.

While in grad school, Alex took a part-time job at the Georgia Tech Engineering Experiment Station, a university-sponsored company that performed basic contract research. While doing work on military receivers, Alex noticed a colleague who was tinkering with a side project. Overcome with curiosity, Alex inquired and was told it related to a tower-mounted television pre-amp that was being designed for a company called Scientific-Atlanta.

"I took an interest in that project," Best recalls. In short order, he was introduced to Tom Smith, who was charged with the task of developing products that would take the company beyond antennas to include a line of headend products for the then-nascent cable TV business. Given Alex's experience with TV technology, Tom took a shine to him, and after Alex completed his master's work, Smith hired him immediately.

"I'll never forget my first day at S-A," says Alex. "Tom walked in my office, threw down an instruction manual for a Jerrold tube-type headend processor and told me my job was to design one of those — but it had to be solid-state."

Alex, of course, had no idea what the product was — but would soon find out.

Typical day in the life . . .

These days, most of Alex's time is devoted to meeting with equipment suppliers, talking with analysts, fielding calls from the press, attending internal meetings, travel to trade shows or Cox systems, and speaking at industry functions. That's a vastly different type of work for someone who spent two decades designing products.

"It's not necessarily easy to work in a corporate headquarters," Alex says. "You're more of a consultant of sorts. You sure don't get the same sense of accomplishment as if you worked in a system, where you can see the results. You have to really like this kind of work to do it because the fruits of your labor are not apparent on a daily basis."

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Growing up in Augusta, Alex learned the value of hard work. But golf remains one of his passions.

Cox has already clustered most of its franchises into nine major locations, which account for 83 percent of the MSO's 3.3 million video customers. For the past few years, Cox has been spending staggering amounts of money to construct fiber-based networks that reach a new level of reliability. For example, during 1997–98, Cox will spend nearly $1.4 billion in capital for upgrades that include fiber optic technology, set-tops, modems, new headends, telephony switches and other gear.

"We spent $64 million upgrading 35 headends alone," remarks Alex, who can still recall working in 8- and 10-channel, single-rack headends. "Within Cox, no longer will you find any 8-by-10 foot cinder block buildings as our headends." Those have been traded in for 5,000-square-foot facilities that can withstand fire, floods, power outages and earthquakes.

Other stats point out Cox's commitment to building the best networks:

  • By the end of 1997, 30 percent of its networks were two-way active.
  • Cox counted 8,000 route miles of fiber in its networks at the end of 1997; it's headed toward 12,000 miles within four years.
  • At the close of 1997, Cox had 50,000 miles of coaxial cable. Forty-two percent of it was 750 MHz, 26 percent was 550 MHz and 11 percent was 450 MHz. By the end of 2001, 86 percent will be 750 MHz and 11 percent will be 550 MHz.
  • $7.3 million was spent on modems in 1997 to launch @Home; Cox will spend $15 million on modems in 1998 as the number of "data-ready" homes passed grows from 1 million in 1997 to nearly 3 million in 1998.
  • The number of "telephony ready" homes (those passed by 750 MHz plant that are two-way capable with a minimum four-hour battery back-up, fiber route diversity and status monitored power supplies) will grow from 300,000 this year to 2 million next year.
  • Now that digital video has begun its roll-out in places like Orange County, Calif., Alex will spend "a lot" on digital set-tops, after he deploys the 60,000 boxes he's received from General Instrument Corp.

The massive investment is necessary if Cox is to win the war for the customer's entertainment and telecom dollar, Cox officials believe. Luckily, because the company is led by a management team that understands the value of technology, funding these upgrades has not been difficult, according to Alex.

"We have a chairman who has stated over and over that this company has never been afraid to embrace new technology," says a gleeful Best. "We have embraced new technology to get our networks in place. We have clustered. All that plays into the strategy to be the preferred supplier of choice for video, voice and data services."

Back at S-A

Dealing with issues surrounding the launch of digital, data and telephony is a long way from designing S-A's first headend processor. But Alex's "jump-in-and-swim" approach is similar.

In order to build that solid-state processor for Smith, Alex had to become familiar with how a processor worked. To do that, Alex boldly ventured out into the field and installed a rack of them so that he could understand how they worked. What grew out of that effort was the Model 6100 signal processor — which debuted at the 1967 National Cable Show.

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He might be nearing retirement, but Alex has no intention of slowing down. "This is absolutely the most exciting time to be in this industry," he says.

"That was the first solid-state signal processor for the industry," he recalls fondly. It was followed shortly thereafter by a demodulator and a modulator which were also designed by Best.

While wildly successful, like any brand-new technology, these units had their flaws. Alex, by virtue of being a one-man cable division within Scientific-Atlanta, knew them intimately. When things went wrong in the field or if customers had difficulty setting up their products, Alex would dutifully journey to rural headends to install the system. Before long, Alex was spending more time in the field than he was designing products.

Some time later, Alex went back to his boss and asked to re-design the equipment to make them more reliable and user-friendly.

To commemorate his innovations and contributions to the advancement of technology in the cable industry, Alex was singled out in 1977 by the National Cable Television Association as one of its Vanguard Award winners. That award meant a lot to Alex. "There's a lot of luck involved — being in the right place at the right time — but I'd also like to think (it was in recognition of the fact) I'm highly motivated and love a challenge."

Hard work has taken Alex far. He's fond of telling the story about the time, years ago, when he had finished wiring a headend and was waiting on the system's owners to come by. "I'm not real good at just sitting around, so I cleaned up the inside of the headend," he says. "And when they still hadn't come by, I found an old rake and decided to clean up the area when they showed up. They were amazed. I remember they called Jay Levergood (of S-A) and told him what I was doing.

The incident taught him yet another valuable life lesson — one that Alex is trying to pass on to his children. "You can spend hours and hours doing sophisticated stuff, but the fact I was out there raking the yard is what they remember," Alex says. "I try to tell my sons (30-year-old Michael and 27-year-old Bryant) the same thing: Do your job, and then go one step further. Do more than you're supposed to do, because when the time comes that they're looking for people to move up, they're going to pick the one who goes a step farther."

Time to move on

That hypothesis certainly worked for Alex. In the mid-1980s, he had become a principal engineer, the highest technical position at S-A. By designing innovative products and understanding the needs of the cable operators, he had gained recognition and the respect of his peers.

He also caught the eye of Jim Robbins of Cox, who was looking for a vice president of engineering. Curious, Alex agreed to meet Jim and talk about the job. "I had gone about as far as I could go at Scientific-Atlanta," says Alex. "The only way to go any higher was to manage one of the divisions, and that didn't look like it was in the cards. This was a chance to do something different."

As it turned out, Robbins was looking for someone with the one thing Alex lacked — operations experience. But Robbins' protracted search kept coming back to Alex. Eventually, however, he agreed to give Best a shot at the job.

More than a little nervous about changing jobs after 20 years at S-A, Alex delicately asked Jim if he could have a job guarantee. "I was giving up a lengthy career to go to a company that admitted I didn't have what they were looking for," Alex says. "(Jim) kinda laughed and said, 'Hey Alex, even I don't have a job guarantee'."

Alex's reticence was obviously misplaced. In the 12 years he's been at Cox, he's presided over the company's technology push into fiber optics, addressability and repeated bandwidth upgrades in support of new service launches, and succeeded.

That effort continued until about four or five years ago, when Alex's professional life changed with the advent of new technology and a new business paradigm. "Life is much more complicated today than it used to be," he emphasizes. "A few years ago we realized we were headed toward an era of competition and (realized) that the company that could most effectively offer a host of services would probably be the winner."

Under Robbins' guidance, Cox realized it had to do several things in order to compete and win. First, it had to have size, so Cox acquired Time Mirror and grew past 3 million customers. It also had to dominate the markets in which it operated, so it clustered its franchises in order to control those markets. And finally, it had to be perceived as a customer-friendly, reliable operation, so the company spent gobs of money on customer service and technical upgrades. The latter effort paid off handsomely when it won the 1996 J.D. Power Award for best customer service.

But perhaps the biggest upgrade involved the use of fiber optics, says Alex. "The beauty of fiber is that it solves two issues: picture quality and reliability. It's almost as if I'd rebuilt my network to where I put a bunch of headends out closer to the customer."

Recognizing the advantage fiber offered, Cox management bought into the concept. Since then, Cox engineers went one step further by introducing the "Ring-in-Ring" architecture. It effectively closes the loops that are started in a traditional fiber "star" architecture, which provides greater network reliability.

Today, the company stands ready to embrace other new, emerging technologies. Digital video is rolling out almost as fast as Cox can buy the hardware; telephony services are being deployed in selected markets; ATM and PCS are being tested in places like Oklahoma and San Diego. "From a technical perspective, that's been our success," Alex says. "We deploy the latest technology as soon as it's available. My job has been to pick the right technology and get our systems ready for the competitive arena."

So how come Cox is moving boldly into the new era, while others have hit snags? What sets it apart?

"I didn't say it was easy," says a sympathetic Alex. "Even we have launched high-speed data before telephony and digital video, because the technology is easier to do and there are no regulatory hurdles. Digital video is easier than telephony, but we've been hamstrung by equipment delays. Telephony is tough because you have to have interconnection agreements and number portability or you can't be in that business."

Alex's crystal ball

So, what does the future hold for Alex? Cox? The industry? His crystal ball might be a bit cloudy, but Alex guarantees that it won't be dull. Technological innovation, consolidation and myriad other forces will be at work to keep the industry percolating, he predicts.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen in the future," he admits. "I'm still intrigued with having a whole bunch of stuff on a server somewhere and letting viewers pick through a menu of things they want to watch. It's technically possible, but it's expensive. But it appears it's going to happen, (perhaps) because we've enabled the Internet to do streaming video. Maybe we don't have to put the infrastructure in place — maybe all we have to do is enable it for a capacity standpoint, which is what we're doing with our modems."

That doesn't mean there won't be speedbumps along the way. "We have to make sure we put in place the operational infrastructure to provide these services in a customer-friendly manner," warns Alex. "When customers call, we need to be ready to install it, make sure it works and have people answering the phones if they have questions. That means hiring people with new skills, re-training our existing people, getting better MIS systems, billing systems and call centers. That may be even more difficult than getting new technology."

While it seems a long way off, Alex is keeping an eye on the calendar in addition to technology. The 56-year-old who can't find enough time to play nearly as much golf as he'd like, steadfastly says he won't work until he's 65.

When the day eventually does come that Alex decides to hang it up at Cox, he'll be remembered as an innovator, a leader and a fine human being. He'd want it no other way.

"I'd like to be remembered as a nice guy, a friend to everybody. Nothing special, just a hard-working guy who made a few contributions."

He can count on that.

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