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Rouzbeh Yassini Fulfills a Tall Order

Thu, 12/31/1998 - 7:00pm
Roger Brown, Editor in Chief
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Rouzbeh Yassini stands between a rock and a hard place. Placed in the unenviable position as the fulcrum between the nation's largest cable TV operating companies and the myriad hardware manufacturers in the race to develop interoperable cable data modems, Rouzbeh has nevertheless stuck to his singular vision of ubiquitously deploying high-speed data modems that utilize the cable TV infrastructure.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, there's no place Rouzbeh would rather be. To him, overseeing Cable Television Laboratories' cable modem interoperability testing and certification is the culmination of a decade of vision and work. This proclaimed "father of the cable modem" was one of the first to recognize the potential of a marriage between cable TV technology and data networking-and the first to do something about it.

The vision first came to him in 1986, when Rouzbeh was working for a data networking company called Proteon, which manufactured routers and bridges. During that time, there were few networking standards, so most companies pursued proprietary methods of moving data around. Proteon used twisted pair for transmission, whereas GE used coax cable for video distribution. Rouzbeh thought it was wasteful to use two different cables. "But people told me video and data didn't mix," he recalls.

In 1988, Yassini moved on to become vice president of engineering at Applitek, another data networking company that, as part of a suite of products, offered a data-over-cable solution. "That indicated to me that the concept of having video and data over the same cable could work," says Rouzbeh.

Yet the vision still was placed on hold. The data networking industry was settling on Ethernet and Token Ring as standards (what is now known as LAN within a building), leaving broadband solutions out of the mix for Local Area Networking because of their higher cost and complexity. Companies like Applitek were suddenly facing hard times.

Rouzbeh's notion was to embrace the broadband solution. But the investment firms that had sunk $30 million into Applitek (and never seen a profit) were not interested in gambling away more of their money. So, in 1990, Rouzbeh bought Applitek's assets and formed LANcity with support of Bill Elfer, his mentor. He put himself at the helm, in charge of the 13 employees who were left after the dust settled.

To survive, Rouzbeh had to convince his employees he had a recipe for success. The formula was simple: go back to basics. That meant taking the 64 permutations of product that Applitek had developed and boiling them down to one, workable device. "I needed to make my employees believe that the new technology would work," Yassini recalls.

So, the priority became development of an "Ethernet bridge" that interfaced between an Ethernet data network on one side, and the broadband cable TV network on the other. Rouzbeh knew that he had to build product that was based on industry standards, and not proprietary protocols. The first "cable modem" was about to be born.

Yet, before a product could be developed, Yassini had to find a way to keep his tiny company afloat. Even basic survival was a challenge. To keep some revenue flowing, Rouzbeh had to go back to Applitek's broadband customer base and negotiate service and support contracts. Entities such as Emory University, the University of Michigan and the Rocky Island Arsenal signed on.

Next, Rouzbeh tapped into Digital Equipment Corp. by forming a "partnership" with the computing company. He got a much-needed blessing on technology and cash; DEC received deep discounts and private labeling rights for the modem, which was later brought in as part of DEC's "Channel Works" product line. "My motto was 'earn to grow,' which meant that I had to keep proving myself in order to keep going forward," Rouzbeh says.

It's a motto he continues to use. As the cable industry's point man on certification testing, Rouzbeh has to prove to himself-and others-every day that the rigorous testing is necessary, vital and above reproach, especially if modems are headed toward retail shelves. In order to ensure interoperability, 230-plus test engineers from 17 different companies and the entire CableLabs DOCSIS team are developing audit test plans, test automation and test procedures for more than 1,066 DOCSIS cable modem spec line items.

But there are plenty of naysayers. Vendor marketing teams are constantly seeking compromises. Or they complain that testing a product has caused them to lose market "leads" they had over their competitors. Many applied incredible pressure to be certified in advance of the 1998 Christmas selling season. Others have openly questioned his objectivity. Through it all, Rouzbeh has been unwavering and continues to insist that the product does the talking.

"If someone has to take that pressure in order for the right message to be transferred, then I am delighted to be the buffer," Rouzbeh says. "The fact is, at the end of the day, the principles (of the modem testing process) have been accepted by the vendors, the MSOs, the cable operator certification board and CableLabs board. That speaks for itself."

Yet, like any human, he's bothered by people who want to impede progress. There are vendors who have stalled the process or not followed through on promises. "What hurts is when the truth is twisted and PR has taken over," sighs Rouzbeh. "A few vendors tell us they'll do anything the industry wants, until it comes time to deliver."

Still, testing has entered its sixth round, and not a single modem has been certified, or headend termination system has been qualified. Why?

Rouzbeh says it relates to the maturity and complexity of the DOCSIS (Data-Over-Cable Service Interface Specification) 1.0 standard, a complex document which calls for multiple symbol rates, multiple up- and downstream modulation methods, two types of interleaving and a host of other features. However, he now says there are no known problems with any of the silicon chips that are being used. Rouzbeh predicts that the first modem should be certified soon, perhaps by March.

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Rouzbeh at LANcity.

Despite the seemingly non-stop testing, Yassini says everyone should stop and realize how far the industry-and the DOCSIS standard-have come in what has to be characterized as a short amount of time.

"Creating something from nothing in three years is a great achievement," he says. "To go from a paper spec to a fully interoperable retail-quality product with multiple vendors is monumental."

It certainly is a long way from the $15,000 modem Rouzbeh started LANcity with-the one that didn't work in all cable configurations and took three months to install. Back then, it took assistance from DEC to stay afloat and get the second-generation modem built.

Seemingly snakebitten, however, Rouzbeh and bad timing ran smack into one another. Blindsided by the popularity of the personal computer, DEC was overcome with financial difficulties - and needed to reinvent itself. So did Rouzbeh and LANcity. John Ulm was brought in from Hewlett Packard to redesign the modem, and Kurt Baty was hired to develop a new 200,000-gate silicon chip, which would make the unit more affordable and more reliable. In the meantime, Rouzbeh took his story - and his vision - on the road, evangelizing the need for broadband data connectivity.

The result was tumultuous. LANcity rolled out its second generation, $5,000 modem (based on data communication standards over cable) in 1993, and caught the attention of respected industry engineers such as Jim Chiddix of Time Warner, Dave Fellows of Continental and Wilt Hildenbrand of Cablevision. The unit was still too expensive for consumer application, but was more easily installed and was much more reliable than its predecessor.

By 1995, LANcity commanded about 80 percent of the admittedly small cable modem market by deploying its third-generation "plug-and-play" modem for less than $500. Later that year, Motorola announced it planned to enter the market, as well. Suddenly, Rouzbeh had high-powered competition staring him in the face. "My team was stunned," he says now. "We weren't sure if we could compete or whether we'd become roadkill."

Bay Networks answered that question when it shelled out $59 million to acquire LANcity in mid-1996. He recalls having mixed emotions when faced with the decision of whether or not to sell out. "But I knew that if I stayed small, it wouldn't build the market," he says. "I had worked hard (to help build this industry) and didn't want the whole thing to die."

Neither did his employees, who urged Rouzbeh to sell to Bay. So, although he had entertained offers that were better financially, Yassini settled on Bay because the company's CEO Paul Severino and Rouzbeh shared the same vision. Bay also offered brand recognition, a product distribution channel and had the financial wherewithal to build a new-generation cable modem.

His initial intention was to stay with Bay. But 90 days into the new relationship, Severino departed the company, and a new regime was brought in. "My dream was shattered," says Yassini, who says he found himself no longer intimately involved in product development, deployment or strategic decisions. "I had to leave the company."

Two months later, during a visit to his dentist, Rouzbeh received a call from Bob Cruickshank and Dr. Richard Green of CableLabs, who were soliciting his help to write the DOCSIS testing procedures. He readily agreed.

Since then, he's put in 18-hour days non-stop at the Denver-area CableLabs office, all the while commuting back to his New Hampshire home every weekend. He's flown the route so many times, he's probably recognized by the United Airlines flight crew. In fact, he might have his own seat by now.

Despite the long days of double-booked meetings, testing and crisis management, Rouzbeh has persevered. "If I hadn't had the opportunity to work at CableLabs, I would have felt my job was only half-done," he says now. "It would have been like raising a child and enabling him to graduate from high school, but not letting him finish college."

Instead, Rouzbeh has followed the teachings of his father, who always told him that he should aim to be the best at whatever occupation he chose to pursue. As a child and a teen growing up in Tehran, Iran, Rouzbeh wanted to emulate his uncle and become a medical doctor. Although his career path changed, causing him to pursue engineering, Rouzbeh apparently has the prescription for success.

The first person to take issue with that is Rouzbeh himself. "I don't think my career has been successful yet," he says. "I'm only in the process of being successful. This is just a step; I still have a couple of years to go."

Rouzbeh realizes that the real, hard work begins after the certification process is up and humming along. Cable operators still have to execute the deployment of both the product and the data services. "The technology and the product will be there. Getting it delivered is still a challenge," he notes.

"I think we have three to five years of hard work to come before we reach my goal of deploying a million-node network," he predicts. "We have all the tools and technology, but it hasn't been integrated and executed and made profitable yet at the operation level."

e-mail: rbrowner@aol.com

 

Charting a path to success

People who believe that all things in life happen for a reason will be reinforced by the knowledge that young Yassini had his mind set on becoming a medical doctor, but was forced down a different path by a combination of happenstance and political unrest in his native Iran.

After attending the University of Phalvei for one year, Rouzbeh emigrated to the United States in 1977, settling in Morgantown, W.Va. near his uncle and brother. Unable to afford med school, Rouzbeh turned instead toward electrical engineering.

It turns out that although his first love was science, his hobby was electronics. He still recalls his first radio kit-and how he learned about capacitor polarity after he built it, only to discover it didn't work.

As a senior, he was fascinated by the burgeoning satellite communications industry, and toiled with fellow classmates to build one of the first 3.7 – 4.2 GHz downconvertors.

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To understand TV signal flow, Rouzbeh tore TVs apart

Upon graduation from the University of West Virginia, Yassini was recruited by GE, where he went to work building television receivers. One of his first tasks was to build RFI filters for the first switching TV power supplies.

Ever-curious about the bigger picture, Yassini would take TVs home to study signal flow and design, in order to gain a better understanding of how TVs functioned. Within two years, he was designing chroma circuitry and comb filters, was working on the VIR and did some digital signal processing work in conjunction with ITT for the first digital TV chipset.

He also was chosen to attend GE's Financial Management Program, where he rounded out his technical knowledge with financial management, quality and branding issues, as well as production and delivery expertise.

In 1984, he had his first brush with the cable TV industry as he worked with GE's Comband division to develop the company's first 5,000-gate custom designed set-top chip.

By the time he left GE in 1986 and the company's TV division had been sold to Thomson Consumer Electronics, Rouzbeh had all the elements he needed to succeed in consumer electronics, he says.

He had also gained a valuable life lesson-one that sticks with him to this day. "I learned that although you have great people and the best technology, it doesn't guarantee success in the marketplace."

Doing unto others

So what does an empathetic entrepreneur, flush with cash, do for an encore? He supports others who share his vision. At least, that's what Rouzbeh is doing.

Under a company he has named "YAS" (which refers to a pleasant-smelling Iranian flower), Rouzbeh hopes to encourage entrepreneurs to come forward with good ideas on how to leverage broadband connectivity with new services. "Over my career, I've been blessed to have the right people personally impact my life," he says.

So, YAS has three main divisions: ventures; CEO consulting; and Broadband Academy.

The ventures division offers entrepreneurs focused on the broadband market seed money, incubation, and "back office" support for three to six months, giving the entrepreneur time to prove his vision is viable.

The company positions entrepreneurs for the next round of financing, by taking care of such mundane tasks as writing a business plan, and assisting with sales, marketing, finance, legal and other issues. "YAS can provide an environment that breeds success," Rouzbeh says.

The first company to take advantage of YAS' services was Arepa Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that's developing software on demand that takes advantage of cable's broad bandwidth.

A second focus is CEO Consulting, which helps companies understand the impact of convergence and the integration of data, voice and video communications. The third division of YAS, called "Broadband Academy," and starting in April, will teach the concepts, topologies, business and issues surrounding the design and operation of digital services over broadband networks. The platform will be a forum for information dissemination to industry personnel, from chief executives and technical officers, to technicians. "The convergence of data, voice and video is the mission of YAS' three divisions," says Yassini. "This combination completes the broadband dream" for me, he reports.

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