By Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable & Consumer Electronics Issues
One memory of a major NCTA Engineering Committee event was a 1980 three-day Executive Seminar on Information Services at Disney World, coordinated in part by Christopher Weaver, then NCTA VP of Science and Technology. This Executive Seminar studied and projected the early application of such important technologies as fiber optics, digital television, information services, and interactive television. You are reading this correctly–20 years ago, NCTA engineers were actively evaluating and considering these topics!
Next, I remember the Engineering Committee under Wendell Bailey. He took over as NCTA's VP of Science and Technology in 1981. It was his leadership that created the formula for the NCTA Engineering Committee and its success over the years.
Occasional special pre-meeting presentations by experts introduced emerging technologies. Some of the earliest technical discussions of fiber optics and digital television took place during those pre-meetings. I clearly remember a representative of Gemstar describing the number system for programming the VCR. This was at a time when Gemstar was a dining room table startup. Steve Wozniak, the technical inventor of the Apple computer, made a presentation on a comprehensive universal remote control. This pet project of his went way beyond the capabilities of the average subscriber. But it was impressive to have such a luminary visit the NCTA Engineering Committee to make a presentation.
At other times, representatives of other industries that might sometimes be considered adversaries to cable were given an opportunity to present their cases. Such presentations helped build understanding between industry groups.
To appreciate the value cable engineers put on this committee, it is important to realize that they put in 10- and 12-hour days and at least one weekend day during the cable industry's expansion years.
An important part of the value of the committee is its broad scope. The cable industry is made up of many constituents. Cable operators are normally the main focus of such groups. But even with cable operators, there are different areas of focus. The large cable operators have differing needs, as compared to small cable operators. "Headquarters" engineers concern themselves with different issues, as compared with "system" engineers. There are significant priority differences between engineers who work for suppliers and for the cable operators. It has been extremely useful to have such diverse interests and needs represented in a common forum to discuss and work out differences and common positions.
The NCTA Engineering Committee skillfully handled critical industry-threatening issues. A couple of examples come to mind: cable signal leakage and the consumer electronics interface with cable.
Cable signal leakage has both technical and political aspects. Technically, signals leaking out of the cable system have the potential to interfere with other users of the electromagnetic spectrum. This becomes critical if it involves public safety. Aircraft communications and navigation are critical spectrum uses that must not be jeopardized. There have been a limited number of cases of aircraft communications experiencing modest interference from leaking cable signals. However, there has been a political turf war between the FCC and the FAA. Some wanted cable to abandon the frequencies used for aircraft communications and navigation.
The NCTA Engineering Committee did extensive studies to bring reason to these highly charged issues. In the end, an acceptable compromise was reached because of the efforts of the committee.
These efforts were then put into practice by a nationwide lecture tour presenting the basics of the problem, the methods of dealing with it, and the required compliance measures. Ted Hartson as "Dr. Strangeleak" brought humor and entertainment to a difficult subject.
Another area of substantial difficulty involved the relationships between the cable industry and the consumer electronics industry. This culminated in Congressional action that put most of the burden on the cable industry. There was a several-year-long threat of severely onerous FCC rules. The most feared threat was a restriction on the use of scrambling for premium programming. The consumer electronics industry pushed hard for restrictions on cable that would be to their advantage. Many of these restrictions were detrimental to consumers, as well as cable subscribers.
A major effort by the NCTA Engineering Committee was launched to protect the interests of the industry and its subscribers. This was another effort not well appreciated by the non-technical portions of the cable industry.
In this case and in a number of other cases involving the NCTA Engineering Committee, the results are unfortunately almost invisible to the outside world, and consequently, there is little appreciation because: "when your objective is to prevent a train wreck, and you are successful, there are no sparks." I hope the NCTA Engineering Committee continues to prevent train wrecks, even if no one notices or seems to care.
Have a comment? Contact Walt by e-mail at: Walt@Ciciora.com