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Out of the garage and into the limelight

Sat, 11/30/2002 - 7:00pm
Craig Kuhl, Contributing Editor

It's fitting that CableNET's beginning 10 years ago can be traced to a loaned warehouse fondly referred to as "the garage." After all, haven't the friendly confines of the garage inspired many an engineering and technological feat?

As CableNET celebrates its 10th year as the industry's showcase of emerging technologies and new products at the BroadbandPlus convention (The New Western Show) in Anaheim, Calif. December 3-6, its odyssey from a bailing wire, seat-of-the-pants idea in 1991 to its current lofty status as one of cable's premier technology venues has been nothing less than spectacular, despite its fair share of growing pains.

Industry luminaries tour CableNET ’98. (L to R) Larry Romrell of TCI; TCI chief Dr. John Malone; Dr. Richard Green of CableLabs; Gordon Crawford of Capital Research
and Management.
It has seen the introduction of the cable modem and the dawning of the age of interoperability. It has provided small, upstart entrepreneurial companies with an affordable means of demonstrating their products and ideas within a living, breathing and fully interoperable cable system. And, it has helped tweak the interest of larger cable-related companies that have used CableNET to connect their equipment, software and technology to new-era cable networks.

It has also been an exercise in persistence, resourcefulness and sheer determination. In fact, its history is brimming with frustrations, failed attempts and downright pessimism–from the chaotic, frenetic early days in MultiVision's (now Adelphia) warehouse in Anaheim, which was CableNET's first home and laboratory–to the current economic slump and attendance downturn.

Yet despite those obstacles, CableNET is now considered by many to be an invaluable source of information and opportunity for not only fledgling cable vendors, but for a wide range of software, equipment and application manufacturers. "We had never been able to communicate the cable industry's technology message. We felt that with CableNET, there was an opportunity to show the power of broadband networks in this (cable) environment. Plus, we could develop relationships with vendors and new businesses like voice communications. That was our mission. No one laughed at us, but there were certainly some skeptics," relates Mike Schwartz, senior vice president of communications of CableLabs, and a founder of CableNET.

Most of the skeptics were soon won over, however, once CableNET recruited top companies such as Nortel, Unisys Corp., software giant EDS, and others for its 1993 debut at the Western Show. "We brought them to Boulder (home of CableLabs) and showed them the building blocks needed to build a broadband infrastructure, which hadn't been done before," says Schwartz. "So, for the first time, we shared the technology that all worked together as a cable system in a 3,000 square foot space with 24 companies participating. This is when the companies began to feel really good about CableNET."

So good, in fact, that more than 50 companies showed up the next year, displaying various technologies and applications such as high-speed data, digital ad insertion, routers, ATM switches and more. Adds Schwartz: "It got more complicated, but met the goals of the CCTA (California Cable & Telecommunications Association) as a technology showcase for its valuable audience, which was growing."

CableNET's challenges were growing as well. There was no DOCSIS spec, and much of the technology readily available today was, at best, in the incubation stage. With all of these unknowns, CableNET was trying to integrate a network featuring multiple applications over a single, live cable network. The amount of integration work was daunting.

"There was a point in 1994 when we were at odds on how to organize the companies to work together. Some technology wasn't ready and we were trying to totally integrate a network with modems, different frequencies and no standards. Some people would spend several days in the warehouse facility at the Anaheim MultiVision cable system to prepare the CableNET headend on the showroom floor. It was a big production that required long hours," Schwartz recalls.

For CableNET, most agree those long hours are paying off, evidenced not only by the technical achievements it has gained, but by the high-powered new companies that have migrated to the technological showcase. "Giants like Cisco and Nortel came in and found they could change their technology to fit the cable industry. They could reform themselves. Now, our services are software-based and platform independent, and those will create more value by allowing companies to get their act together six months in advance. There are lots of miracles left to happen," says Rouzbeh Yassini, CEO and founder of YAS Ventures and a vital contributor to CableNET's early success.

With the number of challenges CableNET faced early on, some felt only divine intervention could save it. Yet most believed it was destined to be an integral part of the cable industry. "We didn't know the technology, and CableLabs didn't have the venue. So, we wanted to drive attendance from people who hadn't been before, like Silicon Valley, which hadn't been allowed to attend the convention and they didn't know how to get in the door. We wanted their participation and felt CableNET would enable that," recalls C.J. Hirschfield, former vice president of industry affairs for CCTA and a driving force in CableNET's early days.

It was easier said than done, however. Admits Hirschfield: "We didn't realize it would be so hard. There were huge technical issues and big challenges on the marketing and promotions side. And, the more established companies were asking why these upstart companies were getting so much attention on the floor after they'd spent lots of money to exhibit. We wanted the CableNET participants to exhibit the next year and many did. We wanted to drive attendance."

And it did. For example, in the year 2000, 2,000 international delegates from 45 foreign countries witnessed demonstrations by 110 CableNET participants, and though last year's participation was down to 75, this year it's expected to draw about the same number of CableNET companies who will pony up $10,000 for a pedestal (or $7,500 if they have exhibit space elsewhere on the floor).

"CableNET is now the anchor for the Western Show. It best illustrates the software, applications and bundling services. It's the new communications platform and answers the question of how technology gets in front of key people in a cost-efficient way," says Spencer Kaitz, president and general counsel for the CCTA.

Getting the right answer to that question will be difficult in today's uncertain economic times, and Kaitz has no illusions about the current cost-sensitivities in the cable industry. "There are tighter capital expenditures and spending strategies, and it's been a tough year. The show's attendance will reflect that. But most of the new growth is coming from new technologies like digital, Internet service and telephony. That's keeping us afloat. But it's very tough," he admits.

CableNET's voyage has rarely followed a straight line. With the mind-numbing technological advancements of the 1990s, and with the dizzying number of consolidations, staying the course has been nothing short of a miracle. Says Yassini: "It was supposed to have been an innovative think tank, but every few years, it changes its suit. Now, it's the cornerstone think tank for software."

Few knew exactly what suit CableNET would be wearing during its first two years, or what it would look like in the future. They were also uncertain as to just who would show up to demonstrate their technologies, since they were all proprietary. The thought of a technology not jiving with CableNET's interoperable platform wasn't exactly a desirable option for vendors. "We thought of it (CableNET) as the Switzerland of technology. We always kept steady with the business and who was using modems, IP telephony and other technologies and CableLabs knew who the players were. We marketed it as a primer of technology. That was our story," recalls Peggy Keegan, an independent consultant and head of public affairs for CCTA during CableNET's early years.

Yet there was another story unfolding a few miles from the Anaheim Convention Center that would chart CableNET's course for good, and prove to be the infrastructure which all future CableNET's would be built upon. And it was happening in the garage.

"We visited the Unisys warehouse in Salt Lake City and taped out all the pedestal locations and simulated the booth on the warehouse floor. It was truly the first interoperable system. Two vans moved the system to MultiVision's warehouse in Anaheim while engineers built a wireless spread spectrum receiver based on military spread spectrum technology during the trip. It was a labor of love or a horror show, take your pick," says Frank Wimler, vice president of broadband networking for YAS Broadband Ventures and former senior electronics technician for CableLabs.

The warehouse was located at MultiVision's system in Anaheim near the Convention Center, and became CableNET's laboratory for show floor demonstrations. "We did all the integration at Unisys in Salt Lake City and shipped it to our system in Anaheim. Unfortunately, it didn't work very well. That's when we agreed to do all the integration work at our warehouse, which we termed 'the garage.' We were just a humble cable operator, but here in our own garage we were doing cutting-edge things," recalls Bill Snyder, regulatory director of engineering for Adelphia Cable's southeast region and the person responsible for the garage.

Wimler remembers it being more than just cutting-edge. "The whole concept for CableNET was outside cable's envelope. There were no standards and we were doing things that had never been done in cable, like data and telephony-over-cable and creating our own dial-tone in a van in the parking lot of the garage, which was essentially a bunch of picnic tables with headend racks in the middle. We literally built the CableNET booth in the garage," he says.

A fiber loop and node was installed in the garage, with companies given assigned frequencies, Wimler remembers. Fiber would be re-spliced at the Convention Center and the booth fired up. "All of a sudden we were taking technology and running it over a local headend. It was a huge step," he says.

Simply stepping into the garage had its moments as well. Laughs Wimler: "Top engineers would show up thinking it was a real lab. In reality it was a bunch of picnic tables inside the warehouse, and next door was a fish market. When the fresh catches were unloaded, hundreds of seagulls would swoop over the warehouse unloading their own catch. So, the rule was get there early and get a seat inside."

And early was the operative word for CableNET during those hectic first years. "We sat down at 3 a.m. one morning, looked at each other and said 'we need a plan.' After that, we had one," Snyder remembers.

The plan was to showcase cable's impressive new technologies and instill a spirit of entrepreneurism in the smallest of companies, allowing them an opportunity to display their products in a working cable system. Cheaply. Most agree, that's been done. Yet there are by-products of CableNET as well. Says Snyder: "We've walked a lot of city and state officials through the working technology, and the RBOCs couldn't do half the things we were doing."

Most of CableNET's pioneers probably felt they couldn't do half the things they did either, but each knew they were in unfamiliar territory and were playing with no rules and only the stars to guide them.

"It was challenging, frustrating, rewarding and there was the distinct possibility of failure at every corner. The technology advanced inside the garage and through CableNET has been unreal. People will never know how the industry was changed in a warehouse in Anaheim," Wimler says.

It certainly changed CableNET, which is now an up-and-running, integrated cable system housed at the Western Show. Concludes Snyder: "It used to be a two-month ordeal in the garage with failures, interoperability issues and vendor visits. Now it's five phone calls and six hours versus six days."

And for hundreds of smaller companies with technologies to display and an opportunity to shine, CableNET has been well worth their time.

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