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Quickening the deployment pace

Wed, 12/31/2003 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner

Rouzbeh Yassini
Rouzbeh Yassini
chairs The Cable Center’s Vendor and Operator Executive Advisory Forum.
It may have taken 15 years for DOCSIS to grow from a budding idea to a ubiquitous reality for the U.S. cable industry, but replicating such a timeframe for other platforms and services is unrealistic in today's fast-moving broadband economy. Vendors, particularly the startups, simply don't have deep enough pocketbooks (and the patience from their financial backers) to wait long before getting a return on their investments spent on building equipment and technologies that cable operators may or may not deploy in earnest. The Cable Center's Vendor and Operator Executive Advisory Forum, launched earlier this year, hopes to change that by placing operators and vendors in the same room, and hashing out short-term cable operator needs and determining what they're willing to buy and deploy now, not five or 10 years down the road. The first semi-annual Forum meeting is slated for February 5 at the Denver-based Cable Center. There, vendors are expected to discuss topics ranging from video-on-demand, IP telephony and bandwidth management. CED Editor Jeff Baumgartner recently discussed the goals of the Forum with its Chairman and YAS Broadband Ventures CEO Rouzbeh Yassini, who is also known in some industry circles as the "father" of the cable modem. An edited transcript follows.

CED: Explain what the goals of the Forum are, both short-term and long-term. Why is there a need for something like this now?

Yassini: If you really peel the onion, in 1988 I started this crazy idea of building a high-speed modem and people laughed at me. But from 1988 to 1993 when people started to believe me, [that's when I made] the trusting relationship with operators, convincing them that we could do two-way, and talk about modulation and QPSK and QAM. We came out of that era with a quality, $15,000 modem that was too expensive, but [we] proved to the people that it worked. From 1993 to 1996 we made it cheaper and brought it to the $500 range. From 1996 to 1999, we focused on making it even cheaper and making it a standard, calling it DOCSIS. From 1999 to 2002, we brought it to 40 megabits (per second) and we created the whole commercial rollout of this thing to consumers. In 2003...[the industry is asking], "So what the hell do I do with this high-speed data? Do I put voice, do I put home networking, do I put IP streaming, do I put video?" Hopefully by the end of this decade, we'll be a $100 billion business.

The principal behind all that was me, working very hard with the vendors and the operators, working very hard to take the barriers [away] to make this thing happen. So it probably took 15 years to do this business. What I'm trying to do is institutionalize the working relationship that can be built between the vendors and the members in a more organized way that hopefully won't take 15 years to bring a new idea and a new way to the industry.

CED: So, what's a better number?

Yassini: I think the right number is three to five years. But operators, when you talk with them, everyone wants something different. As a result, they can mislead the vendors. But the vendors are crazy, too. They go find an operator who might not [be] in authority, [and he] tells them what they like to hear, and [the vendor] goes to build something. So there's a significant investment–millions, if not billions–that the venture capitalists have put in startup companies in the hope of building something new for the cable industry. Then it happens late; or if it happens at all, it will be for a far smaller number [than anticipated]. Our chore is two good things: use the relationships and trust that we built to make DOCSIS happen and also shrink the cycle.

CED: The idea then is to get everyone in the same room so that the vendors are working on the things that the operators will actually deploy?

Yassini: Yes. But this is not a call to action, or let's all agree on the pricing. This is about four or five of the top operators [explaining] something like, these are the three barriers for Voice-over-IP: provisioning, security and scalability. Then the vendors know which ones to go solve. Then we can go to field trials and the market trials and so on. The idea is to put the vendors together with the members, and for the members to talk turkey. It's not about having a glass of wine or having some food or networking. On that day we want to see if we can truly say what the barriers are to get VoIP or home networking...to work. That will make a real difference.

It's also not a seminar where everybody goes to pitch their own products. The idea is to have better communication. The Cable Center happens to be the perfect place. Why? If you look at CableLabs, its major role is represented by members. The MSOs are the bosses of CableLabs. They pay their dues, and CableLabs write the specs. That's fantastic. The NCTA (National Cable & Telecommunications Association) does the lobbying and regulatory stuff. That's great. The SCTE (Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers) is the official standards body, and that's outstanding. But who represents the vendors' interests? Who are the ears for the vendors to balance that? If you look at the four legs of the stool, The Cable Center has come to be that part.

CED: How are you going to operationalize this and achieve the balance you're seeking?

Yassini: We came up with four characteristics. One is limiting every vendor to a maximum of two [participants]. The operators are bringing people who are on the [Forum's] advisory board, such as David Fellows (Comcast Cable), Chris Bowick (Cox Communications), Mike LaJoie (Time Warner Cable) or Mark Coblitz (Comcast). All of those guys have to bring in three of their own lieutenants or peers. The idea would be to have 12 executives from the vendor community...and line up the top 25 MSOs. Then we'd have a roundtable where the operators stand up to say, "Listen, guys. This is the direction for us in the next three years. We're going to do A, B, C and D." Voice, video and data, or whatever it is they're going to do. Then we'll break it down to a panel discussion chaired by the vendors. And the operators will respond to the questions that the vendors have put together in regards to what the problems and issues are [for new services]. Then the YAS [Broadband Corp.] and Cable Center executives will moderate and add realism to the meeting, and at the end of that meeting, we're going to summarize that and show the vendors the key topics.

CED: The last release showed you had 40 vendors participating. What's the update on that?

Rouzbeh Yassini
Three-to-five years is a
more acceptable timeframe
for a new idea to grow into
a deployable reality,
Yassini says.
Yassini: We have about 47 vendors so far. I'm hoping to have up to 60 vendors by the first forum on February 5. We also hope to have about 10 venture capitalists and the top 25 MSOs.

CED: For the vendors, this is a pay-to-play thing. What fees do they have to pay to get involved?

Yassini: Very minimal. $7,000 is the lowest fee. Realize that a vendor can go to a show and spend $100,000 to $500,000 to be on the floor. The reason we put $7,000 as the lowest fee is that we didn't want anyone from the street to show up that has no interest. We asked the vendors, if you want to participate in this roundtable, we need you to commit to work on this for the next two months to get the topics and the sub-topics. I don't want to go to a roundtable without any items. The time commitment is actually more [than the financial commitment]. That's because we really want them to participate and solve the real problems.

CED: Although the forum is designed also to drive innovation, you're a visionary in your own right. What's next for DOCSIS?

Yassini: I look at DOCSIS as a foundation that a lot of other revenue-generating [services] can run on. With DOCSIS, we've created that, but we haven't been able to take advantage of the full DOCSIS capability. To a lot of people, DOCSIS means Internet. Yes, true. But to me that's just 10 percent of the value of DOCSIS.

DOCSIS is really a two-way, interactive pipe. You can use it for the set-top boxes for conditional access/signaling. DOCSIS could be used for IP-based services. DOCSIS could be used for a two-way interactive platform for symmetrical commercial services. But we need to keep the vendors healthy and our members creating new revenue. MSOs need to explore the real value of DOCSIS. Don't take this the wrong way, but since 1995, they've been sitting on their butts doing nothing as far as innovation goes. All they've done is take DOCSIS down to lower costs, but they haven't explored DOCSIS. I'm trying to explore the key value of DOCSIS above and beyond just being used as an Internet service provider.

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