Executing the vision
Jim Ludington knows a thing or two about innovation. He was a key player in Time Warner Cable's groundbreaking 1-GHz "Quantum" project in Brooklyn/ Queens, N.Y. in 1990, and, in the middle of the decade, became "Employee No. 1" at The Full Service Network (FSN), the MSO's ambitious digital/video-on-demand trial in Orlando, Fla. To recognize that effort and a decade of fiber-related work, Ludington became the second-ever winner of the coveted Polaris Award back in 1994.
Ludington has since come full circle, rejoining Time Warner Cable late last year as senior vice president of development and integration, where he now plays a starring role in the rollout of advanced digital services and applications.
CED Editor and fellow Colorado State University alum Jeff Baumgartner caught up with Ludington recently to discuss his new role, take a look back at the FSN microcosm and find out what trends will drive VOD forward in 2004. An edited transcript follows:
CED: Is VOD just one of many things you're tasked with now?
Ludington: For Time Warner, that's a 100 percent deployed technology. We're sort of into second-generation stuff. We're already back into the field, taking the earliest deployments of VOD and modernizing, because back then the only way to do the business was in a very distributed architecture. Now, since the cost of transport and our networks are coming along to the extent that we can centralize the servers and feed streams from very few locations, the process now is to collapse server locations, minimizing the amount of time it takes for us to push content throughout the divisions and feed all of our subscribers from much fewer locations–one, two, three...somewhere in that (range). We're going through that process, always adding new services. High-def on-demand is our next foray for our on-demand services.
CED: If you had to prioritize what you're doing with VOD, is modernizing number one, followed by adding more subscription and HD content?
Ludington: In our modernization program, adding capacity to support the new services, and then HD on-demand. That's, I think, a terrific product we'll be able to offer very soon.
CED: What factored into your decision to re-join Time Warner Cable?
Ludington: It was, I don't know what you'd call it...a personal convergence. A number of things happened. I got married a couple of years ago and had a son who is now almost 14 months old. So, before that I had a really high risk factor. It was easy for me to go "all in," to use the poker term. Being entrepreneurial, that's exactly what's expected. Most everything goes back into (the) business. When I decided that I've got to settle in to a different lifestyle, I guess, that really started it. I also had an opportunity to work with Mike LaJoie (chief technology officer) and Mike Hayashi (senior vice president of advanced engineering and subscriber technologies) and Kevin Leddy (senior vice president of strategy and development). The company (INT2) is still going gangbusters, but for me, personally, it was the right thing to do and just an unbelievable opportunity. Honestly, I don't think I would've taken any other job, because coming back to a big corporation, [having entrepreneurial] freedom...was high on my list.
CED: Are they giving you enough entrepreneurial leash to continue what you liked about having your own business?
Ludington: Yeah, that's hitting it right on the head. I like being out in front, and this [job allows me] to ride out and dig in and build things and continue to scratch that itch.
CED: Being entrepreneurial was no more apparent than during the days of The Full Service Network in Orlando in the mid-1990s. Did you also head up the integration with FSN?
Ludington: We all ganged up [in Orlando] to get all of these different products developed, a lot of it invented. I was actually employee number-one for the FSN. I was down in Orlando in an empty space playing handball after I'd get off these long conference calls–whipping a tennis ball against a wall, which turned into the NOC. Literally, I had the responsibility to build it from an empty space through its first couple of iterations to the end- room, which had all of the new FSN support equipment. It was sort of a hub in itself. The alternate access telephony group was in there with a Class 5E telephony switch and the billing system was in another corner of the room. All of our businesses were located centrally in that room.
That's sort of where Internetwork Integration came from. I just saw all of the places that we would need to start sharing resources, not only in people but how you build a facility. When I left, I named the company that. I still believe that's hugely what our mission is and the rest of the guys in my position in the other MSOs.
CED: How has VOD integration changed over the years? Was it more challenging in the FSN days because you were heading into unchartered waters, or today because of the multiple IPGs, additional content and general higher level of complexity?
Ludington: Both of them are huge integration programs. At the FSN, we were talking about being cutting-edge with 3- gigabyte drives–huge Silicon Graphics servers just full with 3 Gig. Just before I was leaving we were getting ready to upgrade to 9 Gig drives and were just amazed at that kind of density.
CED: In comparison, what are the drives like these days?
Ludington: 140, 160 Gig on a single drive. And they're like half the physical size. Even before the FSN, I did the Quantum program in New York City, the world's first 150-channel cable system where we validated NVOD (near-video-on-demand) and fiber architectures pushing cable television to 1 GHz in the plant. That was in 1990, 1991, so it was the precursor to The Full Service Network, when we started developing one channel per person instead of 500.
CED: What's your reaction when you see stories that reference the FSN and only note the expense or refer to it as a "failed" project?
Ludington: That was an unbelievable program that we pulled off. The basis of what we do today was developed at the FSN. Scientific-Atlanta's digital platform was an RFP that we wrote at the FSN. We brute-forced smashed things together there and made them work. If you think back, the Internet wasn't really even all the rage yet. We were doing things back then that were unbelievably over the top, and in a lot of perspectives, that's how the business is run today.
CED: As you look back, what is your fondest memory of that project?
Ludington: The people in that group still get together and talk about it. There was some heartache, obviously, when you close the doors, then to have all of the articles [refer to it] as "the failed project in Orlando, Florida." It was an unbelievably great group of people who just ganged up on a program and pulled it off. Huge pressure...and to be successful at that with that many people and that many companies. There were no likenesses in the personalities in each one of those companies.
CED: Do you see the same level of innovation happening in VOD now, or has it become so standard that it's almost cookie-cutter in nature?
Ludington: With VOD, it's a commodity platform. That's business as usual, and we're supporting it and enhancing and extending it, adding better tools and modernizing here and there. I see the same type of thing with the other projects we're working on. Believe it or not, it's a lot of the same people. We're sort of re-united a bit. Guys coming back to Time Warner Cable into the mainstream, if you will, from the Mystro (TV) group. I've come back. Mike LaJoie was there (at the FSN). There are a number of people who were key players in that whole thing who are now back to develop the next round of Time Warner [products].
CED: How does something like the ISA (Interactive Services Architecture) help to resolve some of these integration issues? Does it resolve them faster?
Ludington: The reason for ISA was to minimize the engineering effort when adding a new digital service. That's why we did ISA. From a backend perspective, I think we still believe that's working. We're enhancing it, adding new toolsets to it and constantly grooming it, but it was sort of the backoffice piece. Now we're with our new navigation system which is sort of the client side. Both will be able to facilitate a lot of great innovation quickly with both of those platforms. As the Mystro guys proved, we can do lots of programs in an on-demand nature. Once that all gets sorted out, I think that's how folks will watch TV sometime in the future.
CED: What else is driving VOD beyond HD?
Ludington: Newer, bigger, faster DVRs. HD DVRs. The multi-room DVR, which is a fun project to think about and make work.