The Admiral of CableLabs
Dick Green has been at the helm of CableLabs since its inception 20 years ago. Next year, he’ll move on. CED recently had a conversation with the only skipper CableLabs has ever had.
In 1984, Dick Leghorn wrote a paper in which he laid out the rationale for cable operators to establish an R&D operation. At the time, research consortia were becoming something of a trend – the value to an industry of converging on common technologies and standards was absolutely clear, and the world was getting more competitive.
In 1986, for example, the semiconductor industry set up a consortium to work on manufacturing technology called Sematech. In 1987, the FCC organized the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS).
Also in 1987, a group of executives from some of the larger cable companies decided it would be mutually beneficial to act on Leghorn’s suggestion. The group, exhorted by TCI’s John Malone, plotted out a technology roadmap, devised a plan for a laboratory and started looking for someone to run it.
Richard R. Green was senior vice president of broadcast operations and engineering at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1988, but he had experience directly relevant for that type of effort.
Before joining PBS, from 1980 to 1983, Green was director of the CBS Advanced Television Technology Laboratory. He also helped organize and establish the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and served as its executive director from 1982-83.
“I was approached by a recruiter,” Green said. “At the time, I was in broadcasting, and the broadcasters were setting up a lab, too. They ended up in the same building I was in. I was looking at that, too.”
That would have been the Advanced Television Test Center (ATTC) set up by the companies participating in ACATS. Eventually, these activities would lead to the creation of the digital high-definition television (HDTV) system that will finally be fully implemented next February.
Two interesting projects, but cable won out.
“The recruiter gave me some documents from the founding board. I came to the realization: This was special. The people who defined the lab, in my opinion, had real insight. They recognized that it would be a consortium with members that had different views. They knew that. But they wanted it to have stability, so they set it up with three-year rolling guarantee – you joined for three years.
“They’d already defined a structure for the lab,” Green continued, “and that was important. When I took the job, I simply had to execute on the roadmap. It’s been modified, and it’s grown as we’ve gone along, but it was a great roadmap to start with.
“I was also impressed by the people, their intelligence, their insight. They anticipated all of the problems and provided tools to solve them,” he said.
“In the CableLabs charter, the founders clearly wanted CableLabs to follow through with technology transfer,” Green explained. “They didn’t want white coats creating widgets, handing over the widgets, and saying, ‘Now it’s your problem.’ That’s important. It’s allowed us to be more successful than other labs.”
That said, CableLabs did contribute to the creation of widgets, for instance helping to define cable modems. The operation has, after all, earned a smattering of patents along the way.
Comcast CTO Tony Werner recalled: “The early, early days, CableLabs focused on a lot of things, but it was about creating an environment for cable operators to collaborate and work together. I think Dick did a great job at bringing both large operators and small operators to consensus during those days.
“I think it was a lot of fun, but the very early days, 1988, we were just starting to put fiber in the networks, and obviously CableLabs created forms to be vital in that area,” Werner continued. “It was starting to build the staff and create a team there at the labs.”
And of course the lab went on and helped establish the DOCSIS standards for data services. DOCSIS was stable years before phone companies could nail down DSL technology, giving the cable industry an enormous advantage it maintains today.
The organization followed with PacketCable, CableHome, OpenCable, two major revisions of DOCSIS, and more.
Asked to sum up 20 years shepherding innovation, Green was characteristically modest.
“CableLabs is not good at self-promotion,” he said. “A lab should not be good at self-promotion.”
Werner again: “I think that there are a lot of things that you see externally that Dick did, but I think his greatest strengths were the things that a lot of people didn’t see, which were his ability to work in the background and get consensus with people; first on a one-on-one and then pulling them together across MSOs as a group. So I think without a doubt his biggest strength is on the side of consensus building and working a large group of diverse operators and diverse personalities.”
Those efforts, and the efforts of the engineers at CableLabs, helped move the cable industry into a good position. “The cable industry has a tapestry of services,” Green observed. “Entertainment brings joy into people’s lives. The Internet is used for information, purchasing, e-commerce, and voice over IP rides right on top of the data service platform. These services are really important to people’s lives, and we’re expanding them, making them grow.”
But he’s not unaware that being overly modest may have come with a small cost. “There are a lot of contributions that are lost to history,” he said. That’s also typical of an engineer – if the last project is done, the most interesting thing is the next project. “We at Cablelabs were very fortunate to help take those first steps. But there’s a lot more to do,” he said.
SO WHAT’S NEXT FOR CABLELABS?
It is definitely the case that the pace of innovation in the cable industry has slowed. While there’s some talk of a DOCSIS 4.0, DOCSIS 3.0 looks like it will be more than adequate for the next few years – Green noted that this year is a technology transfer year, with the labs supporting the rollout of DOCSIS 3.0.
So first things first – is there still a need for CableLabs?
The lab still has a mission. Green said the organization’s Executive Committee, composed largely of CEOs of its member companies, continues to support the continuation of CableLabs.
“They all recognize CableLabs – and I’m grateful for this – as an important component in the success of the industry going forward. It will continue carrying out its functions,” Green said. “There’s a desire for a professional and smooth transition is an indicator of the interest in continuing CableLabs.”
This interview was conducted in mid-October. As of then, the Executive Committee had yet to hire a search firm for Green’s replacement, he said, but the first sign suggests no radical break with the past: The organization is still working with Green’s current job description.
Still, he said: “The technology is different than 20 years ago; the industry is different. I expect that will be revisited.”
Asked about specifics, Green reserved comment but assured that CableLabs is working to establish more than one project to help foster new technology.
“Watch this space,” was all he’d say. “There’s a lot of ideas, a lot of potential.”
Green may be exiting CableLabs, but he’s got no plans to leave. “I’m stepping down as CEO, not retiring from the industry. That’s the plan. I’ve still got a year here, plus. I plan to make the most of that.”
It’s a job he still relishes. “The rewards in this job come from the satisfaction of using technology to make a real difference,” he said. “It isn’t just TV – it’s telecom, and TV is only part of it. Increasingly, the telecom part is getting more and more important. Think about it – cable has plant passing 90 percent of the country, all capable of being upgraded to DOCSIS 3.0. There’s potential to connect people to high data rates, and that provides a way to solve societal problems.”
He reeled off a list of services, including distance medicine, distance education, telecommuting and teleconferencing. “It’s all feasible now, and it wasn’t feasible just a few years ago. Cable plant can now bring a whole new generation of telecom services.”
It’s not a last word – Dick Green isn’t going away any time soon – but one last instant of graciousness: “I’m very grateful for all the e-mails I’m getting; it’s very heartening – I feel very lucky to be a part of an industry. I just want to say ‘thanks’ to all those people.”