Comcast's Mark Coblitz, CED's Man of the Year, is helping lead the industry toward a future full of IP-based services

Mark Coblitz has everyone faked out.

His vast knowledge of arcane RF transport issues, the intricacies of TCP/IP protocol stacks, packet-based telephony and myriad other subjects often lead people, including engineers, to think he is one, but surprise! He's not. Similarly, some might see the bookish redhead as little more than a quiet, introspective thinker. Again, that exterior belies the ferocious competitor that he is.

Comcast Corp.'s vice president of strategic planning might not be well-known, but the products and services he's worked to bring out of the shadows and into the mainstream certainly are.

An early backer of such projects as Data-Over-Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) and the industry's PacketCable project, Coblitz is Comcast's point man when it comes to determining how new technologies can be deployed to build new sources of revenue.

"My role here consists of three main things," he explains. "I look at various technologies and then try to make some of them happen; I support deals we make where there is technology that's new to us and we're trying to understand it; and sometimes I actually create the new business."

That might seem to be pretty heady stuff for an Ashtabula, Ohio native who worked for years in the family-run wholesale industrial supply business. Upon closer examination, however, it's not surprising that Mark would find a way to combine technology with business needs and develop a winning combination.

"When I was seven, I was writing dates on invoices," he recalls. "When I got older, I programmed a computer to put the dates on invoices, so I didn't have to."

In fact, the dawning of the computer age came at the perfect time for Coblitz, who at the age of 17 was selected by the National Science Foundation to spend the summer of 1964 studying science at Ohio State University. While there, he worked with graduate students and professors on some of the early lasers, in addition to learning how to program computers.

Combining technology with business

Upon his return to Ashtabula that autumn, Mark's father asked if his computing skills could be adapted to fit the family business. "My Dad took a bet on me and ordered an IBM computer that had 4k of memory and half a megabyte of hard disk space," remembers Coblitz. "It wasn't supposed to be used for business applications; it was for scientific computation. But I made it work-I learned how to make a little go a long way."

After coming to Comcast in 1989, Mark set to work finding ways that the company's different business units could share similar technologies.

The dual interest in technology and business drove Mark to pursue an education that could leverage both vocations. In 1965, he went off to Case Institute of Technology (now known as Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland, where he studied math, physics and other engineering-related subjects. "The reason I went to Case was to be able to work with engineers and speak their language," says Coblitz. "I wanted to be able to work with engineers, but I wasn't looking to be one." In 1969, he left Case with an honors degree in management science, then spent the next four years in the Air Force, where he once again spent a lot of time programming computers.

After his tour of duty, during which he achieved the rank of captain and served at the Pentagon, Coblitz returned to the family business, eager to pick up where he left off. "I always felt I was going to stay in that business," he says. For the next seven years, he applied his technical and computing knowledge to that business. But in 1980, he felt a need to do more, and to reside somewhere other than northeast Ohio.

"I looked out and examined the paths I could take, and the one I saw was strategy consulting," he explains. His wife (to whom he's been married for 27 years) Iris had been offered a job with a law firm in Pittsburgh, and the two jumped at the opportunity. While there, Mark attended Carnegie Mellon's Graduate School of Industrial Administration for two years, and became a distinguished graduate, before being hired by Strategic Planning Associates in Washington, D.C. It wasn't the big-name firm Mark had hoped to get immediately involved with, but it was respected enough to later be acquired and become part of the prestigious Mercer Management Consulting.

During that time, he consulted on strategic issues on subjects as varied as jet engines to financial services and textiles. But there was another, more interesting client he worked with: Comcast Corporation. The company, like the cable industry in general, was growing quickly at the end of the 1980s, having just come off the urban franchising frenzy and the acquisition of several Storer Cable properties.

"I recognized something very rare at Comcast-and that was the way people worked with each other," he says. "The industry looked like it was about to explode. It had just gone through this major growth period, but new technologies were on the horizon that would radically alter the way business was being done."

One of those was fiber optics. Breakthroughs with analog lasers were making it possible for cable operators to segment their networks, reduce signal distortions and add capacity. Telephone companies were also installing fiber and touting their ability to take fiber to the home and deliver video services, in competition with the financially strapped cable companies.

"I remember one of the first things Brian (Roberts, Comcast's president) asked me: 'How is fiber going to change our business?' Of course, the answer was then, and is now, that it's our best friend. Fiber has allowed us to build this incredible broadband infrastructure."

In April 1989, Mark was asked to stay with Comcast on a permanent basis. He jumped at the opportunity. "I was ready to leave consulting," he says. "Our son Drew had just been born. I haven't regretted the decision for one second."

One of Coblitz's first tasks at Comcast was to look at ways the company's various businesses could benefit from one another. In addition to owning cable systems, Comcast was also a cellular telephone provider. The common thread there was that both networks relied on RF technology to make them work.

"One thing I did was try to get companies that were involved in wireless technology interested in the cable TV side," Coblitz notes. Back around 1992, he and Frank Ragone (Comcast Cable's now-retired vice president of technology) met with Motorola, urging the Illinois-based technology powerhouse to adapt some of its products for use over a cable system. After a fairly lengthy give-and-take, where mood swings were common, Coblitz and Ragone were successful in their attempt to get Motorola to do some technology trials.

Those started as PCS (Personal Communications Services) trials that used the cable plant for signal transport. Before long, they migrated into the constant bit rate telephony products that Motorola, Tellabs, ADC, Antec and others eventually developed.

To help jump-start those efforts and to get other cable operators to share his vision, Mark chaired the PCS/telecom committee at Cable Television Laboratories, the cable industry's research and development consortium.

"That's the process I use," he says. "It starts as something pretty amorphous as we figure out what to do and who to work with to get something done. After a while, things gather their own momentum and it goes its own way."

In fact, Coblitz actually enjoys sharing ideas with his industry colleagues. "That's one way I have fun. I really enjoy kicking around ideas. I like to take things that have several pieces and then get creative about how they might come together."

Data and packets

One of those ideas that eventually gained enough impetus to become a significant source of new revenue was high-speed data. What later became DOCSIS actually grew out of some early work that Comcast and Coblitz were doing in conjunction with Intel, the chip manufacturer. Intel was interested in high-speed cable data modems because it would increase the demand for new, faster processors. Although the World Wide Web was yet to be born, Comcast and others were sufficiently interested to do some tests.

To support those tests, Comcast rebuilt a portion of its network in Lower Merion, Pa., putting in fiber to add bandwidth and lighting up the return path. Comcast actually learned enough from that trial to want to become an Internet Service Provider. In relative short order, Comcast partnered with several other cable MSOs and did the deal with @Home.

Knowing when to push technology companies and his colleagues to build new businesses is part of the expertise that Coblitz brings to the industry. "Things start in all kinds of different ways-sometimes you barely have the first germ of an idea," he says.

"We (the industry's largest cable operating companies) have worked very well together to develop a technology platform for new services. If we have an idea or something that we're quite passionate about, and it's something I think ought to happen, I'll get personally involved, one way or another. In the case of PCS, telephony and now PacketCable, I've chaired the committee because I really want to make it happen."

For the uninitiated, PacketCable is a CableLabs-led initiative that is defining standard methods and interfaces for Internet Protocol-based services to be transported and delivered over a cable TV infrastructure. Currently, the focus is on delivering IP-based telephone service, but other interactive, Web-like services will also be supported.

Ever-increasing competition will keep Coblitz and Comcast focused on new technologies.

"I started looking at packet technologies four or five years ago," says Coblitz. It came out of the early Internet trials Comcast did in Pennsylvania. With other packet-based standards emerging (such as MPEG), Coblitz realized the communications world was transitioning into a digital, packetized industry, and that cable operators in the future would be forced to adapt. His efforts quickly shifted to making sure Comcast would take advantage of the new paradigm.

To do that, he had to get involved. "We really have to take it upon ourselves to adapt certain worldwide standards to make them work on a cable network," notes Coblitz. "Sometimes we have input into those standards and our needs are accommodated, but in general, we often have to adapt things for our special needs." DOCSIS and PacketCable are examples of those efforts.

Now, he's convinced that packet technology will have a profound effect on society in general, and the cable industry in particular. Comcast recently announced a small technical trial of IP telephony, in conjunction with Lucent and Motorola. He also says his prediction that IP telephony over cable won't really be ready for prime time until the end of this year still holds, but he's working to keep the process pushing forward rapidly.

Why? In a word, competition. With the nation's monolithic telephone companies pouring billions of dollars into digital subscriber line technology, Coblitz says the cable industry can't afford to take the threat lightly. "Many of the problems (with DSL) people point to are being solved. The significance of the shift to IP technology is not lost on the LECs. The fact that we had a leg up on them because we started this first is interesting, but it doesn't mean they won't be there," he warns.

A rallying point

Without a resource like CableLabs, Coblitz doubts the industry would have been successful in galvanizing the industry toward a set of standards, which will have a huge positive impact in a competitive world. "Over the years, the fragmentation of the industry has been one of our biggest problems," he notes. "We needed a solution that would allow us to buy from multiple vendors and get away from proprietary schemes, and allow people to buy devices at retail. I think CableLabs, and in particular Rouzbeh Yassini, has done an incredible job to make that happen for DOCSIS."

The feeling is mutual. "Mark has made extraordinary contributions to the industry, both from a technological and strategic point-of-view," says Dr. Richard Green, CEO of CableLabs. "He's helping guide us into the future."

Will the industry have the same success when it comes to the OpenCable project? Perhaps, says Coblitz, who recognizes that transitioning from a proprietary set-top environment to one that's open and ready for retail is fraught with hairy political and technical issues. "I think we can get there, but there's still a lot of work to do," he admits. "It's important for us to have OpenCable succeed because one day it will encompass other devices that are connected to the cable plant, not just set-tops. If we can rally around a standard, it will expand the number of companies that make these things."

Future vision

To get a better view of what that future will encompass, Comcast realized it had to somehow become part of the Silicon Valley community-no easy feat, considering Comcast's Philadelphia location. To accomplish that task, Coblitz and Comcast Vice Chairman Julian Brodsky began investing seed money and other capital in high-tech companies, in exchange for board seats and information. To date, those investments are worth roughly $3 billion. But the real value to Comcast has been the formalization of a venture group and the technological and market knowledge gained from those opportunities.

To keep itself ahead of the curve, the cable industry will have to keep reinventing itself, according to Coblitz. To help Comcast do that, Coblitz constantly monitors the status of technological innovation and seeks ways to build businesses around it.

For example, video-on-demand, after several false starts, appears ready to finally happen. "We've done a couple of trials and got the same answer that other people did-which is that people love it and they buy more movies with it. We're now going to test some of the new technologies. But that's now out of my hands and Brad Dusto (Comcast Cable's chief technology officer) is taking that over, because it's becoming real."

As for other forms of "interactive" television, Coblitz is energized about some of the services that are sprouting, yet still wonders how they'll translate into new sources of revenue. "I'm very excited about the two-way capability that we have. We're working on a lot of different services and how to integrate the TV with the Web. It will happen, but it will be slow," he predicts. "We may not even know what the application is going to be yet."

One thing that does appear certain, however, is that consumers will want a way to transport voice, video and data signals throughout the house. The advent of high-speed access to the Internet, coupled with the proliferation of home PCs, is causing many to set up "mini LANs" in their homes.

"The reason people want a home network is to give multiple devices access to the Web via a single connection," notes Coblitz. But how does a service provider actually make money in that scenario? "The jury is still out," he says. "But we think we can make money by helping them do that, which will actually cause more people to go out and buy high-speed connections."

The in-home scenario gets even more exciting if you believe that the connection is wireless. "Once you do that, and realize the things people can do with that, it makes for a potentially exciting world. This is one of those areas where you know there's value out there."

What else does Coblitz see on the horizon? Plenty of opportunity. Yet, his crystal ball remains cloudy. "I hate the crystal ball because it doesn't show you how to make money. I see it more like a mosaic with most of the pieces there and I'm trying to make the picture clear."

For the foreseeable future, Coblitz will continue to scan the horizon for new technologies, then consider what they mean for Comcast. "Back when I was at Strategic Planning, I had an adviser tell me that I was doing great work, but I didn't spend enough time with my feet up on the desk, thinking. Now, when I travel across the country, I use those flights as feet-on-the-desk time. I play a lot of 'what-if' games.

"The other thing I do is try to develop a new idea on every long flight I take," Coblitz says. "People probably look at me like I'm crazy, because I just sit there and think. It doesn't happen all the time, but occasionally, you'll think of things that just need to happen."

Through it all, Coblitz is tremendously excited about what the future portends. But the one thing that still haunts him is competition. "Competition is coming from so many different directions that you constantly question which one you have to be most concerned about. We want to make sure we make our products better than anyone else's so the customer chooses us.

"What keeps me awake at night is figuring out what the next 'thing' is, and making sure that we have it ready when the time comes. On the other hand, I get a lot of comfort from the fact that we've been able to compete and stay ahead of everyone over the years.

"What's the next big thing? In many cases, we don't know. But we're going to have this IP platform, and lots of creative people figuring out how to use it. I don't know what all the applications will be, but I'll be spending my time trying to find them."