CableLabs' Liao: Next CEO Needs To Have Eye For Disruptive Technologies

Paul Liao is checking out of CableLabs -- a quick exit for the head of the R&D consortium, who's been in the position since July 2009.

The former CTO of Panasonic, who will turn 68 next month, notified the CableLabs board earlier this month that he will not seek to renew his contract, which expires at the end of 2012. Liao's brief tenure is in contrast to that of his predecessor, Dick Green, who served as president and CEO of CableLabs for more than two decades, since its inception in 1988.

Liao spoke with Multichannel News technology editor Todd Spangler about his departure and what's next for CableLabs.

Multichannel News: Why are you leaving CableLabs?

Paul Liao: I'm leaving for personal reasons. I'm going to leave it at that.

MCN: Did you achieve what you set out to do?

PL: Well, by no means. There's a lot more to do. My contract doesn't end until next year. We'll see how the recruiting [for a new CableLabs CEO] goes, but there's a lot to do here. I'm just lucky to have been here at this time.

MCN: What was your biggest accomplishment at CableLabs?

PL: When I got to CableLabs, I set up a number of objectives I wanted to accomplish. Fundamentally there were five things I thought we should set out on.

One was to get the San Francisco Bay Area office going [which CableLabs opened last month]. I told Brian [Roberts, CEO of Comcast] when I first joined, I said we needed a presence in the Bay Area because of all the disruptive innovation going on here -- it would be great to have the cable industry tap into that.

The second thing is when I looked at the residential video business, cable was the largest provider of that, and when you're the largest provider it's really hard to grow that. Commercial services is and has been the fastest-growing part of the cable industry. We've done some important things like provisioning of Ethernet over DOCSIS services, things like that. That enables MSOs to not only provide carrier-grade services, but also at marginally low costs.

The third area is maybe advanced advertising. If you look at new revenues it's a really big opportunity. We've had a large number of interops, and the excitement builds with each one. There's a whole array of set-tops and user agents, all interoperating the way they should -- just because you have a spec doesn't mean things work the way they should.

Fourth thing is this whole transition to IP. Being able to provide services to smartphones and tablets and smart TVs and PCs. Here the industry has really done a fantastic job, and I'm proud of what CableLabs has done to help that.... We just had, last week, a DLNA interop at CableLabs. It was amazing seeing all these different boxes interoperating.

Finally, obviously if all this is going to be supported, you need a network. Here we've launched the CCAP [Converged Cable Access Platform] initiative, the consolidation of [Comcast's] CMAP [Converged Multiservice Access Platform] and [Time Warner Cable's] CESAR [Converged Edge Services Access Router] to get the cost down and the performance up.... The CCAP stuff is extremely important.

MCN: What's been the toughest part of the job?

PL: Probably no surprise to anyone, it's a membership organization, and you have members that don't always have the same opinions. At the same time, that's a benefit of the job and you can hear all the different perspectives.

MCN: So it's one part technology, two parts diplomacy?

PL: [Laughs] Yeah, they're both important. But I don't know which one is one part and which is two.

MCN: What was the most unexpected thing you've found about CableLabs?

PL: I should have expected this but the people at CableLabs are just fantastic. They're extremely bright and just a pleasure to work with. The second things was the collegiality and the support of the CEOs that are on our board. They work together very nicely and are extremely supportive of CableLabs and really look to us to set their strategic direction.

MCN: What advice do you have for your successor?

PL: I'll let my successor figure that out. [Laughs] The other thing is, Dick Green has been a great help to me, and both Dick and I will help whoever comes here.

MCN: What are the qualities the CEO of CableLabs needs to have?

PL: Whether the person comes from inside the cable industry or outside, being able to see what's going to disrupt the cable industry is very, very important. I think we've made real progress by taking advantage of Web services and protocols -- we can free the industry from the limitations of the traditional set-top. But this is happening at a speed I don't think anyone could have foretold. The next technology will probably come from out of nowhere.

MCN: What technology developments have most impressed you? Either in the cable industry or more broadly?

PL: I think it's not so much any specific technology, as it is the [ability of the] industry to adapt to the high speed at which things are happening. And it goes across technologies.

MCN: Cable has had trouble fostering an ecosystem of innovative startups. How can the industry rectify this to move to the right direction?

PL: I think this CableLabs office in San Francisco is one thing. You have to be here. [Companies and groups outside the industry] don't have enough visibility into what the cable operators are doing. I'm looking forward to this office being a nerve center for the cable industry.

MCN: How big is the San Francisco right now?

PL: Right now we have four people, not counting myself. I try to make it here once a week. We're hoping to grow that.

MCN: What is the mandate for the CableLabs San Francisco office?

PL: The first is outreach to the community and ability for them to see what cable is doing. Not only to venture-backed startups but also the universities in the area, and for that matter beyond the Bay Area.

The other thing is, so many of the software-focused startups -- especially around social gaming and mobile applications -- are creating very exciting applications. We want to figure out how those can be part of the cable industry.