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Forum: CableLabs: A History of the First 10 Years

The cable industry's technical community is in a greatmood this week, as it gathers in Denver at the Society of Cable TelecommunicationsEngineers' Cable-Tec Expo. It has a lot to celebrate.

Over the course of the past few years, the industry'sunified, intelligent pursuit of interoperable technology has placed cable television inNorth America on the threshold of a new era of interconnectivity that opens up a greatmany business opportunities.

This year, interoperable high-speed cable modems willappear on retailer shelves. Next year, highly functioning, interoperable, advanced-digitalset-top boxes will appear in the marketplace. In years thereafter, the industry will be ina position to leverage more services over its highly competent networks. One businessgetting attention now is voice over Internet, again complements of interoperable devices.

Each of these business opportunities is made possible bythe cable industry's unified stance on technology for its networks and its support ofindustry organizations such as Cable Television Laboratories Inc. At CableLabs, we arehonored by this trust and support. And there's a lot to celebrate beyond coordinationand management of OpenCable, PacketCable and DOCSIS (Data Over CableService/Interoperability Specification).

CableLabs turned 10 this year.

The story of CableLabs begins with the vision andperseverance of Richard S. Leghorn. Born in Brookline, Mass., he graduated from theMassachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 with a degree in physics. Leghorn worked atEastman Kodak Co. before World War II, and he then served as a combat-reconnaissance pilotduring the war.

During the postwar period, he was a key participant -- bothin military and civilian positions -- in the planning and implementation of reconnaissanceflights over the Soviet Union by balloons and high-altitude aircraft. In 1957, he foundedItek Corp. in Lexington, Mass. -- a company that applied photographic and electronicscience to the aerospace and office-equipment industries. As part of the Air Force'stop-secret "Corona" program, Itek developed a high-resolution photographicsystem used in satellite reconnaissance of the USSR between 1960 and 1972.

Leghorn's involvement with cable TV grew out ofdifficulties that he experienced in attempting to view over-the-air TV signals from Bostonstations at his second home in Hyannis, Mass. Leghorn soon became the owner of nine cablesystems. Time passed and, eventually, Leghorn sold all of his cable systems to larger MSOsin a series of deals, the last of which was completed in 1985.

Given the two main threads in Leghorn's career --large-scale defense projects and cable TV -- it was perhaps only logical that he wouldfind himself pondering what would happen if the techniques used in leading-edge defenseresearch-and-development projects were brought to bear on the relatively primitivetechnology of cable TV. Having already come to know many top executives and owners in thestill-youthful U.S. cable industry, Leghorn began talking with them about thisopportunity.

In 1984, Leghorn proposed that the industry undertake ajoint R&D effort. He suggested that the industry turn to the techniques of"systems engineering," or "managed system development," which he andhis colleagues had employed in their secret government work.

After a meeting with MSO executives, Leghorn was advisedthat the timing was not good for creating an industry laboratory. Cable faced morepressing demands, such as battles for municipal franchises and threats by Congress to passpunitive legislation against it.

By 1987, the timing was starting to look better. The rushto acquire cable franchises was winding down, and there were no major political battles tobe fought. A major legal obstacle -- the possible illegality of such R&D consortiaunder antitrust laws -- had been lessened by new legislation called the NationalCooperative Research Act, which Congress had enacted into law in 1984.

The Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank,commissioned a study on how cable's competitors were adopting new technologies andwhat this meant for the industry. Rand's findings presented a vivid picture of a moveby the telephone industry into broadband-video delivery and the growth of adirect-broadcast satellite industry. These findings helped to focus the thinking of manysenior industry officials about the need for cable companies to come together and devise atechnology strategy.

Leghorn contended that the consortium should concentrateits efforts on what he called the "innovation" phase of new-technology adoption.Leghorn was partly influenced in his thinking by the works of Czech-born economist JosephA. Schumpeter, who had divided the process of adopting new technologies into three stages:invention, innovation and dissemination.

"Invention" is the stage at which basicdiscoveries are made. The "innovation" phase was where Leghorn contended thatthe consortium should focus its efforts. In the third, or "dissemination,"phase, the consortium would have little role to play, Leghorn argued.

At its November 1987 meeting, the National Cable TelevisionAssociation's board formed a NCTA R&D Committee to begin taking steps to make theR&D entity a reality. Tele-Communications Inc.'s John Malone agreed to chair thecommittee. His personal commitment of support and time signaled to many that this venturewas to be taken seriously.

Leghorn wrote a memo in which he said that the criticalplanning issue facing the consortium "relates to the post-coaxial nature of the cableindustry. How this issue is resolved will determine the essential nature through much ofthe next century of the relationship between today's cable and telephoneindustries."

In a Dec. 22, 1987, press release, the NCTA formallyannounced the formation of the R&D Committee. Discussion continued within theindustry, including a February 1988 memo from Time Warner Cable's Jim Chiddix, inwhich he endorsed the consortium idea, but he cautioned that should incorrect strategiesbe pursued, "there is potential not only to waste a substantial amount of money, butto actually do some harm."

April saw further progress toward getting the organizationrolling. It was at about this time that it was decided to settle on a name, and"Cable Television Laboratories Inc." was chosen.

Plans were shaping up for the committee to approve thefiling of incorporation papers at its May 2 meeting. Soon thereafter, a memo was sent outto cable operators, inviting them to join the consortium. Attached was a 10-page draft ofthe letter of invitation to MSOs. The committee members -- CableLabs' formalorganizers -- were then-NCTA executive vice president Decker Anstrom; Malone; ContinentalCablevision Inc.'s John Rakoske; Leghorn; Gary Bryson of ATC; independent cableoperator Joseph Gans; Edward Horowitz of Home Box Office; Brian Roberts of Comcast Corp.;James Robbins of Cox Communications Inc.; and Richard Roberts of TeleCable Corp.

On May 11, 1988, CableLabs was incorporated. Malone wasnamed chairman, and Leghorn was named interim president and CEO.

I came on board in August 1988, from Public BroadcastingService. I was impressed by the thought that had gone into the creation and structure ofCableLabs.

Now, 10 years later, I remain impressed by and grateful forthe entrepreneurial zeal and support that the cable industry has devoted to our venture.The success of CableLabs has resulted directly from the commitment by cable companies oftheir own technical, business and executive talent to a common goal.

In many ways, CableLabs is a successful partnership betweenmember companies and a centralized resource of technical experts. Based on the vision ofits founders, this cooperative enterprise is unparalleled in other industries.

And 10 years is just the beginning: We have a lot tocelebrate.

Richard R. Green is president and CEO of Cable TelevisionLaboratories Inc.