Liao: A Fresh Eye To Speed Innovation

At just five months into his new job as president and CEO of CableLabs, Paul Liao isn't hesitant to say that both the cable industry and its technology consortium stand on the cusp of a new era.

“If you look back to when Dick Green became the founding [CEO] of CableLabs in [in 1988], there was no data business, no voice and no digital television — we had analog cable,” said Liao, who was tapped to replace the retiring Green in June. “Today, those three things are a reality — in a large part because of the contribution of Dick and CableLabs.”

But there's little time for CableLabs to rest on its laurels, given the rapid pace of technological change and the increased competition cable faces from satellite, Internet-protocol TV and wireless platforms.

“The long-forecasted convergence of voice, video and data is rapidly coming upon us,” Liao said. “Cable is blessed with an infrastructure that can easily evolve [to capitalize on those changes] and one of the important missions of CableLabs is to help the industry evolve their networks to revolutionize the consumer experience.”

In a lengthy interview on CableLabs' future, Liao stressed the importance of the consortium's ongoing work to create standards, certify new equipment and further develop such technologies as DOCSIS 3.0, PacketCable, Tru2way and Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format, or EBIF, which will be important for both interactive-TV and advanced advertising platforms.

But he also highlighted a number of newer priorities, such as CableLabs' efforts to work closer with companies from the consumer electronics side to speed up the process of innovation and the development of newer technologies for commercial services, converged technologies and all-IP networks.

Developing closer ties with international operators and continuing to work closely with smaller operators are also important parts of CableLabs' mission, Liao said.

In the highly competitive technology world, the group's budget of more than $50 million and 160-member staff are dwarfed by the money spent on research and development by some major technology and IT firms. Microsoft, for instance, spent $8.1 billion on research and development in 2008, while IBM laid out $6.3 billion and Intel spent $5.7 billion, according to a late October 2009 study from Booz & Co.

But the cable industry remains extremely committed to funding CableLabs, said Liao — and that funding extends far beyond the dues its members pay.

“One of the things that really impressed me when I was interviewing for this position was the strong level of support from the cable companies and the CEOs,” Liao noted. “The level of support for our funding is not only extremely stable; Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and the other MSOs also have very substantial and extremely talented engineering staffs that we can draw on to continue to do some remarkable things.”

To continue the group's tradition of innovation, a number of executives are also counting on Liao to bring a fresh perspective to the industry.

In an e-mail, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts — the current chairman of CableLabs — noted that Liao joined the group with consumer-electronics experience from his days at Panasonic, where he headed up the company's research and technology efforts in North America, as well as during his tenure at Bell Communications Research (Bellcore) and Bell Labs.

“As our services become more integrated and connect to more devices, the unique perspective Paul brings from his CE [consumer-electronics] business leadership and R&D experience will clearly benefit CableLabs, its members — and, ultimately, consumers,” Roberts said.

Liao, himself, hopes to draw on that background to help speed innovation. “One of the things I'd like to bring to the cable industry is the [faster] pace of innovation that you see in the consumer electronics realm,” Liao said.

This closer collaboration will be particularly important for the industry that now faces both rapid technological changes and increased competition from companies delivering content over broadband or wireless platforms.

“This is a very critical time for us,” said Comcast executive vice president and chief technology officer Tony Werner. “CableLabs will probably be more critical to the industry in the next five years than it has ever been, because the rate of innovation and technological change in the next five years could eclipse what we saw in the last 20 years.”

So far, Werner and other CTOs give Liao high marks for tackling the tough issues facing the industry.

“Paul has done a terrific job of coming in with fresh eyes,” said Scott Hatfield, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Cox Communications. “There are a certain amount of things that he needs to continue [like DOCSIS and Tru2way], but he has also done a terrific job of trying to figure what might have been missing and what are some of the new areas that we need to focus on.”

One key issue is the move to all IP networks, Liao and several CTOs told Multichannel News. “Today, our services are segmented, with video going down one transport scheme and data another,” said Time Warner Cable's executive vice president and chief technology officer Mike LaJoie. “But I think more and more of our product will be made available over IP networks.”

This transition to an IP network is relatively challenging but “achievable,” LaJoie added.

“The big benefit is that it broadens out the universe of devices that can connect to our network and be authorized to consume our products,” he said, making it possible for operators to better serve their subscribers by allowing them to access content on a variety of devices.

This move to an IP infrastructure that is more heavily based on software could also help further standardize the cable infrastructure and allow it to more quickly deploy new services.

“One of the challenges of the cable industry is that it is by no means homogenous,” in terms of its technology and the interoperability of devices, Liao said. “If you go to all-IP, which is a direction we are examining quite closely at CableLabs, we get the advantages of scale that the Internet and the IT industry has, as well as the wealth of tools that IP provides.”

Some of the newer initiatives, such as the focus on developing technologies for commercial services, could also quickly produce some newer revenues, several CTOs agree.

“Providing commercial services to small and medium-sized business we see as a high growth area for the industry,” said Marwan Fawaz, as executive vice president and chief technology officer at Charter Communications. “We're glad to see that CableLabs is getting more engaged in helping us drive that through open standards,” and other technological developments.

These efforts are particularly important for many of the smaller operators, whose needs remain an important part of the organization's efforts, Liao stressed.

“I don't know where we would be without the standards that have been driven by CableLabs,” said Pragash Pillai, vice president of engineering and technology at Bresnan Communications. “For us smaller operators who don't have a big R&D budget, we rely on CableLabs to prove and test new technologies.”

“Dick Green worked very hard to make sure the smaller operators had a place at the table in terms of their ideas and priorities and Paul [Liao] is working to continue that,” added Bend Broadband chairman and CEO Amy Tykeson, a member of CableLabs' board. “The smaller operators are in a unique position because they can move relatively quickly in terms of technology. Without standards, though, they run the risk of moving early on down a path that might not be chosen by the industry. CableLabs has been very important for us in terms of its technical expertise and in the standards it's developed.”