Small Operator, Big Player

High-paid lobbyists steeped in the traditions of the Beltway can get you only so far. Increasingly, the cable industry is relying on company officials like Amy Tykeson, CEO of BendBroadband, Bend, Ore., to go to Washington to speak for themselves to Congress and the FCC.

“We can't expect [the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the American Cable Association] to do it all,” says Tykeson. “It means a lot for [Congress and the FCC] to hear the real business implications of what it is they are considering.”

Tykeson's company serves 35,000 subscribers in Bend, all of whom have access to the most advanced services cable has to offer. She learned the cable business from her father, Don, a cable-system pioneer who at 80 remains a trusted adviser, and she fortified her business knowledge with an MBA from the University of Oregon.

Tykeson has had a number of formal roles within the industry, including president of the Oregon Cable Telecommunications Association, NCTA board member, and NCTA Rural and Small Operators Committee chairman.

But her role as a small-business executive who can translate cable issues into a language that government officials can easily grasp is what makes her such an important asset these days.

Along with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, Tykeson is to receive the 2007 Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership, which, since 1965, has been the highest honor bestowed by the cable industry.

In recent years, she's gotten into the habit of visiting Washington to let lawmakers and regulators know how policy affects a small outfit like Bend. “The impact of that grassroots effort is very, very important. There is no replacement for that,” says Tykeson. “It's really up to all the cable operators and industry stakeholders to get involved.”

She's an especially impassioned opponent of retransmission consent, and it rankles her that the FCC gives broadcasters what she considers a “free pass” on that issue.

“Amy Tykeson understands how business plays an important role in public policy, and her leadership as an NCTA board member has been outstanding,” says NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow.

Tykeson, 49, became Bend's CEO in 1999, just three years after replacing her father as president. “He is active on our board of directors, and he's a great sounding board for me,” she explains.

“What is truly special to see,” says Matt Polka, president/CEO, American Cable Association, “is Amy as the second-generation independent cable entrepreneur and pioneer, following her dad, who has done so much for the cable industry. The independent spirit of smaller and medium-size cable companies is alive and well, as it always has been.”

Under her leadership, Bend has capitalized on important industry trends. It launched high-speed data in 1997, when AOL's dial-up service was going gangbusters; rolled out a digital programming tier in 1999, when some doubted consumers' acceptance of set-top boxes; and embraced HDTV in 2004, when millions of consumers were about to fulfill their flat-panel fantasies.

Bend's “triple play” has gone unanswered by the dominant local phone company, Qwest Communications, which hasn't committed to video the same way AT&T and Verizon have.

“We tried to get in there early and get the first-mover advantage,” Tykeson says. “I think our customers are appreciative of what we provide.”

In 2005, Bend set aside bandwidth for a digital simulcast of its analog programming tiers, to allow consumers with digital set-tops and cable-ready DTV sets to enjoy an all-digital environment just as satellite-TV customers do.

“We were the first in Oregon to do high-speed Internet,” Tykeson says proudly. “We were the first in Oregon to do a digital simulcast. So we are on the leading edge out here.”

Over the next 20 months, Tykeson and her company have another challenge. In January, Bend obtained a waiver from the FCC's ban on further cable-operator deployment of integrated digital set-top boxes. But the waiver came at a price: Bend has to discontinue analog transmission by the end of 2008. It won't be easy.

When pressed to comment, Tykeson is reluctant to provide details to some obvious questions about the transition. How are you going to get boxes attached to every TV in every home? What will you do if consumers rebel?

“I would say it's a huge project,” she answers, succinctly.

But with a solid track record, Tykeson is quite capable of effecting a seamless transition to an all-digital system.

“I am very bullish on the cable industry,” she says. “I think we have the best platform to provide enhanced services. I think we have demonstrated that we can compete.”