There From the Beginning

While technologies can fundamentally transform entire industries, their revolutionary impact is often based on the patient work of engineers who may spend years using technology to develop innovative solutions to practical problems.

That process is particularly evident in the long career of Wilt Hildenbrand, the executive VP of engineering and technology at Cablevision Systems Corp. who will be receiving the Vanguard Award for Science and Technology at this year's National Show.

“If you think about it, the industry's success is based on a very complex technological platform,” notes Dr. Richard Green, president/CEO of CableLabs, the industry-backed research arm. “Taking older networks and transforming them into digital platforms capable of delivering a full range of telecommunications companies, from video to voice and data, is a lot more complex than it looks. Wilt's experience, his native intelligence and his willingness to play a leading role in developing newer technologies has been extremely valuable to the development of Cablevision and the cable industry.”

Hildenbrand learned electronics while serving in the Air Force; at the end of his tour of duty, the Air Force got him a temporary job at a Louisiana cable operator. Hildenbrand found the fledgling industry fascinating, but when he returned home to New York, he hoped to find work in a more established industry: the airlines.

Jobs, however, were scarce. So in September of 1972, Hildenbrand went to work as an assistant warehouseman for cable operator TelePrompTer, in Islip, N.Y. The operator was upgrading its Long Island system from 12 channels to 26, and Hildenbrand quickly got a chance to put his technical expertise to work, moving out of the warehouse into the field as a service technician and then a headend engineer.

In 1976, he landed a job at Cablevision as chief headend engineer and, in 1979, was promoted to director of engineering for Rainbow Media, Cablevision's programming subsidiary. There, he designed and built the microwave networks to cablecast baseball games and developed uplink facilities and technical services that allowed the operator to launch a number of programming services, including Bravo and AMC.

From today's perspective, working on a cable system capable of carrying only a few dozen channels and setting up uplink facilities for new channels “may not seem like much of a challenge,” Hildenbrand admits. “But at the time, we were doing a lot of pretty edgy things.”

That produced some heart-stopping moments. When Cablevision began covering baseball games, Hildenbrand was able to line up only three hours of satellite time for the first game. Everything went perfectly until the game went into extra innings, and Hildenbrand began worrying that they might lose the satellite feed, angering both his bosses and cable subscribers all over Long Island.

“If it hadn't ended in two minutes, we [would have] lost our satellite. You might not be talking to me about my career in cable,” Hildenbrand laughs.

In 1987, he was promoted to VP of engineering and customer service, making him the top technology executive at Cablevision, a position he has enjoyed ever since. Under his direction in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cablevision played a leading role in the deployment of addressable, two-way boxes; throughout the '90s, the company continued to upgrade and develop its networks. By 1995, Hildenbrand had earned such a reputation for his engineering prowess and innovation that he was given the Man of the Year award by Reed Business Information tech publication CED, a sister publication to B&C.

As Cablevision began to plot its digital strategy in the late 1990s, Hildenbrand continued to explore innovative technical solutions. In 1999, Cablevision and Sony agreed to a wide-ranging alliance that would make Sony the operator's exclusive supplier of a new generation of digital set-top boxes.

The deal never quite lived up to its promise. Two years passed before the boxes were deployed in 2001, and eventually the Sony deal was restructured so Cablevision was able to buy less expensive boxes from other suppliers.

Even so, the move would have a major impact on both the industry and Cablevision, Green and others say.

“Working with a major consumer-electronics company like Sony” gave Cablevision invaluable experience in developing new digital services, and “it pushed companies like Scientific-Atlanta to provide boxes that weren't just delivering TV,” Hildenbrand argues.

Cablevision was the last major operator to launch digital services—in part because the network Hildenbrand built in the 1990s could offer 80-100 analog channels. But when the Optimum-branded digital service was deployed in 2001, it was arguably the industry's most advanced.

Its state-of-the-art network has also allowed the company to become the first major operator to widely deploy VoIP, digital HD services and subscription interactive game services. Cablevision became the first major operator to push digital penetration past the 50% milestone, and it is seeing impressive take-up rates for its high-speed data and phone service. Cablevision installs 1,000-1,200 phone connections a day.

“It is amazing that a network that was once delivering just 12 channels is now delivering VOD, phone, data and interactive television,” Hildenbrand says. “The key is execution and integration. For it to work, everything has to be in place,” from maintaining the network to technical support, billing and customer service, he says: “Everything builds on everything else.”