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The World According to Wilt

Cablevision Systems Corp. executive vice president of engineering and technology Wilt Hildenbrand gets to build the network for the services chairman Charles Dolan, CEO James Dolan and chief operating officer Tom Rutledge dream up. Or is it that Hildenbrand builds the network, offers its capabilities to Chuck, Jim and Tom, and says: “What can you do with it?” The reality: It is a little bit of both. The collegial atmosphere, and execution of the management team, often places Cablevision in front of other MSOs, taking the lead on multipay, subscription video on demand, high-speed data and bundling those services with voice-over- Internet protocol telephony. Hildenbrand discussed the technical vision behind the Cablevision’s service platform with Broadband Week editor Matt Stump. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: What’s the key to staying ahead from a technical-vision standpoint?

Wilt Hildenbrand: There’s no one piece to this constantly changing puzzle. You still have Chuck with ideas, and plans and tweaking. Jim certainly has strategies and plans and has been in the forefront, and now Tom is doing stuff, and you have whatever it is I do. And it’s all this interesting combination. You look at where you are. You take a look at what’s next.

For me, the key to surviving this is you have to pull back away from it a little bit and look at the whole mosaic and see what direction it points to. If you look at any one of the things too closely, they look like ends to themselves.

Let’s take making the system two-way, then stepping into cable modems. If you back away from it, it’s sort of a natural evolution of each other. If you had a cable system with two-way data on it, why wouldn’t you naturally evolve to VoIP?

At the highest level, you have that one foot in front of the other [approach]. What if the set-top box also could leverage the high-bandwidth platform? What could I do to enhance the set-top applications?

That begets another door, which is: What’s the biggest problem we have with set-tops? They run out of features. The security gets broken. They run out of tuning range. You try to leverage all these things together to solve problems.

All of us have discovered ways to work off each other; ideas lead to ideas.

MCN: You’ve got MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) transport and IP transport. How do you view their evolutions?

WH: There are two different answers. The backbone answer is we’re all doing [Gigabit Ethernet] transport, because [as we feed] all these triple plays, quad plays — the efficiency of being able to manage it as one network in the backbone is a key ingredient. It has to be put together in a way that it can be managed and operated reliably.

As I look at the network side of it, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the people that really rely on IP video are those without a network. I haven’t figured out yet, just in pure transport, why I’d put stuff on IP when I can deliver it to homes within a QAM [quadrature amplitude modulation].

The customer certainly doesn’t care, as we talk about the main content for the broadcast signals. It’s never become clear to me, the distinct advantage of making something contention QOS [quality of service]-based that didn’t have to be.

Answer No. 1 is, I’m not sure I understand what all the noise is about. Answer No. 2 is, yeah, of course we’re looking at [IP video], because I think there are things you can do to enhance some of the capabilities of what we’ve tried to do.

We’ve have camera-angle stuff at MSG [Madison Square Garden Network] and traffic cameras in Interactive News12 for a while. What we’re looking to do with IP video in that model is to blend it into the system. What if I delivered camera angles as part of an IP stream? We can already generate Web pages in the box. What if I switched that way, and didn’t have all this overhead of tuning the box and the conditional access and the rest of it?

I think we’ll use IP video as a tool to enhance some of the services we already have. I can tell you that we’ve been testing stuff similar to what Time Warner Cable is doing in San Diego [offering its basic TV lineup on the PC].

Let’s pull back and say: 'What if I look at this thing from a household perspective rather than a device perspective?’ Households are subscribing to iO, and to Optimum Online and Optimum Voice. If one of the devices in the home is connected to the same piece of coax as everything else, why shouldn’t you be able to see the services you’ve subscribed to [on another device]? That’s one way of looking at the world. It all sort of depends on your perspective.

We start to look at this thing holistically. It’s really a household. One device picks off TV programs; one device happens to pick of data; and the other device happens to pick off voice.

Caller ID on the TV is on the roadmap. On Optimum Voice you can already pick up your voicemail on your PC. That sort of stuff is a natural evolution.

MCN: Where are you on switched-broadcast video? Is it a trial or a rollout?

WH: It’s neither just yet. We’re still banging away on it in the labs. It’s an interesting thing, and if I had to predict, I’d tell you that, technologically, it will become a fairly important piece of our product offering.

MCN: What about channel bonding and adding speed to the high-speed data platform?

WH: Optimum has always been up to 10 Mbps downstream, and up to 1 Mbps upstream. The average rate on it is somewhere around five or six Mbps. It’s all so dependent on what your computer is and everything else.

We are trialing 20 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up. That’s not the end of the capabilities of non-bonded [Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification]. We can look to go beyond that. With the Narad [Networks] stuff, it’s possible to get 50 [Mbps] to 100 Mbps out of the cable network, just with a different device. I’m not limited by my network.

On the other hand, we haven’t touched DOCSIS 2.0. Bonding channels to make any given modem capable of multiplying its capacity by using more than one stream on the network, why wouldn’t you?

MCN: Let’s talk wireless in all of its iterations.

WH: If you look at this household experience as holistic, you can’t look at the household without looking at wireless. Strategically for me and the team, wireless is the next big thing in terms of technology.

And it may not be as much about deploying it as figuring out how to use it. I don’t know that you have to own it to operate with it.

I don’t know that you need to wirelessly overbuild yourself to offer wireless capability to some of the Optimum Online users. I think you are going to see some stuff coming out from us that will start to show you how many toes are in the water to do these kinds of things.

Wireless for moving signals around the home is fascinating. As we look at a more dominate HD universe, you start to push the limits of wireless. And you’ve got to be able to secure it.

If we have this conversation next year, you’ll find that it will become part of our vernacular of how we deliver services.

MCN: What are the elements of wireless?

WH: Our goal at the end of the day is, you’ve got to get the network up and running. You have to get the signals on it. Once I bring signals into the house, I have to get them around the house.

If you look at the evolution of services, we bring services to people and the people are little more mobile. The next big thing for us is to bring some services to wireless as well, and that could be voice, data and video. The first one you would see is the race between voice and data.

Once you’ve got this wireless network out there, if I’ve got a data service to the cell phone or PDA device, why wouldn’t I put News 12 on there? Why wouldn’t I put some sports highlights show?

MCN: Will you do a deal with Verizon Wireless? Some 30% to 40% of all cell phone minutes are inside the home.

WH: I don’t know. With NorthCoast [PCS, a wireless service provider], one of things I learned when you are trying to design a cell network, is how much that couple of extra feet inside the home coverage costs you in your design of a cellular network.

We also understood and designed how much mobility you have. People standing still on a cellular network isn’t the best thing for a cellular network. I’ve got a network inside the home that has some intrinsic value to me and operational value to others.

MCN: What are your thoughts about navigation?

WH: Navigation is my favorite; navigation is the second next big thing.

We all talk about our networks and unlimited channel capacity. I could put 10,000 video-on-demand movies on the system. The challenge is how do I get you to know they are there? And how do I get you to navigate through them?

Without figuring out the answer to navigation, all the other things we’re working on are trite.

MCN: Have you seen some things you like?

WH: I think we’ve seen some things we like. I don’t think I’m ready to talk about them yet.

What if you could free up the movement on the TV screen? There may be a place for other forms of interaction. I think voice recognition could play a role. I don’t thing there is one magic key to unlock this stuff. I think there is a bunch. Voice recognition on a cell phone is a great thing. What about on the TV?