Happy Birthday, DOCSIS!

I did not want the year to end without recognizing the twentieth anniversary of one of cable’s seminal events–the “invention” of DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification). In the last year, I talked with Dick Green, John Malone, Rouzbeh Yassini, Tom Moore, Pam Anderson, Brian Reilly and Robert Cruickshank. Some of these names are familiar to most people, while others may not be as recognizable. However, these are some of the key players who were working on the technologies that helped to reinvent the cable industry in 1995 and ushered in the “third generation” of cable.

Dick Green and John Malone each played a vital role at CableLabs to move digital technologies forward. The industry was experimenting with VOIP and VOD and they were having conversations with Silicon Valley about the emergence of personal computers and a new technology called the Internet. Green and Malone were present at a meeting where Brian Roberts suggested to Bill Gates that he make an investment in the cable industry. Not long after in 1997, Gates and Roberts made history when Microsoft invested $1 billion in Comcast. From the very beginning, CableLabs was tasked with reviewing the state of the nascent Internet technology and developing standards that would be critical to the expansion of the cable industry.

At that time, there were a number of companies working on a modem that could compete with the telcos. Rouzbeh Yassini, often called the “father of the cable modem” was instrumental in the development of a cable modem that outpaced his competition. The first cable modems were the size of a small refrigerator, so Yassini’s team at LanCity diligently worked to reduce the size and increase the speed. Malone realized that entry into the new market required a large-scale effort to drive down the cost of the equipment and to justify the large investment the cable industry would need to make.

It was also clear that new software specifications would be essential to delivering the new service on a wide scale. In a CableLabs board meeting, the board asked Dick Green to pursue the hardware and software necessary to make high-speed Internet capabilities a marketable reality. Green turned to Robert Cruickshank, who in turn brought together a team of people to make everything work. The team included Tom Moore, Brian Reilly, Pam Anderson, William Kostka, Jason Schnitzer, Andrew Sundelin and Kazuyoshi Ozawa. Within the space of one year, their efforts would result in DOCSIS 1.0. It was evident right from the beginning they could deliver speeds 1000 times faster than the existing telephone line modems. This was the advent of high-speed Internet.

As I talked to the many people involved in the development of the original DOCSIS specifications, I found a very humble group who were proud of their achievements, but largely forgotten by history. Most of the DOCSIS team were very young and just starting their careers. Cruickshank was working at the Laboratory of Interdisciplinary Telecommunications at the University of Colorado in Boulder when he interviewed for the Project Manager position with Dick Green. After accepting the position, Robert asked Tom Moore and Brian Reilly from the University of Colorado to intern with CableLabs to test out the theories. They were on the cutting edge of telecommunications and engaged in a discovery process that would change our world.

These DOCSIS “pioneers” said they were simply building on the discoveries of those that came before them. They did not know how their work would evolve and the impact they would have on our lives. When people ask me about cable innovations, the story of the cable modem and DOCSIS gives them a prime example of how technological discovery works in the cable industry. It is a collaborative endeavor among the engineers who shared a common vision and dreamed big dreams. As we look forward to the promises of DOCSIS 3.1, take a moment to think about how far we have come in the last twenty years. It is what makes us all optimistic about the future of the cable industry.

(Larry Satkowiak is president and CEO of The Cable Center, the nonprofit educational arm of the cable industry. The Center preserves cable’s enduring contributions to society, strengthens relationships between cable and academia and unites the industry around the advancement of exceptional customer service. His recently published book, The Cable Industry – A short history through three generations tells the story of this dynamic industry from the early CATV systems to the current multi-platform services and programming we know as the modern cable industry.)

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