Charlie Dietz, senior vice president-research/development and strategy and CTO at Insight Communications, claims he’s retiring from cable. Hell, the company announced it in a news release, so it must be true. Dietz, in a follow-up phone call, says he’s tired and needs a rest from a job that earned him Communications Technology‘s Operator of the Year honors. But, with coaxial cable having long ago replaced the veins and arteries in his body, it’s not so easy for him to just fade into the sunset.

"It’s a hard business to walk away from, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do it cold turkey," admits Dietz. "I may pop up in a consultant’s role or something down the road, but I need about six months off."

He probably can’t afford to take much longer than six months, he knows, because things are changing so quickly in the industry. That’s nothing new, of course; things have moved fast since Dietz got his first taste of cable in 1969 while still in college. Started with tubes "When I got started – which was back with tubes – we went through a period where there were a lot of channel additions, and then every five to 10 years we were expanding bandwidth depending on the equipment available," he said.

The notorious franchising wars fueled that urgency as cable management promised everything to get city franchises then told the engineers to make it work.

"I remember proposing dual 400 meg systems, 450 systems, and at the time we didn’t need to do it," because there weren’t enough applications to fill up that much bandwidth, he said.

Some good applications, such as a security system developed by Tocom, a Dallas-based company that was acquired by General Instrument in the mid-’80s, got crushed in the rush.

"That was a great application," Dietz recalled. "Unfortunately, it was before anybody worried about CLI and ingress, and it had a lot of issues. (Now) things like security, energy management, home management … are going to be great revenue sources." TV and CES Dietz, then at Vision Cable, helped launch the Tocom security offering "in a couple systems," but "at the time everybody’s focus was just on plain old TV," so it never went any farther.

This week’s Consumer Electronics Show, if anything, demonstrated that there really is nothing that can be called "plain old TV" anymore, even though video is still the core of the cable universe.

Dietz, who said he "regrets I’m not heading out to CES; there’s always something that surprises me there," isn’t surprised that as cable morphs, it does so around a video center.

"Video is going to continue to be the cornerstone, but now we’re into telephone and data, and we’re going to keep getting into more and more things that are going to have nice paybacks," he said.

The cable plant can use segmentation, switched digital and MPEG-4 to handle this growth "without dramatic upgrades."

The one big change that Dietz would be crazy to miss is the competition-driven demand to move faster and do more. No more back burner "We can’t just put something on the back burner because we’re doing too much this year," he said. "We have to continue to look at everything that’s out there and then rank them, and, hopefully, with the aid of CableLabs and the SCTE, have teams developing the future technology so it will be ready when we need to roll out."

He’s planning to leave that for the next generation of cable engineers, whose veins will be replaced by fiber, not coax, but whose minds will still swirl around the challenges of placating an impatient management and demanding consumer.

"Never assume you can’t do something," he advised the next generation. "Always look for the best way to pull it off."

– Jim Barthold

The Daily

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