The cable industry has its technologists and its dealmakers. Usually, those roles are separate. But on occasion, they reside in one and the same person. The combination can be quite potent. Think John Malone or John Sie.
The blending of business and technology with personal attributes clearly redounded to the benefit of the industry in the person of our inaugural Innovator of the Year, Comcast Senior Vice President for Strategic Planning Mark Coblitz.
Coblitz led the cable side in the negotiations with the CE industry that led to the initial one-way, plug-and-play agreement in December 2002 and subsequent adoption by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in September 2003. And while he emphatically credits his larger team with the success, those who served with him on this project return the praise, with interest.
“If he hadn’t kept pushing us, keeping optimistic about the process, it could have easily broken down, and we never would have gotten an agreement,” Kevin Leddy, Time Warner Cable senior vice president of strategy and development, says.
“I think he was the right man for the right job at the right time,” Neal Goldberg, general counsel for the NCTA, says.
Being able to swim in both the technology and business worlds explains that happy fit. “If there’s a skill that I’ve used all my life…, it’s the ability to take and dive down with engineers into the technical issues, and then to come out of the weeds, so to speak, and get into the more strategic kinds of things that have to be done,” Coblitz says.
“Clearly that was the skill that had to be there for doing the plug-and-play deal,” he adds. “But, frankly, it’s one that I’ve used all of my life.”
Coblitz wins points for innovation on two grounds. First, the crafting of the agreement itself required innovative thinking. “I think that our jobs were to try to be creative,” says Bob Perry, vice president of industry and government affairs for Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America and Coblitz’s negotiating counterpart. “When you hit a wall or what you believed to be an immovable object…he and I would go off and build a ladder or find a break in the wall,” Perry says. Second, by linking cable’s digital plant with the research and development (R&D) efforts of the CE industry, the agreement itself promises new products and services. “Today’s decision is fundamentally about innovation,” FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein wrote in his statement supporting the September 2003 Report and Order. Granted, much of that innovation remains to be seen. Digital TV sets based on CableLabs’ POD-Host Interface License Agreement (PHILA) were set to arrive in time for the holiday season. But those built to the one-way, plug-and-play specification, which uses Dynamic Feedback Arrangement Scrambling Technique (DFAST) encryption, have yet to appear. And observers expect the real innovation to come from a two-way deal, which could take a while to complete. Yet there are many indications that real innovation is on its way. Chip manufacturers are further integrating silicon, CE manufacturers have set out product roadmaps, and following the FCC’s adoption in September, CableLabs saw a flurry of testing activity. Cable’s technical community has raised the topic of plug-and-play’s system implications on the SCTE-List and considered it in a well-attended audio seminar, a recording of which is available to members at the SCTE web site. So call it premature applause if you like, but we believe the time is right to honor plug-and-play’s signal achievement: in particular the role of Coblitz and his band of cable brethren in building this initial bridge with the CE industry. The logjam For years, the cable and CE industries were “at loggerheads,” says Neal Goldberg, general counsel of the NCTA. A provision of the 1992 Cable Act first aimed to make cable systems and CE devices compatible. But it was the 1996 Telecommunications Act that engendered the famous July 2000 (“J2K”) deadline for removable security that promised a more open and retail-oriented set-top market. Compliance took the form of a point of deployment (POD) module that used the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA) form-factor and other specs determined by CableLabs’ OpenCable initiative. Getting a POD module to mate with a CE “host” set-top, however, proved a nonstarter. By early 2001, Congress had called representatives of both the cable and CE industries to account for the inaction. “Finally, the light went on in all of our heads,” Goldberg says. The sudden insight was that a deal worked out between the two industries, difficult as it might be to achieve, would be superior to one imposed by the government. The issues The OpenCable efforts paid off. Now SCTE and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards, those specs became the technical foundation of plug-and-play. “No one refuted that PODs are part of the deal,” Brian Markwalter, director of engineering in the technology and standards department of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), says. Specifically, he points to SCTE 28 (Host-POD Interface) and SCTE 41 (POD Copy Protection System). Markwalter says there were many other technical details to work out, especially on testing. But wrapping a business and legal framework around the standards was the larger and most immediate concern, he says. That framework revolved around three main issues: support for connected products through secure interfaces, resolution of several encoding rules and establishment of a security license for the transfer of certain content from the CableCARD (formerly, POD module) to host devices. In the FCC’s Report and Order, those topics fall neatly under headings IV, V and VI. But it’s important to take note of the effort—and by extension, the leadership—it took to achieve such clarity. The work took place in meetings that began in July 2002 and often lasted several days at a time. “Some of these negotiations started at 8:00 in the morning and ended at 5:00 a.m. the next day, with nothing but food and conversation,” Mitsubishi’s Perry says. Nor was this cocktail banter. “It was serious, heavy lifting,” Perry says. Show me your leader One initiative taken at the start of these talks was to keep the leadership roles away from members of the respective associations. So instead of the NCTA and CEA facing off, it was cable operator sitting opposite TV manufacturer. Coblitz shared leadership of the cable side with Time Warner’s Leddy, Cox Senior Vice President of Strategy and Development Dallas Clement, and Charter Vice President of Corporate Development and Technology David Housman. Coblitz’s status as first among equals stemmed in part from representing Comcast. But it moreover derived from his unique strategic abilities, mentioned above and widely acknowledged, as well as his deep level of involvement with the OpenCable initiative. “Mark was a principal contributor to that all along,” Dick Green, CableLabs president and CEO, says. “He was very aware of what our specs were, what our standards were, generally what our approach to that was. So he was a very logical guy to carry on that conversation.”
Colleagues underscore another of Coblitz’s attributes: a steady temperament. “Especially at 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. You’ve got 50 people in a room and a proposed agreement up on a projector, with a bunch of lawyers arguing,” NCTA’s Goldberg recalls. “He was able to keep heads calm and cool when others might not have been.” Coblitz’s counterpart on the CE side concurs. “He was always able to disengage emotionally from the negotiations,” Mitsubishi’s Berry says. “That’s always tough.” Divide, deal and package Another initial move was to separate some of the more complicated two-way issues from the initial one-way effort. To some extent that effort was then further sub-divided. Detailed resolution of a test procedure (for which Coblitz credits Cox CTO Chris Bowick), for example, actually followed the submission of the agreement in December 2002. Concluded in September 2003, the tests leveraged CableLabs’ acceptance test plan (ATP) and protocol implementation conformance statement (PICS) yet satisfied the CE manufacturers’ interest in limiting on-site CableLabs’ testing to their initial CableReady TV set. As for settling the interface, encoding and licensing issues, the teams engaged in the typical give and take and discovery of what’s negotiable and what’s not. “There are puts and takes, advantages and disadvantages on both sides of any deal,” Coblitz says. “You’re really trying to get the appropriate balance so that everyone walks away feeling that they got what they needed to go forward.” Copy protection rules that would not disadvantage cable vis a vis satellite was one of cable’s non-negotiable items. The CE team wanted encoding rules that banned selectable output control and extended protection against the down-resolution of HDTV content. Those involved on the cable side use the word “package” to describe both the multiple issues and their approach to solving them. “They were so inter-related that the whole group stayed together,” Leddy says. Platforms and dividends One goal of retail availability is to move set-tops off of the cable operator’s balance sheet. Yet doing so on the basis of common standards effectively extends the cable platform onto the retail floor. And that suggests one of Coblitz’s favorite themes: “The philosophy I’ve always held is: ‘We are a platform, built on a platform, built on a platform.’” Coblitz has lived out that philosophy through extensive work on DOCSIS, and its progeny. “Mark was certainly, in my mind, the most vocal and articulate voice around the need for PacketCable and what PacketCable should be,” says fellow cable innovator and long-time Time Warner Cable CTO Jim Chiddix. We are all—it would happily seem—Coblitzians now. “One of the primary things that Mark has brought to the industry is to capitalize on the investment in the physical plant,” CableLabs’ Green says. “Increase revenue, but minimize the capital necessary to do that.” Exactly how much of a dividend cable will accrue from the ongoing rapprochement with the CE industry is unclear. But Coblitz says it’s wrong to overstate that industry’s aptitude at cost-reduction. “They do a lot more. They’re constantly looking for ways to differentiate their products,” Coblitz says. “One way they hadn’t done it was integrating things that might work well with digital cable.” It took considerable effort to get this far, and the two-way negotiations will consume many more hours. But the momentum is nearly palpable. “We have a way to turn (the CE industry) on to thinking about things that are connected to digital cable,” Coblitz says. “That’s really exciting for us, and we think it’s really exciting for them.” Jonathan Tombes is executive editor of Communications Technology. Email him at [email protected]. Did this article help you? Send comments to [email protected]. Cable’s Band of Plug-and-Play Brothers
Key players on cable’s plug-and-play negotiating team were Kevin Leddy (Time Warner), David Housman (Charter), Dallas Clement (Cox), Bill Check (NCTA), Bill Warga (Comcast), Charlie Kennamer (Comcast), Mike Hayashi (Time Warner), Chris Bowick (Cox), Dave Fellows (Comcast), Dick Green (CableLabs), Don Dulchinos (CableLabs), David Broberg (CableLabs), Neal Goldberg (NCTA) and Paul Glist (Cole, Raywid & Braverman). Biography: Mark Coblitz
Mark Coblitz was a numbers guy long before popular culture deemed it cool. Two cases in point: he is a distinguished graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA) and served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force at the Pentagon when it was a well-known haven for quantitative jocks. Yet his verbal skills—so evident in his role as lead plug-and-play negotiator—are also impressive. Not surprisingly, prior to joining Comcast in 1989, Coblitz worked in the management consultant field, which highly values effective communicators and multidisciplinary outlooks. “Most of the consulting I did was being able to go in and understand the financial stuff, understand jet engines, and computer businesses…at a technical enough level and then turn around and translate it to the business set of issues,” Coblitz says. The cable industry has likewise embraced his talents. “We’re very lucky to have him,” CableLabs President and CEO Dick Green says. Yet for all the accolades—including a Vanguard Award last year—he explains his success in simple and straightforward terms:
“I have always had from the very beginning, whether it was working with my father (in the family business) or on my undergraduate education (at Case Institute of Technology), a mix between the business side and the technical side of life.” Bottom Line: Skilled Negotiator
Regulatory necessity may have been the mother of plug-and-play. But Mark Coblitz’s leadership was instrumental in bringing eight MSOs and 14 consumer electronics manufacturers together for this historic agreement. Coblitz led the cable side in the negotiations that began in July 2002 and led to the initial one-way, plug-and-play agreement in December 2002 and subsequent adoption by the FCC in September 2003. For his ability to blend the needs of business and technology along with his personal perseverance and steady temperament, Communications Technology presents its inaugural Innovator of the Year award to Comcast Senior Vice President for Strategic Planning Mark Coblitz.