Those of you reading who joined the cable industry back when it was possible to count the number of channels in a lineup on one hand, please stand up.
Please remain standing if you then built an earth station in the middle of the Pacific ocean, founded and sold a company while working for a cable operator, helped introduce the industry to fiber-optic technology, served as chief engineer and CTO, built one of the first-ever video-on-demand (VOD) networks, helped guide cable’s high-speed data network buildout, pushed time-shifting technology to the next level, and served as CEO of a publicly traded company – and wrote a book on railroads.
Look, there’s one man left standing … it’s Jim Chiddix. Roads less well taken The full details of Chiddix’s historic 35-year career are beyond this scope of this article. (See sidebar 1 for highlights.) The goal is rather to draw attention to his early achievements, particularly to one that was highlighted in his recent induction into the Cable Hall of Fame, namely: his role in introducing the industry to fiber optics.
How cable ended up with a hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) network is yesterday’s story. It’s worth retelling, however, not only for the memories but also for a reminder of this truism: you don’t get ground-breaking innovation without individuals who are willing to break new ground.
Chiddix’s innovation in fiber goes back to the mid-1980s. But like the boy crossing a busy street in pursuit of a ball, unscathed, the Chiddix career already had flowed against the current in ways they would have up-ended someone without his personal touch or lucky timing or sincere interest in the technological ball that lies just beyond reach.
"I wasn’t a very focused student," he admits of his electrical engineering studies in the late 1960s. "I paid attention to the things that interested me." The upshot? Cornell University asked him to "go away for a while."
The local draft board took notice. In return for a longer enlistment, Chiddix entered an electronics school (U.S. Army Air Defense Command, Fort Bliss, Texas) and did so well that he spent the last two of his three years as an instructor at the school.
Chiddix returned to Cornell only to endure a "soul-crushing" summer spent with a big power company as an engineering trainee. Another abrupt turn: He jumped off the fast track into corporate life by accepting an offer from a friend to crew on a chartered sailboat in Hawaii.
The sailboat business stalled, but Chiddix’s career took on a fortuitous wind. A local company needed an electronics repairman. As it happens, one of the things that he had paid attention to over the years had been amateur radio.
"I had been a ham radio guy," he says. "I had built transmitters, and I knew how to use a soldering iron." He got the job. Waianae, CRC and ATC The company Chiddix joined was Cablevision Inc. in Waianae, Hawaii, a five-channel system on the leeward side of Oahu that served a relatively poor market with no TV reception. His first job was repairing the system’s rental TV sets.
Chiddix quickly rose from electronics repairman to service tech to general manager. And it wasn’t long before he found something else that needed fixing.
The system’s launch of a pay TV channel in 1975 created the need for a way to play back videotapes. He found existing equipment "primitive, very unsatisfactory." So he and two friends figured out a better way to automate videotapes.
That automation system became the first product of CRC Electronics, a side business that Chiddix ran even while continuing to manage a cable system. "Anything went," he says of those early days, and 70-hour weeks.
In 1982, Chiddix sold CRC to Texscan. By then he been chief engineer at Oceanic, the large, urban system in Honolulu, for four years. Owned by ATC, itself a division of Time Inc., Oceanic would be the perch from which his work on addressable converters (which netted him an NCTA 1983 Vanguard Award) as well as fiber takes shape. The fiber option By the mid-1980s, the pattern of the previous 15 years was pretty well established: Follow your muse even if it runs against the grain, find allies, and make your own luck.
In this case, Chiddix had become interested in fiber optics, which he first used as a replacement for coax supertrunks. He then proposed using fiber optics to connect a newly acquired system, as an alternative to building a microwave site in rainforest-like conditions. "The corporate engineers (at ATC headquarters on the mainland) thought I was grandstanding and enthralled with technology for own its sake – and it wasn’t their idea," he recalls. "So they told me not to do it."
His good fortune was to work for a general manager, Don Carroll, who allowed him to override corporate engineering.
Chiddix configured a novel mix of 1,310 nm analog lasers, frequency modulators and receivers and 1,550 nm digital lasers. The physical medium was a bundle of fibers strung along a highway that ran through a tunnel toward the windward side of the Island.
"It worked wonderfully," Chiddix recalls. "It was super reliable, and we got really clean video at the other end."
In 1986, after becoming vice president of engineering at ATC, Chiddix found himself in a position to pursue this interest in fiber more systematically. For more on this career move, the shift from FM to AM lasers, the fiber team at ATC, and the decision to promote the new fiber network design to the industry at large, see sidebar 2. Quantum leaps Deployments of HFC in small systems began occurring in 1989 and 1990, but then came an unprecedented opportunity to road test its capabilities.
By 1991, Chiddix and his wife had moved to ATC’s corporate headquarters in Stamford, CT. Time Warner had been formed from the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications, and the company’s top brass were eager to solicit fresh investment.
A presentation on HFC that Chiddix gave Time Warner CEO Steve Ross got him to "light up" and endorse building a system that could showcase its capabilities.
What followed was a 1 GHz showcase system built in part of Queens, NY, called Quantum, which featured 160 analog channels, near VOD (NVOD) and even some early cable telephony.
The next step advances into more recent history and familiar territory, allowing us to fast-forward through the rest of this historic career. After Quantum, Chiddix says that Joe Collins suggested pushing this design to its next level, using digital technology. With the support of Ross’s successor, Gerald M. "Jerry" Levin, Chiddix developed what became a live experiment in movies on demand and addressable digital set-top boxes.
It would take pages to describe and assess the full service network (FSN) built in Orlando, along with the so-called deployable FSN (D-FSN) effort later headed by Chiddix colleague Mike Hayashi.
Suffice it to say that the ensuing specifications became the foundation for much of what followed at Time Warner Cable, including Chiddix’s subsequent efforts in developing time-shifting technology as CEO of Time Warner’s Mystro TV unit.
Moreover, none of these or any other industry milestones could have occurred without the underlying HFC network. Game changer The significance of cable’s adoption of fiber optics is hardly news. "The AM laser really changed the game for us," said Comcast SVP Strategic Planning Mark Coblitz in an interview with CT three years ago: "Lower cost, the ability to deploy lots of them, and the kind of characteristics we needed."
Industry veterans recall that the SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies (ET) actually began in the late 1980s as a "Fiber Optics" conference. That history also lies behind the posthumous awarding of the Polaris Award at ET two years ago to CED editor Roger Brown, who championed this architectural shift.
The point worth making now is that innovation still requires individuals, like Chiddix, who are willing to follow their own internal compass, part with conventional ways and seek luck and fellow travelers along the way. Jonathan Tombes is editor of Communications Technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sidebar 1: Career Highlights 1971, Joined Cablevision Inc., Waianae, Hawaii
1973, Became GM, Cablevision Inc.
1975, Incorporated CRC Electronics
1978, Became chief engineer, Oceanic Cablevision, Honolulu
1982, Sold CRC to Texscan
1983, Received NCTA Vanguard Award (addressable converters)
1985, Deployed digital FM, dual wavelength fiber supertrunk
1986, Published paper on fiber supertrunking
1986, Became VP engineering, ATC, Denver
1988, Published HFC paper with Dave Pangrac and Louis Williamson
1988, Became SVP Technology and Engineering, Time Warner Cable
1990, Joined board of CV-21 cable system, Fukuoka, Japan
1991, Built Quantum, (1 GHz system), Queens, NY
1994, Accepted Emmy for HFC on behalf of TW Engineering
1994, Debuted Full Service Network, Orlando
1995, Plotted high-speed data, with Mario Vecchi and Tim Evard
1998, Became CTO, Time Warner Cable
2001, Became President of Mystro, a division of Time Warner
2004, Joined OpenTV as chairman and CEO
2004, Published Next Stop Honolulu
2007, Joined Board of Vyyo as vice chairman
2007, Joined board of Symmetricom Sidebar 2: Jim Chiddix: The Fiber Story As Joe Collins recalled in the Hall of Fame video clip, at some point you gained internal support for your fiber-optic ideas and went on a sort of road show. When was that?
That was in 1988. A number of things led up to the push to proselytize HFC to the industry. In 1986, Larry Janes, who had been the chief engineer at ATC, decided to retire. ATC had an R&D arm too, run by Walt Ciciora. The company had decided to combine corporate engineering and corporate R&D and to put one person in charge of both, and Tryg Myhren and Gary Bryson pitched me on being that person.
Trudy and I had assumed we would stay in Hawaii for the rest of our lives; we truly loved living there, but after agonizing a while we decided to go. I joined ATC in Denver and combined R&D and engineering. The company was in the midst of a decentralization push, and they didn’t want me to micro-manage the operating units. My primary charter was to set technology strategy in order to help the company deal with the competition and new opportunities that lay ahead.
What I began to focus on was how fiber optics might be applied to our business. I assembled a fiber team consisting of Dave Pangrac, Don Gall, Louis Williamson, Jay Vaughan, and a few others.
There was other fiber activity going on elsewhere?
Dave had done some work in Kansas City similar to what I had done at Oceanic Cable in Honolulu, using FM fiber super-trunking to get signals across town. It had occurred to me, and I think to Dave as well, to see if we couldn’t do something on fiber that was analogous to AML (amplitude modulated link) microwave and could be used much more widely in our cable systems.
With AML microwave, you upconverted all of your TV channels directly to microwave frequencies and then had many small receivers that did a simple down-conversion to the actual frequencies going out on coax plant from the AML hubs. It was a very efficient way to use microwave to feed signals to a large cable system. The idea was to use that same approach with fiber optics. Earlier fiber super-trunking efforts had used FM – or digital video – carriers and needed a headend at each receive point to remodulate everything. We wanted to use the whole lineup of cable signals in their native AM form and to intensity-modulate a laser with the complete CATV spectrum. We then hoped to use a very simple optical receiver and to feed the coax plant directly with its output.
There was a critical question: Could you get a laser that was linear enough and had low enough noise to get acceptable signals when modulated with this complex, multi-channel RF spectrum? A company called Ortel had been making analog lasers for somewhat similar military applications in Israel. So we got a couple of Ortel lasers, and Louis cobbled together a lab system that ran about 40 channels through 10 kilometers of fiber and then drove a short coaxial cable cascade from the output of a simple phototransistor.
Then you began to discuss this test with others in the industry?
Yes. In late 1987 Wendell Bailey’s NCTA Engineering Committee met in Denver, and we showed them our AM optical fiber link. As I recall, Sruki Switzer, an engineering consultant from Canada – which was then ahead of the U.S. in many ways – just looked at it, nodded, and said, "Now I can build my 1 GHz cable system." Arch Taylor said, "Very interesting work, very interesting." High praise, considering his stature.
The signals were a bit too noisy in our lab system. But the principle was sound. Dave and Louis and I wrote a paper and I delivered it at the NCTA convention in the spring of 1988. And right around then is when what Joe Collins described happened.
You mean the debate about what to do with this fiber innovation?
Yes, we talked about what path we were going to follow. One strategy was to get a bunch of patents and lock this technology up for ATC in a way that might give us an advantage over other cable companies. But by this time the franchise wars were winding down, and it wasn’t clear what that approach would really get us.
The other choice, and what I advocated, was publishing everything so that nobody else could patent it and block us. And I wanted to get the whole industry to embrace HFC, in order to get volumes up and prices down. That’s when I went on the road. I went to optics conventions and visited laser companies. I also spoke at cable gatherings, saying, "Here’s a way to build cable plant differently and more reliably. We can also carry a lot more channels. And we’ve been talking about data services and telephony for years; a system configured like this could actually do that!" Sidebar 3: Chiddix Today After leaving Time Warner’s Mystro TV unit, Chiddix spent three years as CEO and chairman of OpenTV, leading the 500-employee firm in a revenue growth phase from $63 million in 2003 to more than $100 million in 2006. "What that (experience) convinced me of was the value of middleware," he says.
Chiddix continues to serve as vice chairman of the OpenTV board.
He has additional affiliations with two other companies: vice chairman of the board of Vyyo and board member of Symmetricom. Both reflect his enduring enthusiasm and instincts for technology.
"I’ve never forgotten that the coax that cable already has in place is capable of going up to probably between 5 and 10 GHz," he says, regarding Vyyo’s expansion play. "Both on the T-1 modem and bandwidth expansion front, they’re well-positioned to do something useful for cable."
His association with Symmetricom evokes earlier days. "First of all, I find the technology fascinating," he says. "As an old ham radio operator, I think these atomic clock oscillators are wonderful machines."
Despite the obsolescence of synchronous optical network (SONET) and the rise of asynchronous networks, Chiddix believes the telcos’ move into video and cable’s shift into channel bonding and modular cable modem termination system (M-CMTS) architectures present an enduring play for timing requirements. "What’s more, Symmetricom has some interesting technology for video quality measurement," he says.