Title: Director of HFC Architecture, Cox
Broadband Background: Williams joined Cox in 1982, spending early years in various systems around the country. He played a key role in the deployment of Cox’s ring-in-ring fiber networks in the 1990s. In his current corporate role, he helps Cox define and refine its network architectures. At this year’s SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies, he received the Polaris Award. Sponsored by CommScope, this award recognizes exceptional work in the deployment of HFC networks for commercial applications. Williams is also the newly elected Region 9 Director on the SCTE board of directors.
Congrats on winning the Polaris Award at ET. How did you get into cable?
I joined Cox in 1982, but it really goes back. My grandfather was a big influence in my life. He loved radio and was fascinated with the transistor. He shared this love with me, so when it came time to decide upon a career, I knew it would be electrical engineering. I attended Southern Tech (in Marietta, GA). I had a good friend who also had attended Southern Tech and had recently joined Cox, and he was so excited. So when Cox came to campus to interview candidates, I sought them out. I was hired as an intern until I graduated and then started formally upon graduation.
So what was your role in Cox’s early deployment of fiber optics?
Cox’s first large scale fiber deployments, beginning in 1990, were done to divide long amplifier cascades in an effort to reduce the impact of outages to customers. Believe it or not, we inserted fiber receivers into trunk amplifiers and backed up the fiber with coax signal. Gradually, we learned to trust fiber and optical equipment exclusively, but fiber cut restorations were a real "fire drill" for everyone.
In 1995, Cox started the planning to offer residential telephone services, and a major concern was being as reliable as the local incumbent. One of the many network considerations was the exposure to fiber cuts. Actually it was Paul Workman, the guy who had interviewed me to come to Cox, who came up with the idea of routing fiber over diverse routes to each area. I was given the job of cost justifying the additional route mileage to convert our star networks to rings. We mapped out our fiber routes and would experiment with various construction routes in an effort to minimize the costs of closing the rings. To facilitate this process, we developed a tool within MapInfo that permits the fiber designer to do many "what ifs" very quickly to identify the lowest cost route.
How much of your work touches upon business services?
Business services over cable holds a special place in my heart. When I first joined Cox, I actually ran one of its business networks in Omaha called Commline. We offered a full line of business services such as high-speed data, DS-0, DS-1 to DS-3 telephone trunking, video conferencing, educational multimedia and telemedicine.
Although a technical success, after the divestiture of the telephone industry, these operations were dissolved. Later Cox invested in Fiber-Net, a fiber-based transport business. Cox’s understanding of the commercial business market, coupled with the fact that we were installing fiber deep into our networks, made it a natural consideration to add fiber capacity for business opportunities. Cox has always understood that serving the community means serving educational and governmental facilities, business districts, as well as our residential customers. When considering fiber routes, we identify business targets along the route and allocate business fibers that are based upon the telecom spend potential reported by Dun and Bradstreet and other databases.
Does the industry’s effort to serve businesses require more capacity?
Absolutely! The real money in business services is in larger and more symmetrical services. Many cable companies have only had the residential opportunity in their sights. As a result, they may avoid cabling the business district or have avoided making a bandwidth allocation for cable-based services or made no fiber allocation for the exclusive use of business.
Business services cannot be an afterthought. It must be included in the mix as you consider and build your network. Today, many operators are leveraging their residential data networks for business, but this falls short of the higher profit-margin services. To gain a business customer today, it is mostly about the distance of the network from coax or fiber resources. This is the reason we consider business locations when choosing fiber or coaxial routes: It lowers the threshold to gain a business customer.
Each new customer opportunity is examined for revenue vs. cost to serve, and a threshold for profitability is set. A small percentage of very high-capacity customers will justify almost any amount of connection costs, but the majority of medium capacity businesses are harder to justify if the network is too far away or adequate coaxial bandwidth is lacking. This brings up another issue: available coaxial bandwidth to add a business-exclusive service. Today we are seeing important new products from Narad Networks, Vyyo, Aurora Networks and others that create new bandwidth over the existing residential HFC network to offer higher-end business services.
What’s your view of Metro Ethernet?
I think the Metro Ethernet Forum is the result of so many entities offering "IP," but not all IP is the same. How do you quantify the quality of an IP service provider? I think this is an attempt to grade IP services and providers. You can look at it like a "Good Housekeeping" stamp of approval. Thanks to the work of (Cox Senior Network Engineer) Andy Redman, Cox has demonstrated MEF compliance in our metro networks.
Cable wasn’t entirely welcome in this club at first, was it?
No it wasn’t. When Cox offered business services in the early ’80s through its Commline networks, cable had the reputation of being not reliable for business services. We overcame this perception to such an extent that the Bell Company filed a cease and desist order with the Public Service Commission. Cable networks can be very reliable, but the operator must have reliability as a goal of design and operation. Again, the cable industry must provide the network that meets the minimum requirements of the highest service. Including commercial business services into the design and operation of the HFC network raises the bar, and all benefit and are successful.
What about Ethernet as a transport technology?
Due to the popularity of Ethernet equipment, Ethernet-based components are very inexpensive, and this lower cost is an incentive to move everything to Ethernet. Lower equipment costs can sometimes mean the difference between adding a marginal business customer or not. But today Ethernet does not answer all our service needs. We continue to use SONET, ATM and other specialized platforms that adhere to recognized and understood strict operational and performance standards. Services over these platforms are very predictable and are typically termed "carrier grade."
Internally, we are moving more and more services over Ethernet to take advantage of its lower costs, but we are careful to design and manage to the limitations of the equipment. I think the important thing is to have the right tool for the right job. When we eat, we are given a fork, a knife, a spoon, and so on, to be effective. You can’t eat soup with a knife, or at least you shouldn’t.
Is Ethernet being pushed beyond its capabilities?
In some cases, I agree. This is one driving force for creating some kind of grade for Ethernet services like the Metro Ethernet Forum. We have proven that Ethernet can do almost anything, but you can’t install it and forget it. You have to carefully manage utilization and priorities to ensure all services are performing properly.
What can you say about Cox’s Extendable Optical Network initiative?
E.O.N. is Cox’s brand name that encompasses all the capabilities of our HFC networks and service platforms. Behind the curtain of E.O.N., we are doing some ordinary, but also some extraordinary, things with our networks. It is the abiding belief that we have a "winning network" in that we can continue to expand, modify, grow and improve our network and service offerings as the lowest cost of any competing network.
Today, these consist of strategic bandwidth upgrades and many bandwidth management tools, but it also includes some strategic network and service changes that will position us to capitalize. I am being a little secretive, but this is Cox’s privilege, having been privatized. Some new elements of E.O.N. have been announced publicly, like the move to 3 GHz passives in all our new build networks, and, yes, we continue to build HFC networks because it remains the most capable and cost-effective network available today.
You were commended at ET for your use of GIS technologies. Could you elaborate?
Oh, my. If we don’t know our networks, how can we manage and leverage them most effectively? This has been the dream for as long as I can remember. This requires discipline, however, and an effective platform. Cox is committed to a new platform that uses the GE Smallworld engine with Cox custom applications written around it. We call it GNIS for Geographic Navigational Information System. It will house our fiber and coaxial network assets and ultimately manage the real-time bandwidth usage of our networks. We should be able to plan and budget for bandwidth expansion where it is required in advance of the need. GNIS will work in concert with Granite, a services platform asset management system. So from the back office to the HFC network to the equipment in homes or businesses, we will have the whole picture.
What about MapInfo?
MapInfo is a great geographical tool because it works with Excel and Microsoft Access and other databases and is so user friendly. Until GNIS is ready and populated, we will continue to use MapInfo. Actually, I can envision porting GNIS and Granite information into MapInfo, making it more available and usable to more people. By using MapInfo, a user can examine data in a way meaningful to them without having to put a request in a queue to someone to write a specialized report. Today, we use MapInfo to route fiber, mark node boundaries, franchise boundaries and identify business opportunities.
How do you bridge the gap between corporate and system level engineering?
This is a tough one. There are some things that should reside at a corporate level and some at the system level. I have served on both sides several times and can sympathize.
The markets need the flexibility and support of corporate to respond quickly and specifically to their markets. Corporate has the unique vantage point of seeing all the systems and opportunities for standardization in network design, material usage, and so on – basically all of the common items in use by all systems. I see corporate as an extended resource to the field. Our field personnel are truly facing the real customer, and if they can’t meet the needs of the customer with system resources, they should be able to go one deeper and call upon the corporate office.
This might be in the form of resources, equipment evaluation and selection, or project management. The people of corporate should not neglect to visit the field regularly to understand their issues. When they go out to dinner, they should wear their uniform for all to see, and they need to be proud of the company they represent and products they deliver. At corporate, you can lose that sense of urgency and presence. Corporate has an additional responsibility due to their vantage point, and that is strategically directing and positioning the entire company to remain effective and competitive.