Interview Date: November 26, 2018
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
In this interview, Greg Allshouse recaps his career in the cable industry, particularly in the expansion of physical networks as well as the buildouts of cable plant for numerous influential companies in the industry. He describes his first job as an installer technician, pole climber, as well as work on the head-end for a small system owned by TCI. He examines the details of how the technology worked, and the ever-present issue of power outages. He elaborates the vital role of power poles in telecommunications. He mentions the advent of satellite video and the need for companies to expand, as well as other major changes affecting the industry. Allshouse talks about the growth of channels and the necessity for cable converter boxes. He also explains how fiber optic transmission works, and how this revolution in cable architecture created a great advantage over traditional non-fiber technology. As the interview moves further into the era of fiber, Allshouse gets into the rollout of high speed data and introduces a description of a partnership with the Internet service provider, @Home, and how this created the need for different skillsets for cable technicians. He also talks about issues with the “return path.” He emphasizes his opinion that the seminal technology for the cable industry has been the capability for two-way communication with operators, and of course, the evolution and delivery of high speed data. At a point when video on demand had been introduced, Allshouse moved on to the finance side at AT&T Broadband, knowing how cable was a very investment intensive business. He goes on to say that Comcast took over, and he became a fleet and facilities manager for Western states, and how the practice of hooking up customers has changed. Next he covers his involvement with SCTE, including his induction into that organization’s Hall of Fame. He concludes with reflections on technology and the industry’s changing workforce.
STEWART SCHLEY: Greetings, and welcome to another iteration of the Cable Center’s Hauser oral history series. Today it is my privilege, I being Stewart Schley, to visit with an individual whose career has been synchronized with this dramatic period of expansion in the physical networks that deliver signals from point A to point B, and now back again. Greg Allshouse has worked for a number of the really influential and seminal companies in this industry. And has climbed poles, has I believe connected amplifiers, has kind of done it all in terms of buildouts of plant that really creates the fundamental capabilities of the cable industry. So Greg, it is a privilege to be with you, thanks for stopping by.
GREG ALLSHOUSE: Oh, thank you very much Stewart, I’m glad to be here.
SCHLEY: Now I want a true confession first, because I want to talk about your early career, and how it was derailed, how you got into the cable industry almost by accident. It has something to do with soda bottles.
ALLSHOUSE: When I first got out of high school, I went and worked for a company called Brockway Glass Company, based out of Brockway, Pennsylvania. And I was working in there, at the time, working in their research and lab, in their lab building. And along came a thing called the two-liter plastic pop bottle.
SCHLEY: Right. (laughter)
ALLSHOUSE: Originally the industry was going to have glass pop bottles in two-liter size. But through testing of, consumer testing with the public, the weight was just too heavy for them. So they went to the two-liter plastic bottle, which was the demise of what a lot of the glass people were looking at their expansion on.
SCHLEY: Of course.
ALLSHOUSE: And I was laid off.
SCHLEY: Then, how did cable television find you? We did call it cable television at the time.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes. Well, I was looking for a job that had some sort of stability to it. So I was looking to utilities. Never in that point in time had anyone been laid off from the phone company, the electric company, gas company. And along came the cable company. And I just happened to be in the right place at the right time in a little town called Clarion, Pennsylvania.
ALLSHOUSE: That they needed an employee, a field technician, and I applied for the job, and that started my career on December the 17th, 1979.
SCHLEY: Who was the company?
ALLSHOUSE: That was Center Video, at the time it was called Center Video, it was actually owned by TCI. Center Video was one of TCI’s first major acquisitions east of the Mississippi.
SCHLEY: OK. And TCI is short for Telecommunications Inc., was for a while the largest cable company in the United States. Or came to be the largest cable company —
ALLSHOUSE: That’s correct.
SCHLEY: — in the United States. What was your job?
ALLSHOUSE: I was, at that point in time, an installer technician. But we did it all. It was a three-person office.
ALLSHOUSE: Myself, another technician, and the office person, who, if she called in sick, we sat in the office and answered the phone until someone came in from 50 miles away to cover the office while we’d go out and work in the field.
SCHLEY: And then Greg, what was the work? What are you, this is, was this a new build system at the time?
ALLSHOUSE: No, this was an old, what was referred to as single-ended 12-channel cable system. You know, very basic, off-air, there was no satellite services at the time, there was nothing that was, you know, advanced services whatsoever.
ALLSHOUSE: It was video, off-air signals. Picking up local Pittsburgh off-air channels.
SCHLEY: Which was the heritage of the early cable industry.
SCHLEY: Obviously. What did you like about it? Like what was fun about that time and that job?
ALLSHOUSE: Oh it was every — the constant change, it was, I got to work outside. I’m, you know, and it was a very, it was an interesting time in the industry.
SCHLEY: Were you on the pole? Were you literally doing what we would call either make ready or new build work?
ALLSHOUSE: I did everything from the head end to the subscriber’s TV. It was our responsibility, take care of it. There was no specialized line of work for anybody. You did it all.
SCHLEY: So there are only a rarified group of individuals who have actually shimmied up a pole and connected an amplifier, or laid strand across. What was that experience like for you?
ALLSHOUSE: Terrifying. (laughter) OK? When I was being interviewed, the gentleman who was interviewing asked me a very pointed question. He asked me if I was scared of heights. To which, when you’re on unemployment, you’ll say absolutely not, no problem with heights whatsoever.
SCHLEY: And you did.
ALLSHOUSE: I couldn’t get up on a stepladder. So some time passed, and I climbed poles, and I got over my fear, and we came upon, we were building a tower at our new head end site in Clarion, as we had rebuilt the system, we were building a, doing some work up on the tower, me and this other gentleman. And I was above him, I had my safety belt strapped around a two-inch piece of pipe, up on the single mast up there. I’m standing up, with one foot on a muffler clamp, and he’s kind of balancing me from behind, and I looked down at him, and I said, “Ben, I want to tell you something.” And he said, “What’s that?” I said, “I lied in my interview.” He said, “What do you mean, you lied in your interview?” And I said, “I was scared to death of heights when I started this job.”
ALLSHOUSE: And I, so that was, I got over it.
SCHLEY: You did get over it though?
ALLSHOUSE: I did get over it, yes.
SCHLEY: OK. I thought you were going to tell me you took a terrible fall in that situation.
ALLSHOUSE: No. No.
SCHLEY: Oh my gosh.
ALLSHOUSE: But I got over it, it took a little bit of time, but like I said, when you’re looking to start out in a career and make it your career —
SCHLEY: You go, “Can do, boss.”
ALLSHOUSE: I can do, yes. (laughter) My first day on the job, this one — my first day on the job, we were going to go, and we were going to hook up, run some cable, actually do some construction work, and run some cable. And my boss, who was the gentleman who hired me, and I was working with, was up a ladder, and was getting ready to take the lasher down off. And one of the other gentleman, who was actually the system manager, was there assisting us that morning. And Ben, who was my coworker, the ladder slides off, and he’s hanging up there, feet dangling, arms out, ladder —
SCHLEY: This is a ladder on a pole? Connected to a pole?
ALLSHOUSE: This was out on mid-span, out on the strand, and feet hanging, arms dangling, and the gentleman looked, the system manager looked at me and said, “Well what do you think of your first day on the job, and do you still want to work here?” I said, “Let’s get him down first, and then –”
SCHLEY: OK, then we’ll talk?
ALLSHOUSE: “Then we’ll talk.” (laughter)
SCHLEY: And he got down, Ben got down safely?
ALLSHOUSE: Ben got down.
SCHLEY: Oh I couldn’t do it. Because not only do you have to climb, but you’re up there, and you’re, you got signal meters and you got instruments, and you’re doing stuff.
ALLSHOUSE: Yeah, you’re doing stuff. Yes.
SCHLEY: It doesn’t sound very fun. But you know, this is why it’s not a business for the faint-hearted, you know?
SCHLEY: This is why it’s hard to replicate a telecommunications network in this country, right?
ALLSHOUSE: True. True.
SCHLEY: Literally a jack of all trades kind of a job. How did cable work then? What was the sort of premise of the technology? How did you get a television signal to a home?
ALLSHOUSE: Basically, you started at the antenna site. It would go in there and be processed. And then shipped out just over co-ax, there was no fiber optics at the time or anything like that. Through different amplifiers, and out to the subscribers’ homes, where it was tapped off, and ran into their house.
SCHLEY: What kinds of things would go wrong? What, in terms of troubleshooting, or maintenance, what did you encounter, or run into?
ALLSHOUSE: Probably the two biggest ones were, which is somewhat still prevalent today, is power outages. Nowadays, we have the standby power supplies to keep the plant up, but back in those days, you didn’t have that, so when the power went off, you lost service. The other thing that was prevalent, being in a colder climate, in the wintertime, they had what they called suck outs. Which was —
SCHLEY: I’ve heard the term, right.
ALLSHOUSE: Which is co-ax cable is made up of a center conductor, which is typically either solid copper back in those days, or copper-clad now, and a dielectric, and then a copper sheath over top of it. Or the aluminum sheath over top of it. The aluminum sheath and the copper contracted at a different temperature coefficient.
SCHLEY: Oh my goodness. All right.
ALLSHOUSE: So, the center conductor, when it got colder, contracted faster, and would actually suck out of the connector that it was connected to.
SCHLEY: I never knew what the term meant. I thought it was some sophisticated electronics malady, you know?
ALLSHOUSE: No. In the original days, that’s what a suck out meant. Not to be confused with a frequency suck out, which was where actually, a portion of the band is, drops out. But that, a literal physical suck out is when it would suck back out of the connector, and not make physical connection.
SCHLEY: But from suck outs and other troubleshooting requirements, you learned literally hand to hand how this business worked, right? And how the technology worked.
ALLSHOUSE: Oh absolutely.
SCHLEY: Were you an engineering kid, or what got you into this world of technology?
ALLSHOUSE: I started out as — went to high school, and actually went to a vocational technical school, and my last three years of high school was electronics.
SCHLEY: It’s interesting that you say you were looking for a stable job, you talked about utilities never doing layoffs. But cable was a little bit riskier at the time, wasn’t it?
ALLSHOUSE: It was, it was. But the other companies didn’t call, and —
SCHLEY: OK. So there you were.
ALLSHOUSE: — so there I was. And when you’re unemployed and needing to put food on the table. (laughter)
SCHLEY: Understand. Been there. Then what, talk about the, kind of your career progression, and what you became involved in, in terms of kind of advancing the cause for the companies you worked for?
ALLSHOUSE: Well, I started out, when we first started in my first system, the — we were at the very beginning edge of technology explosion within the industry. And our system there was, as I said, just an old 12-channel system, we were looking to upgrade it, and increase the number of channels that were able to be carried on that system. So my first job there was to actually go out and help put a, or physically measure the distance between all the poles, and count off the number of subscribers that would be fed off of that pole, so that they could go out and then do a system design for the new system.
SCHLEY: Right. OK.
ALLSHOUSE: And we got that done, and started to rebuild the system, and in a rebuild, you actually go out and physically put up new strand, new cables, and you actually then try and maintain the existing system, and the customers served off of it, while you’re rebuilding that plant.
SCHLEY: Strand is the —
ALLSHOUSE: Steel messenger cable.
SCHLEY: — tightly wound that holds, that attaches to the actual transmission cable?
SCHLEY: OK. This sounds like a nerdy, odd question, but how far apart were the utility poles, generally? Or how far apart are utility poles, generally?
ALLSHOUSE: Depending, 125 to probably 200 feet, on average.
SCHLEY: I want to ask you, because it’s not well appreciated that utility poles are the underpinning for the entire telecommunications firmament in the United States. And there’s only so much room on them. So what, how did you get your space, and how did you figure out that yes, you have the right to use this pole, and yes, it can help us build our cable system?
ALLSHOUSE: You’d go out and actually do a, we would, as I said, measure distances between pole to pole. Poles have unique markings on them, unique numbering systems, depending upon whether it’s an electric pole, or a telephone pole. Between the different electric and telephone companies, they’d also have pole use agreements, which the cable companies have to go and get. And depending upon what company you were with was depending upon who you went to, to make application to say we want to be on these poles. So in our particular case, if the telephone company was on the pole, we would apply to Bell Atlantic at the time. If it was electric company only, then we would apply just to the electric company.
SCHLEY: And how forthcoming were your pole providers when you made these applications?
ALLSHOUSE: At that point in time, they were pretty forthcoming.
ALLSHOUSE: And they worked with us.
SCHLEY: OK. But there is a physical limitation, right, to how much space — and you have to have a certain amount of separation?
ALLSHOUSE: Correct. And if that case, then you would go out and after the measurements, the electric company or phone company would come out and take a look at them, determine that there were the right clearances there, and if there needed to be a change, then they would provide the cable company with what they called a make ready cost. Either raise their plant, lower their plant, put in a new pole if it wasn’t tall enough, etc., to make those —
SCHLEY: To literally create clearance?
ALLSHOUSE: To literally create that clearance needed.
SCHLEY: Why was there a need to expand from 12 channels in the first place, in Clarion and elsewhere?
ALLSHOUSE: The thing called satellite video.
SCHLEY: Satellite video, satellite television.
ALLSHOUSE: Satellite video.
SCHLEY: Yes. Ushered in the age of HBO, of —
ALLSHOUSE: Showtime, MTV, all those things, yes.
SCHLEY: OK. So you started to see consumer demand for these channels, but your system needs to grow to accommodate them?
SCHLEY: And then where did your path take you from Clarion, after that?
ALLSHOUSE: I moved to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I was the only cable person living in Gettysburg to take care of that system for —
SCHLEY: Was it TCI also?
ALLSHOUSE: It was TCI also. Owned by, at that point in time, they weren’t going by just TCI, they always went by a different moniker, and then a TCI company underneath it. At that point in time, I worked for West Shore Cable TV.
SCHLEY: OK. Owned by, ultimately owned by TCI.
ALLSHOUSE: Ultimately owned by TCI.
SCHLEY: Was that, then were we — when was this, first of all?
ALLSHOUSE: That would have been 1981.
SCHLEY: So, we’re now entering this era of expansion, or you’re in this era of expansion, to what? What was the new standard for capacity?
ALLSHOUSE: At that point in time, that was about 400 megahertz, which got you about another dozen channels or so above 300.
SCHLEY: OK. And here’s an explanatory question you can help us with. When people talked about expanding the capacity of a cable system, you weren’t thickening the cable, you weren’t magically waving a wand, what did you do to create more channel space on a cable system? End to end.
ALLSHOUSE: Basically, you’d have to change out the amplifiers and the tap units in them to pass the higher frequency, which by doing that, ultimately it created–. You needed to have a new system design, which meant that the amplifier spacing, the distance, which by what I mean by that is the actual physical distance between two amplifiers would have to be shortened. The higher in frequency, the closer they had to be together. Or the higher output gain they had to be to get you that further distance.
SCHLEY: OK. Because the characteristics associated with higher frequencies meant that literally, the signal would need to be re-boosted as you —
SCHLEY: — more frequently?
ALLSHOUSE: More frequently.
SCHLEY: — went down the pipe. So Greg, explain to us, when you boosted the frequency range and hence, the channel capacity of a cable system, you were getting to what sort of megahertz capacity? And what did that yield in terms of channels?
ALLSHOUSE: Well the, in Gettysburg at the time, we were building that system to 400 megahertz, it got us about 58 forward channels.
SCHLEY: OK. OK.
SCHLEY: So that’s a big expansion in capacity. Did you fill all the channels? Did the industry fill the channels?
SCHLEY: Not right away?
ALLSHOUSE: No, to go back to the days in Clarion when we built that out to a 36-channel system at 300 megahertz, we never, we thought back in those days, we’d never fill it. Never fill 300 megahertz, we put shared channels– at that point in time, even satellite channels shared transponders.
ALLSHOUSE: There was a shopping channel, C-SPAN, and I believe it was USA, all shared a transponder at different time slots —
SCHLEY: On the satellite? Yeah.
ALLSHOUSE: — on the satellite at different time slots throughout the day.
SCHLEY: I mean it’s pointing out the obvious, but that seems amazing and ironic today, right? To talk about the fact that you didn’t think you could fill 30-some channel slots.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes, absolutely.
SCHLEY: But to complete the loop, you talked about the amplification and the taps and passive devices. What happened in the home in order to literally tune into a bunch of channels you couldn’t previous receive?
ALLSHOUSE: Well back in those days, most TVs were still only capable of receiving 12 channels in the VHF range. So thus brought on the cable converter.
SCHLEY: OK. Which was a box.
ALLSHOUSE: — that sat on top of the TV, that would be specified to get you the number of channels that you would put in. And it was actually a new tuner that you would put on top of the TV, that would take you from those 36 channels, or 56 channels, whatever the number might be, and convert that down to a single channel that the TVs would receive.
SCHLEY: It would feed into channel three or whatever.
ALLSHOUSE: Channel three, channel four, depending upon what you were looking at.
SCHLEY: I think back on it, and there were all kinds of converter makers. There must have been almost, Tocom, Oak, the predecessor of General Instruments. You know, a lot of different companies out there.
ALLSHOUSE: Absolutely, absolutely.
SCHLEY: You know. Did you have a sense during that time that you were kind of onto something important? Just in terms of stepping back, and we were in this transition from three or four broadcast channels to 12 cable delivery channels, and now you’re inviting all these new satellite video services into the home, right?
ALLSHOUSE: Yeah, it was amazing, we were in such an era of change, and this has — and that was just in the video world.
ALLSHOUSE: Let alone, we hadn’t even hit on high-speed data, voice —
SCHLEY: No, this was one-way television.
ALLSHOUSE: This was one-way television. And it was just absolutely amazing that every time that we would rebuild a system, something new would come out. I never went through a rebuild that had the same frequency specification on it when I rebuilt it than what the one prior was. You know, 300 megahertz, 400, 450, 550, all the way up to what we’re running now in 1 gig RF plants.
SCHLEY: It never stopped, right? The building never stopped.
ALLSHOUSE: No. No.
SCHLEY: You’d finish a cycle, and then you’d take a weekend off, (laughter) and then start again it seems like.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes. Yeah, absolutely.
SCHLEY: Where did you go from Gettysburg?
ALLSHOUSE: I actually went back to Clarion. Through TCI’s mega-purchasing back in the day, they had acquired more systems around the Clarion area, and they were looking for a chief tech back there.
ALLSHOUSE: So I moved back to Clarion from Gettysburg to be the chief tech.
SCHLEY: Were your pole climbing days done by this point? Or were you still up there from time to time?
ALLSHOUSE: No, I was still up there from time to time.
SCHLEY: (laughter) OK. And then, you know, the industry began to spawn a lot of big companies, and the very beginnings of consolidation, right? Because TCI was buying up, in Pennsylvania in particular, you had a lot of independent cable companies.
SCHLEY: I don’t know if you can call them mom and pops, but a lot of solo market companies.
SCHLEY: You experienced that. And the changing makeup of the industry, right?
ALLSHOUSE: Yeah, it was just, you know, it was, you know, it was — continues to this day, but consolidation was really the key back there. You know, the more you had, the more profitable you were, the less overhead they had.
SCHLEY: And then, was the idea strategically– I know you couldn’t always pull it off, but was the idea to cluster, you know, to sort of regionalize and gain some efficiencies from that?
ALLSHOUSE: Oh absolutely.
ALLSHOUSE: Absolutely. I mean they, to buy systems that were your next-door neighbors, or close to you, that you could tie in with the advent of fiber, really brought that into being.
SCHLEY: Well that’s what I wanted to kind of segue toward. And I, you have to correct me on the dates here. But maybe mid to later 1980s, was that the fiber genesis?
ALLSHOUSE: Yes, that was when we started to really roll fiber out, that we could make — and at that point in time, that was used to cut down on microwave paths. It became more efficient to broaden, to tie systems together with the fiber than it did with microwave.
SCHLEY: So it’s an important point, I think, is that, can you just explain the topology or the architecture of a system pre-fiber, and then post-fiber? What changed?
ALLSHOUSE: In an actual physical plant, we would cut down on the number of amplifier cascades, which would allow you for better numbers for tests, for distortion and things like that. You didn’t run into as much picture degradation by using it within the plant.
SCHLEY: Because every amplifier, the greatest amplifier still introduces a small amount of —
ALLSHOUSE: A little bit of noise.
SCHLEY: — noise. OK.
SCHLEY: And if you think about it, so fiber really bypassed a number of those cascades, as you call them?
SCHLEY: Of amplifiers? OK.
SCHLEY: And brought the signal deeper into the network?
SCHLEY: When was your first exposure to fiber optic transmission for video, for cable?
ALLSHOUSE: It would have been the later ’80s. We actually used it to feed, to do a head end elimination on a system that we were upgrading. They were two standalone systems that we actually ran fiber between the two of them, so that we could —
SCHLEY: Connect them?
ALLSHOUSE: — connect them and do away with one of, with a head end.
SCHLEY: How long could a fiber stretch like that be? I don’t think I should call it a fiber trunk, but whatever you call that piece of the puzzle? Miles?
ALLSHOUSE: Miles. we — our, that particular run was about a 20-mile run to get from the head end, to get to the farthest extremity within that system.
SCHLEY: What lightbulb went off for you with regard to fiber? What did it help you conceive that would be different, or even kind of revolutionary at the time?
ALLSHOUSE: Probably just the cascade reduction was the wow, we don’t need to have –. You know, the other thing that cascade reduction did was, it minimized your outages. Because in a typical, just co-ax ran plant, if something happens on the first amplifier out of the head end, the whole system was down.
ALLSHOUSE: If you stretched fiber out there farther, you could bypass a whole lot of customers being affected by an outage —
SCHLEY: That makes sense, right.
ALLSHOUSE: Because the fiber was transmitting that signal out there, and as I said earlier, the power outages, you were more pocketing your, anything you might have from a power outage.
SCHLEY: So it was game changing, right?
SCHLEY: I mean in terms of the industry and the way it worked.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes, it was.
SCHLEY: And then fiber eventually, I don’t want to skip too far ahead, but it would also eventually serve as the underpinning for a whole new way of distributing signals into kind of a more nodal environment?
SCHLEY: Can you kind of just riff through that a little bit?
ALLSHOUSE: Yes, what that does is as they built out, they more pocketed the size of the service areas that a node would cover down to whether it be the number of boxes that were carried on it, the number of homes passed.
SCHLEY: Homes. Right.
ALLSHOUSE: The number of customers in it, all those things take into that. And nowadays, they even look at it, OK, what’s the bandwidth, how much of my bandwidth am I using, or the returns and things through high-speed, for high-speed data, and for phone traffic.
SCHLEY: It’s interesting to me Greg, I don’t know if you buy into this, but fiber wasn’t originally put in place to yield the broadband two-way revolution.
SCHLEY: It was put in place to better the service experience, right? Is that fair?
ALLSHOUSE: That is, that’s spot on.
SCHLEY: And it so happened that it ultimately created this revolution in what you could do.
SCHLEY: Does this analogy make sense, that with fiber, you sort of almost created a lot of miniature cable systems out in the serving area? Is that, that’s a way to look at it?
ALLSHOUSE: Yes, that’s a very good way to look at it.
SCHLEY: OK. And then just again, why was that important? Well let me ask you this. How many homes, for instance, might you serve from a fiber node, as you call it? Or a connected node?
ALLSHOUSE: Well back in the days when I was out in the field, which we were looking at, you know, 500 homes-passed nodes.
SCHLEY: Yeah. And I mean, but think about that, you’re going from thousands, or tens of thousands of homes served by a common distribution architecture to hundreds.
ALLSHOUSE: Correct. Down to hundreds.
SCHLEY: And I’m taking you off your own career progression, but it’s really important, I think, to express how this revolution in cable architecture took place. And then where were you when this fiber evolution was occurring? What happened in your career path?
ALLSHOUSE: Well, as I said, I was chief tech when we rolled out our first fiber deployment to do some head end eliminations.
ALLSHOUSE: In the early to mid-’90s, I became the area tech manager for TCI Central Pennsylvania Systems, based out of State College, Pennsylvania. And we, here again, as we said, cut down on the number of nodes, started to put it more as a pocketized architecture, through nodes and cutting down on amplifier cascades. And then just to continue to build out the network, and serve, you know, tie systems together.
SCHLEY: So there’s a lot of activity going on with fiber construction. Did it change what you looked for in an employee, in a technology, from a management perspective?
ALLSHOUSE: It did, because you needed someone who was a little more technical savvy. You needed somebody who had some background in a broader electronics base.
SCHLEY: And even the craftsmanship had to change, right? You’re not just twisting F connectors anymore.
SCHLEY: I don’t want to, you know, minimize the importance of twisting F connectors, but…
ALLSHOUSE: No. But you had to, you really did, because the fine mobile, mobility of being able to work with small things really changed.
SCHLEY: I’ve always wondered this, because I’ve never been a chief tech for a cable company, but were you out in vans with splicing gear? Or how did you actually connect fiber to where it needed to connect to?
ALLSHOUSE: Yeah, absolutely. You had vans or trailers that you would take out into the field, and put two ends of the fiber in it, splice it together, fusion splice it together, and yeah.
SCHLEY: OK. It’s kind of an underappreciated art, I think, of the fiber revolution. What, when was — this is the, “Where were you when” question. When we began to consider, as an industry, the delivery of high-speed internet, where were you? And do you remember those moments or days?
ALLSHOUSE: Oh absolutely.
SCHLEY: Tell me about that.
ALLSHOUSE: I was tech ops manager, area tech ops manager in State College, and we were rolling out a product called @Home.
SCHLEY: Sure. Yeah.
ALLSHOUSE: And being a large university town, in State College, a lot of users there, and they thought there was going to be a, it would be a great place to launch.
SCHLEY: Great market for high-speed internet.
ALLSHOUSE: A great market.
SCHLEY: Just explain @Home, and what it was. What purpose and role it served for operators all around the country?
ALLSHOUSE: Oh, well @Home was a high-speed internet service provider. They were the ones, they were a third-party who actually provided the connectivity to the backbone, to the internet backbone for us at that point in time. And they would bring their equipment into our head end and hook it up. And then we would go out and hook that up, hook the cable up, or the modems up, to our customers.
SCHLEY: Their equipment would have been the equivalent of a modern day CMTS [cable modem termination system]?
SCHLEY: And so you literally connected to the public internet. Do you remember the first time you used a cable delivered high-speed internet service, just in your own life, or in your personal experience?
ALLSHOUSE: Yes. We actually showcased it at a governors’ conference. United States governors’ conference that was being held at State College. And between us and a company called C-COR, the cable amplifier manufacturing company out of Pennsylvania.
SCHLEY: Yeah, right.
ALLSHOUSE: We actually showcased high-speed data there on our plant at the time for the governors’ conference. And that was one of the first places I had actually seen it work.
SCHLEY: What was it like just from the viewpoint of a consumer, to make that transition from the shrieking handshake of the old whatever, 24 baud modem, to this thing that’s now always present? Always on, right?
ALLSHOUSE: It was amazing. It was absolutely amazing. Just the speed of stuff. I mean, from — I mean from even an office standpoint of doing stuff, I remember when we were first doing some budgets years ago, and we were doing it on a dialup modem.
SCHLEY: Oh my gosh, right. And these aren’t huge files but —
ALLSHOUSE: These aren’t huge files, and you were connected to a server, and I remember we always joked that you said it was press a key, go get a cup of coffee, come back, and press the next key. (laughter)
SCHLEY: I remember. Right. And @Home also delivered sort of a content experience. I think they had some influence over what appeared on the screen, or the organization of data.
ALLSHOUSE: They did, they were almost trying to mirror an AOL type experience.
SCHLEY: That’s it. Right.
ALLSHOUSE: Where they gave you sort of a cloud, or a garden walled experience to the public internet.
SCHLEY: It was really well designed, it was beautifully, graphically beautiful stuff.
SCHLEY: @Home, the investor base included your company at the time, TCI, that consortium of cable companies, and it ended up being short-lived, but it was a really revolutionary concept. I think at the time.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes, it was.
SCHLEY: What did you have to do from a technicians’, or a technical perspective? How did that change the game for engineers and technicians in the cable industry, the movement to broadband internet?
ALLSHOUSE: Oh it was, for us it was really amazing, because the skillsets you had to look at for someone to work in that area of the plant was just absolutely, you know, it changed. Because we talked about, you know, just putting an F connector on. Well back in those days, most cable, or most PCs did not have a LAN connection in them or anything. So we were literally, had to open up computer cases, and insert a network interface card in it to hook it up to the cable modem.
SCHLEY: I did not know that. OK.
ALLSHOUSE: So the class of technician that we were looking for was, almost had to be a computer-based technician.
SCHLEY: Like an IT background.
ALLSHOUSE: Like an IT type background person.
SCHLEY: And then over time, the interfaces and the plug-ins began to be standardized, such that you could do this without unscrewing somebody’s computer cabinet.
ALLSHOUSE: Yeah, absolutely. But —
SCHLEY: What I always wondered Greg, was it possible to even conceive of the world that would come to be, because of broadband internet at the time? I mean it was, people were doing what? They were doing email, they were doing web browsing? Pretty basic stuff.
ALLSHOUSE: That was — pretty basic stuff, yes.
SCHLEY: But there was still demand for this better way?
ALLSHOUSE: Yeah. Speed has always been king.
SCHLEY: Right, right. And so you saw, from a consumer standpoint, the uptake, it was strong, and the market developed?
ALLSHOUSE: Yes. Yes.
SCHLEY: OK. Was it surprising, or did you sort of intuit that this would be a hot product?
ALLSHOUSE: No, no. It was, you know, for the more — what really surprised me was when it took off in the rural markets. You know, larger metropolitan areas or large-scale college towns where you figured. But when it really kicked off in the rural market was what surprised me.
SCHLEY: And you had rural customers, right?
SCHLEY: In your operation? The other consideration from the technical standpoint, I know that the industry had to really work hard on the return path, because now the signals were emanating back into the network from the home. What were some of the considerations about return path that were tricky?
ALLSHOUSE: Oh, it was, you know, besides the ingress into the return path from things like people’s hairdryers and —
SCHLEY: This is introducing noise into the —
ALLSHOUSE: — noise back into the system. But one of the things that really surprised me, return path had been around, high-speed data was not the first that we had used the return path. The return path was used very early on, but one of the things for me was that the return path was a way that our customers could communicate to us. Because they could –
SCHLEY: I did not know that.
ALLSHOUSE: They could buy pay-per-view.
SCHLEY: Oh of course, right.
ALLSHOUSE: Through the box, through the two-way box.
SCHLEY: Which had to admit the signal back to —
ALLSHOUSE: Which had to admit the signal back to the head end. The Warner systems, the Qube systems that Warner Cable put out relied heavily on the return path.
SCHLEY: And this was pre-fiber, this was —
ALLSHOUSE: And this was pre-fiber.
SCHLEY: How did they get it to work? How did the industry get it to work, pre-fiber? I mean what was going on there?
ALLSHOUSE: A lot of headaches, and a lot of making sure that you’re, you know, that your plant was tight and maintained.
ALLSHOUSE: Those types of things, I mean I remember people telling me about the Qube system in Pittsburgh. They could have polling on there, they actually had small claims court on there where the cable subscribers were the jury. And you know, different, just different things where they could sit there and talk back, and actually interact with the cable operator.
SCHLEY: Way ahead of its time.
ALLSHOUSE: Way ahead of its time, yes.
SCHLEY: Right, with what they had done. How did you solve those issues of the hairdryer introducing noise, and what happened to — what did you have to do to clean up the path, if you will?
ALLSHOUSE: It was, a lot of hair pulling out. It was a lot of tedious work where some of it was just a block and tackle, say where is this coming in from? Where are we seeing it?
SCHLEY: Were they actual poor connections sometimes?
ALLSHOUSE: Poor connections, poor wire, because back at those times, you know, the drop cable into the house wasn’t up to current standards. So a lot of replacement of drop cables in the homes, and that kind of stuff.
SCHLEY: OK. I guess I should have introduced earlier, just to finish up the discussion about the fiber introduction, you still were, and still are, using a coaxial distribution network generally for the last path to the home.
SCHLEY: You go to that, fiber goes to that node, from there you’re using the — which was sort of the beauty of the economics of cable was you had a lot of embedded plant, you could still, you know, modernize.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes, absolutely.
SCHLEY: But over time, you did sort of solve the return path, and it works today, right?
SCHLEY: It works amazing. I think the cable industry has two thirds of the market for U.S. residential broadband. So —
SCHLEY: — good work.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes. (laughter) Well thank you.
SCHLEY: What else have you seen that you would regard as a seminal technology that kind of changed the world? We talked about broadband, and we talked about one-way video.
ALLSHOUSE: Actually for me, probably it was the two-way cable plant, because that’s truly what, where we could start having our customers communicate back to the operator. And high-speed data, you know, a lot of people say high-speed data was the seminal point.
ALLSHOUSE: I think it goes back beyond that to the two-way plant, where we were talking — where our customers were communicating with us before that.
SCHLEY: And it even, if you think about it, video on demand is so taken for granted today, whether it’s from a digital, over-the-top, YouTube sort of application, or ordering a movie from your employer at home. But that too is enabled by the two-way capability.
SCHLEY: Were you involved in the implementations of video on demand early on in the cycle, the life cycle of that?
ALLSHOUSE: Actually no, I wasn’t. I had made a career change just as video on demand was coming in.
SCHLEY: What did you do, and what led you to do the pivot?
ALLSHOUSE: As systems consolidated, and times changed, TCI actually, or AT&T Broadband at the time —
SCHLEY: Oh, that’s right.
ALLSHOUSE: — was divesting some cable systems. And they were divesting my, the systems that I was area tech ops manager over. And I’ve always had this knack of being in the right place at the right time, so I transitioned into a totally different role at that time. And I moved into the finance world within cable.
SCHLEY: Did you have that skill set prior? Or did you learn it over time, or?
ALLSHOUSE: I learned it over time. And it was interesting. I had done a lot of — I went to AT&T Broadband in Pittsburgh as their capital manager for that region.
SCHLEY: No kidding! OK.
ALLSHOUSE: And I had used some of the tools that they used prior to that as being the area tech ops manager, and having to create some reports and find things out, and track capital. I just took that skill set, and when I moved over into finance, the CFO at the time that hired me says, I can teach you accounting principles. I can’t teach you what you already know, technically, and to speak the language of the engineering team.
SCHLEY: In a way, it was easier to graft the finance skills onto the body of knowledge you already had.
ALLSHOUSE: Yeah, that when I learned GAAP has two A’s, and not one. (laughter)
SCHLEY: Oh, OK, I’ve got to stop you there, because you’re going to go out of my area of expertise. But talk about capital. You know, the building, running, operating a cable system. One executive, I think it was David Van Valkenburg from a long time ago, he said to me, you know, “Cable just consumes capital.” It’s a very investment-intensive business
ALLSHOUSE: It’s a very investment-intense —
SCHLEY: Why is that, fundamentally?
ALLSHOUSE: Back in those days, when I moved into it, we were just launching high-speed internet. We were upgrading for the video on demand, we were upgrading for high-speed data, all those capital expenditures for the new amplifiers, the fiber being put out, that was very capital-intensive at that time.
SCHLEY: Because it’s not just equipment, although I know the equipment is formidable, but there’s a ton of labor expense there, right?
ALLSHOUSE: Absolutely. You know, the labor for people to go out and do that work, and also then just to go out and install the product in the customer’s home.
SCHLEY: What else did you learn about sort of the financial or the capital formation, or the budgetary aspects of cable that was revelatory to you in that role?
ALLSHOUSE: That, it was probably that it was pretty universal, I would say, that no matter what area of the country you were working in, you were all seeing the same capital expenses go out. Made some great friends to this day from the finance world, from the capital side of accounting, that I still communicate with to this day.
SCHLEY: And Greg, clarify. This was with — what company was this —
ALLSHOUSE: This was with AT&T Broadband.
SCHLEY: Which, if my lineage is correct, later morphed into Comcast, is that correct?
ALLSHOUSE: AT&T Broadband was bought by Comcast.
SCHLEY: You mentioned some mentorship, and some people who kind of guided you on the way. Could you single out a couple people who had, you know, inordinate influence on your career and your path in this industry?
ALLSHOUSE: Yeah. The first name I’m going to mention is a gentleman by the name of Joe Aman. Joe was the, at the time, was the area system manager for the systems I worked in when I started in 1979. Based out of State College. Great guy —
SCHLEY: He hired you?
ALLSHOUSE: No, he did not.
SCHLEY: He did not hire you.
ALLSHOUSE: Actually, he did not hire me. But he taught me over the years the importance of networking. The importance of networking. Joe was connected, and taught me the importance of that.
SCHLEY: Interesting. Yeah.
ALLSHOUSE: The gentleman who created the position, the opening that I actually got, was a gentleman by the name of Chuck Horner. Chuck actually moved because TCI had bought another cable operation, and they asked Chuck to move to be the general manager over there. And Chuck taught me, over the years, Chuck was my boss, later on when I was the area tech ops manager in State College, Chuck was my boss. And Chuck taught me the value of taking care of the customer. He taught me the customer service piece of it. And also then, including your employees, and taking care of your employees.
SCHLEY: Did those learnings, networking, the value of networking, the value of attention to customer care, ultimately find their way into budgets? I mean, were they influential in how you allocated capital and resources?
ALLSHOUSE: In a way, yes. Because you had to take, you’ve got to take care of your external customer, you know, they’re the ones who actually pay your bills. And you have to take care of your internal customers, because they’re the ones who take care of the external customers, you’ve got to take care of them as well.
SCHLEY: So Greg, fast forward us. What is your role today? And I want to talk a little bit about your forward view of the cable industry. What, just kind of give us a level set.
ALLSHOUSE: Currently I’m the fleet and facilities manager for what’s known as the Mountain West Region of Comcast, based out of Denver. I handle fleet and facilities out here for over, cover four states.
SCHLEY: OK. Mountain West.
ALLSHOUSE: Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.
SCHLEY: So you’re responsible for a territory that would have been a big cable company back in the day.
ALLSHOUSE: Absolutely, yes. (laughter)
SCHLEY: What’s going on in the logistics and the fleet and facilities operational world that’s interesting, or sort of novel today?
ALLSHOUSE: Nothing’s ever the same. We’re looking at how to be a little greener in those spaces. Not only from the facilities side. How we can have an environmental impact, even down to changing lightbulbs out to LED versus the old fluorescent lights that are in there.
ALLSHOUSE: Just looking at how we can, you know, be more socially conscious.
SCHLEY: What has happened with regard to the manner in which technicians who are out there in their vans with their gear are scheduled, and assigned, and kind of know what’s next? I always thought that was an art, you know?
ALLSHOUSE: Yes. And that is truly one of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the years. It used to be every day, technicians showed up at the shop, picked up their orders —
SCHLEY: They had like a list, a printed list?
ALLSHOUSE: They had a list and took off, and to do their work. Now they’re home dispatched, start the day out in the field at their first job, come into the office a lot less often for meetings. So they’re becoming a lot more efficient that way.
SCHLEY: Even like the physical routes they take, and the territories they will cover in a single, in a given day?
ALLSHOUSE: Yes. More dispatched by person than automatically, because they’ll look and say, see what the jobs are for the day. And they say OK, Greg’s at, you know, 123 Main Street, well his next job’s down at 250 Main Street. So he’s not driving a lot farther. They’re trying to be more conscious in how they route their employee, or route the technicians.
SCHLEY: One allusion you made earlier that was really interesting was when you talked about the early days of high-speed internet connectivity, and doing some pretty elaborate installations in the home, those used to take — they could take half a day, right? Or the better part of a day?
ALLSHOUSE: The allotted time was four hours to do an install.
SCHLEY: Was it really?
SCHLEY: Where are we today? If I ordered cable modem service today from Comcast, and I’m a newbie customer, what can I expect?
ALLSHOUSE: Depending upon what you order, and the number, here again, depending upon number of outlets, and all those good kind of things.
SCHLEY: That’s true, it’s not just a computer on a desk anymore.
ALLSHOUSE: It’s not just a computer on a desk. But, you know, probably, we’re in the two-hour timeframe typically. For a complete run into the house.
SCHLEY: You’ve seen the evolution, and you were inducted or invited into the SCTE Hall of Fame just this past, earlier this fall, right?
SCHLEY: And congratulations —
ALLSHOUSE: Oh, thank you.
SCHLEY: — congratulations on that. What does that signify? I mean why does it matter, and what sort of sentiments do you have about that?
ALLSHOUSE: The Hall of Fame inductees are inducted after a review of their contributions to the industry, as well as the SCTE as a whole. I’ve been regional director of Region 11 for a couple of years, I’ve served as the national treasurer for the SCTE, as well as served on the SCTE Foundation board. And these were all things I did post coming out of the technical world. I did that when I was in finance and facilities. It’s just been a passion for me to make sure that we, our technicians are trained, and have the information there to better themselves in their job.
SCHLEY: It’s interesting, because it traces back to your recognition of networking as an important, you know, aspect of building a career, and having an influence, I think.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes, absolutely. It’s through my time with the SCTE, or being involved with the national portion of SCTE, I’ve made friends across the country who I would have never made otherwise.
SCHLEY: Of course. Right.
ALLSHOUSE: And that’s just a great way to work, a great organization to be involved with, and the friends I’ve made along the way who are great.
SCHLEY: I never covered journalistically an industry as close as I have cable. I presume there are organizations in every, you know, walk of the woods. But it does seem like cable has a peculiar, or a particular ability to sort of weld, you know, people from disparate places together, and there’s kind of this, you know, all in on the same goal sort of vibe to the industry.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes, there is. It’s a, it’s one of the things, it’s a very big industry, but a very small community.
SCHLEY: That’s well put.
ALLSHOUSE: — and you know, people I see it from, manufacturers, or from suppliers, from the actual cable operators as well as the programmers. Once you get cable into your blood, you don’t like to leave.
ALLSHOUSE: You stick with it, you find something else.
SCHLEY: What will you miss? I mean what, is it the camaraderie aspect, or when you ultimately decide to hang it up?
ALLSHOUSE: Probably the camaraderie.
SCHLEY: Yeah. People relationships?
ALLSHOUSE: Probably the people relationships, yes.
SCHLEY: Where do you see the industry going? What’s next? I mean, it’s — answers could be, you know, very far flung, but do you see, what’s the next big epochal sort of movement or direction for the cable industry?
ALLSHOUSE: Boy, that’s a tough one to —
SCHLEY: Because it changes so fast.
ALLSHOUSE: It changes so fast.
ALLSHOUSE: As our competition changes, whether it be from over the top providers, whether it be, you know, in, you know, the wireless providers and 5G —
SCHLEY: Good point, right.
ALLSHOUSE: — all those different things, and our ability to adapt to that, I think is probably going to be one of the biggest changes. Some of the interesting things though that people, you know, cringe when they hear about this, but over-the-top operators have to have an internet connection —
SCHLEY: They certainly do.
ALLSHOUSE: — to provide that.
SCHLEY: Do their thing, right.
ALLSHOUSE: To do their thing.
ALLSHOUSE: As long as we’re providing the biggest and the best, the fastest, probably, we’ll have a niche there.
SCHLEY: Yes, I agree.
ALLSHOUSE: It may hurt the video side, but it, you know, the broadband side will still be there. As far as from 5G?
ALLSHOUSE: 5G operators, cell companies, still have to have backhaul facilities, which they rent from the cable operators to get back to their, you know, from tower to tower, and back into their, back into their central offices.
SCHLEY: This is what I was trying to emphasize earlier, it’s expensive, it’s hard, it’s arduous to get up on poles and string wires, and connect devices. But in the end, it’s the greatest protection from intrusion that there is. There aren’t many people who have the network that the cable industry has — there’s none, really.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes, absolutely.
SCHLEY: And it’s interesting, I’ve seen, you have seen this too. The onset of satellite television in 1994 was going to kill the cable industry. The onset of the DVR was going to redefine the cable industry’s business. Over-the-top video was — you know, but the industry has a way of adapting and pivoting, I think. Have you seen that in your career?
ALLSHOUSE: Absolutely, yes. You know, we adapt, we find a new way to overcome.
ALLSHOUSE: And how to make it, how to do it better.
SCHLEY: I wanted to ask you, before we close, another question that I think you’re uniquely sort of positioned to answer. How have you seen the, kind of the on the street workforce for the cable industry develop and mature, and become more sophisticated over the years? I presume it has, you know, that the skill sets you’re looking for are very different from 30 years ago, for instance.
ALLSHOUSE: Yeah, it has. Just, we still look for, you know, employees who have a technical base.
ALLSHOUSE: Some degree of electronics understanding. Those types of things. Computer savvy, absolutely.
SCHLEY: Which is, right, the IT dimension.
SCHLEY: They’re also your ambassadors, in a way, right? I mean when I think of myself from a cable customer standpoint, the face of the company is the woman or the guy who puts the router in place in my home.
SCHLEY: I mean, are you sensitive to that?
ALLSHOUSE: Yes. Absolutely, you are. And literally, you know, back in the day when every cable system had an office where you went in to pay your bill —
SCHLEY: Yes, right.
ALLSHOUSE: — the face of the company may have been the clerk behind the counter.
SCHLEY: Of course, right.
ALLSHOUSE: Nowadays, a lot of times, the customer is making an order, placing an order over the phone, or over the internet.
SCHLEY: Or the chat function, yeah.
ALLSHOUSE: Or chat function. And truly, you’re right, the installer out there is the person who is the face of the cable company.
SCHLEY: And that’s why I ask, because in my, you know, unique focus group of one experience, it’s gotten a lot better over the years, right? You have really, you have — technicians have a lot of people skills these days, I think, you know?
SCHLEY: Comcast does, and I presume the rest of the industry sort of does too. Is there one accomplishment you would point to as being sort of proudest of in your career? And I know it’s hard, I’m putting you on the spot to single something out. But, or maybe a couple that come to mind?
ALLSHOUSE: One of them, the first one actually, is probably some of the techs I’ve hired, clear back in the early ’80s, are still employed, working in the same system that they started out in.
SCHLEY: That’s awesome.
ALLSHOUSE: That, you know, that’s probably one of — that I was able to hire someone into an industry, to and train them, and that they could make a lifelong career out of.
SCHLEY: And create a life, really.
ALLSHOUSE: And create a life out of.
SCHLEY: For them and their family.
SCHLEY: I think that’s an awesome reflection, and a good note to conclude our conversation on. And you’ve taken us so far Greg, from the early 12-channel cable system days to this modern multimedia dimension that you’re in today. And it seems like you’ve been privileged to be a part of it over time.
ALLSHOUSE: Yes. It’s been a fun ride.
SCHLEY: I bet, I bet. Greg Allshouse for the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Project. I’m Stewart Schley, and thanks for tuning in today.