Interview Date: Wednesday September 22, 1993
Interview Location: Atlanta, GA
Interviewer: Archer Taylor
Collection: Archer Taylor Technical Collection
Note: Audio Only
TAYLOR: I’m in the office with Alex Best to conduct an interview. Alex was many years with Scientific-Atlanta and now, I guess, is vice president for engineering at Cox.
BEST: Yes, senior vice president.
TAYLOR: So we’re down in a nice comfortable little spot here in Atlanta to dig into the early history of Scientific-Atlanta. I’d like to go into a brief background of your personal family history. Where did you live, who were your parents … your education? If you could start along that line.
BEST: Well, I was born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, which is a city on the Georgia-South Carolina border about 150 miles from here. I was born on Valentine’s Day in 1941.
TAYLOR: That is fascinating because my birthday is Valentine’s Day in 1916.
BEST: Is that right. You know when people make a comment about that, I tell them that’s why I’m so sweet.
TAYLOR: I’ve tried that one, too, and it doesn’t work.
BEST: It doesn’t work for me either. That’s neat. I’ve met a few other people during my life that were also born on Valentine’s Day, obviously.
TAYLOR: We’re obviously the best.
BEST: Absolutely. I was born and raised there. My father owned and operated a typewriter sales and repair shop. He basically was a typewriter mechanic as they called them in those days because in those days typewriters were mechanical devices. My mother was a housewife. They both passed away in their early fifties, unfortunately. Both of heart-related problems. So as I result of that, my doctor is forever on my case about keeping the cholesterol down and getting regular checkups so I try to do that. Anyway, both parents are deceased. I have a sister who lives in Augusta.
I went to grammar school, middle school and high school there. I was basically a good student. I was just one of those kids that, not bragging, but I didn’t seem to cause too much trouble and took a liking to school so I made good grades, especially in math and science. So as it was in those days, and if there’s any fault I have of the educational system back in those days … you know it was basically, “Gee, Alex, you’re good in math and science and not quite as good in English and grammar, so it appears to me you should go to a technical school.” And that was the kind of advice one would get back in those days. As it turns out, obviously, it was correct.
So not coming from a real wealthy family, my best option at that time was to attend a junior college in Augusta called Augusta College, taking a pre-engineering degree. Essentially when you went to a school like Georgia Tech back then, the first couple years were basic math and science and chemistry and some English and those same courses were offered at Augusta College so I went to a junior college. It was a two-year college. I got a pre-engineering degree, mostly on scholarships, and then applied to go to Georgia Tech where I was accepted, once again on a combination of some scholarships and some loans. I was successful in graduating from Georgia Tech in 1963.
TAYLOR: Where is Georgia Tech located?
BEST: It’s here in Atlanta. At that time, you know back in those days when I went to Tech, the general consensus was there were three eminent engineering schools in the country … MIT, California Institute of Technology and Georgia Tech. Since those days I’m not sure Georgia Tech is rated quite so high but it’s still one of the better engineering colleges in this country. So I graduated from Georgia Tech with a BSEE in 1963.
Back in those days engineers were in extremely high demand. NASA was booming; the military was booming; commercial industries in this country were booming. I’m trying to recall … I interviewed lots of companies. I got lots of job offers. I remember getting a job offer from Pratt & Whitney who made jet engines down in West Palm Beach. I interviewed them and visited them. I interviewed the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C., and received a job offer from them. I interviewed Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and received an offer from them. But I also interviewed RCA. And I accepted a job with RCA primarily because, you see, a young fellow like me graduating from school with an EE degree … I was not a ham; I had no experience in electronics. The only thing I knew at that time about electronics came out of textbooks. And RCA came on the campus and said, “We have a great training program for you. What we will do is send you to six different locations around the country for two to three months each and have you work on a specific project.”
TAYLOR: Was this RCA in Indianapolis?
BEST: Yes and no. At that time RCA had companies all over the country. They had the broadcasting group in Camden. They had a laboratory in Princeton. They had the TV and radio group in Indianapolis and they had a kind of military group in…
TAYLOR: They had something out at Riverhead, Long Island.
BEST: Yes, and there was also one on the outskirts of Boston in Lexington. I can’t think of the name but I’ll tell you what they do.
BEST: Yes, I believe that’s correct. And they said they would hire us folks and send us to these places and have us work on the various projects. Then after we completed all these, they would sit down and we would discuss what we had done and what we liked and disliked and then we could pick in what area we wanted to go to work. So for someone who knew nothing about electronics, this sounded great. So I accepted a job with RCA.
My first assignment was to go to Cherry Hill, which is where they put all their new employees through a period of indoctrination into the company. So I did that and then I said, “Okay, where’s my first assignment?” They said, “Your first assignment is up in Boston,” in Burlington, Massachusetts, as it were. So I went up there and for three months I worked on a Project Mohawk, which was a truck full of electronic equipment that would back out onto the tarmac of an airfield and completely test out the electronic system of a Mohawk aircraft by transmitting all kinds of telemetry signals and radar signals back and forth to this plane before it took off. I remember to this day what I did. For three months I designed a 30 megahertz bandpass filter. That’s all I did. For three months I wound coils and measured tubes and inductants and capacitators. You know, I thought it was great for a guy right out of school. I was thoroughly enjoying what I was doing.
So, anyway, I completed that project and called up Cherry Hill and said, “Okay, what’s my next assignment?” Well, I knew at that time I was supposed to go to Camden because they had laid out where I was going. So they called me back and said there had been a little bit of a change of events and Camden didn’t need anybody at that time and neither did the next place I was going nor the next place. And so I said, “Well, where do they need people?” And they said, “They need people in Indianapolis.” Well, Indianapolis at that time was where they designed and developed all of their consumer electronic television and radio products. And believe it or not, of course, back in those days they designed them and developed them in Indianapolis and built them in Bloomington, Indiana. There was a huge television receiver manufacturing plant in Bloomington. So that’s where I was sent.
TAYLOR: To Bloomington?
BEST: Indianapolis where they designed TV sets. And I worked for a fellow named Gordon Rogers and another fellow named Jack Kelly.
TAYLOR: I know of Gordon Rogers. In fact, I’ve corresponded with him or talked to him or something.
BEST: Have you really? As it turns out he was an old Clemson, South Carolina, graduate who had been designing TV sets for RCA for thirty years. And at the time I went up there and was assigned to his group, he was the manager of black and white and color TV. In those days … that was just when integrated circuits and transistors were starting to go into TV sets.
TAYLOR: When did you go to Indianapolis?
BEST: 1963. At that time, of course, color was still kind of a novelty. I think color TV was introduced around the ’55-’56 time frame but …
TAYLOR: The standards were adopted in ’52, I think, but RCA was the only one that ever put out any broadcasts for a number of years. So it was about … for good reason I remember it was in ’65 that ABC colorized their main studio and things were beginning to move at that time. It was about ten years after the standards were adopted before anything really happened.
BEST: Well, as I recall now having looked at some data related to the penetration of introduction of new technology, I think I’ve seen the data time and time again that said that the penetration of color sets, I want to say, took … it was either seven years or ten years to reach 1 percent. So even if it were ten years later in the early to mid ’60s, very few people had a color TV set. Of course, going to work for RCA that was one of the benefits that I received. I was given a color set to take home. So as with a lot of people, I can recall on Sunday nights … Bonanza and Disney carried colored programming so anybody who had a color set gathered around the set on Sunday night because those were the only two programs in color at that time.
But anyway, it was also at that same time that TV sets were being converted from tubes to transistors and integrated circuits. And Gordon Rogers was very helpful to me in learning how television worked. I was always impressed with Gordon because he held the original patent for keyed AGC systems in television sets. Of course, keyed AGC, as you know, where they used the horizontal fly back pulse only to activate the AGC system when there was a horizontal sink post coming along. And that was a tremendous improvement. And as far as noise immunity, any noise impulses that occurred other than during the horizontal sync were totally ignored in terms of, as you recall, an AGC system was set up on noise. That is, AGC systems consider the noise as being a stronger signal and will turn the gain of the set down and the picture would fade away. So I always respected him because of his invention on keyed AGC.
As it turns out later, after keeping up correspondence with him, too, over the years as I later entered the cable industry, he brought some papers that he wrote that I thought were fascinating because he worked his way through Clemson by essentially developing and installing a cable radio system.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the term “cable radio” but the way he described it to me was what had happened was he was, and I’m guessing back in the ’30s I want to say, the first kid in the neighborhood to buy a radio … he was an electronics buff. And so all of his friends would come over to this house to listen to the radio. So this went on for a while. He went to college and then he got the idea … well, gee, he could run a wire from his house to his good buddy’s house and put a speaker over there so that when he tuned his radio, his buddy could hear the radio. And that kind of worked, so the next neighbor wanted him to do that and the next one. So he tells me the story of how he would charge them a small amount because he would have to come home and beef up his radio in order to get more output level because of the losses going over the wires.
TAYLOR: That was probably back in the ’30s when he was doing that, wasn’t it?
BEST: Yes, that’s right. So he later brought me some articles where it talked about a cable radio system existing in this small town in South Carolina.
TAYLOR: Do you have those articles yet?
BEST: I believe I still have them and I will give you a copy.
TAYLOR: If you could do that I’d sure appreciate having it.
BEST: I believe I kept a copy of those.
TAYLOR: Just last week I interviewed Hank Diambra, you know, Entron. He got started by servicing apartment radio distribution networks. I don’t recall the dates but I think it was back in the late ’50s, maybe ’56, ’57, ’58 somewhere in that period.
BEST: I’m sure I have a copy of those. So anyway, Gordon was always quick to tell me that long before there was cable TV, there was cable radio and that he, in fact, was one of the instrumental people in starting that up.
But anyway, being at RCA obviously that’s where I learned how a television set worked. One of the side notes about, I guess, the kind of person I was at that time … I remember going to Indianapolis. I was a single fellow in his early twenties. Really knew nobody up there so I worked at RCA during the day learning television. And I thought, gee, I was still very much enamored with being in the learning process so I decided that I would get a job on the weekends when I had nothing to do in a radio-TV repair shop. There was one down the street from where I was living. I remember walking in there one Saturday morning and saying, “Do you need any help?” And they said, “No, not really. Right now we’re full up.” And I said, “I’ll work for nothing.” And they said, “Wait a minute … you’ll work for nothing.” I said, “Yes, I’m an engineer at RCA but I’m trying to learn about television. I have nothing to do on the weekends so I’ll work for nothing.” And they said, “Well, under those conditions, we do need somebody.”
TAYLOR: And we’ll double your salary every week.
BEST: So, in fact, I worked in a radio-TV repair shop, I’m guessing, for a year before I got married which brought that to an end. But I did work on the weekends. But, as it turned out, they didn’t let me repair them which is what I wanted to do. They made me a salesperson. I was up on the sales floor–it was both sales and repair–so for a year I sold TV sets. But these people later became very close friends of mine so I kept in contact with them a long time. I’m sure they thought I was a little bit off my rocker when I was willing to work for nothing in those days.
TAYLOR: There’s a cute little thing I’ll tell you about when I interviewed Ken Simons. He first went to work for Milt Shapp almost under the same circumstances … that he’d work for nothing. He did and after the thing he designed first for Milt worked out so well, Milt called him in at Christmas time and put him on a good salary. So he also went to work for … I don’t think it was quite nothing but it was next to nothing.
BEST: Well, obviously, in those days I was right out of college getting paid by RCA and…
TAYLOR: Well, all engineers are crazy anyway.
BEST: Exactly, I agree. Had more money as a single person than I’d ever seen in my whole life so money wasn’t the issue. I was trying to learn as quickly as I could so I was willing to do that.
But anyway, at RCA I basically learned how television systems worked and I was involved on several projects. One was some improved keyed AGC systems. Still using vacuum tubes at that time so I actually, initially, was working on some vacuum circuits on TV sets. But that fascinated me. I worked there for two years at RCA and can remember seeing some of the very first integrated circuits which were developed by another fellow named Jack Abons who was in Princeton at the time.
The very first integrated circuit for a television set was a 4.5 megahertz limiter discriminator. I recall, we used to laugh because that thing, we said, would oscillate in the box it came in. You didn’t even have to put it in a TV set. It would oscillate in a box.
Over a long, iterative process they got it perfected and, of course, transistors began to take over. First black and white sets and then some SCR’s started showing up in the horizontal deflection systems of color sets. And now, obviously, they’re all solid state other than the picture tube and, of course, they’re working on that.
TAYLOR: That’s right.
BEST: But I stayed up there two years and I knew it wasn’t going to work. I was a southern boy with red clay between my toes. There was one January when I was living in an apartment and I shoved my door open and snow was level with the hood of my car. I knew at that moment this was not going to work over the long haul because basically I’m a hot weather person. I really don’t like cold weather. So in 1965 I decided to go back to Georgia Tech and get a master’s degree, which I did.
So I came back to Atlanta. I was married at the time. I married a girl who I had been dating from North Augusta, South Carolina … same city different state–Augusta and North Augusta. We had gotten married in ’64. She had moved to Indianapolis with me. So we came back to Atlanta and she went to work at Emory and let me go back to school to get a master’s degree. In order to help my way through the master’s program, I took a job at the Georgia Tech Engineering Experiment Station. They did a lot of military work on improving the interference capabilities of military receivers.
So I was doing some work there and sitting next to a gentleman who was working on something after hours that I took an interest in. And I said, “What are you doing there?” He said, “Well, I know some people at this little company here in Atlanta called Scientific-Atlanta and I’m working on a preamplifier for them.” And I said, “Really, tell me about this. I know a little bit about TV.” Well, he was working on a cavity filter that was to go in the front end of a preamplifier for TV. I said, “Who are you doing this for?” “I’m doing this for a fellow named Tom Smith that I know out there. He’s asked me to do a little consulting on the side for him.” So it was with that contact at the Georgia Tech Experiment Station that I met a fellow who was doing some consulting work for Scientific-Atlanta and who arranged, after my graduation, to go interview Scientific-Atlanta, which I did. So it was after graduating from Georgia Tech with a master’s degree that I interviewed with Tom Smith and he offered me a job. I was not inexperienced with television because I had been designing receivers for a couple years.
TAYLOR: This was in 1966?
BEST: In September of 1966. I graduated from Georgia Tech with a master’s degree and immediately upon graduation had been made an offer from Scientific-Atlanta.
TAYLOR: When was your undergraduate degree?
TAYLOR: And that was Georgia Tech?
BEST: That’s Georgia Tech … a BSEE in ’63, went to RCA in Indianapolis and stayed two years until ’65 and came back to Atlanta and got a master’s degree.
TAYLOR: When you were studying engineering at Georgia Tech for the bachelor’s degree, were they teaching solid state physics and solid state design and so on?
BEST: Absolutely. At that time there was a transition going on between tubes and solid state so I had courses both in circuitry design using vacuum tubes and circuit design using transistors. So it was kind of in that transition period there. But, yes, I had solid state physics. I had transistor design courses. I had vacuum tube design courses. But no computers at that time except analog computers. I remember taking a course on analog computers. Probably not many people have seen analog computers but I thought it was fascinating. I remember doing a design project on an analog computer where … As I recall my project was one of manufacturing facility manufacturing steel. The steel would end up going through these big rollers where these plates of steel would roll out. But anyway, you could design using an analog computer and simulate what kind of load factors these motors would have placed upon them. What would happen to them if a huge heavy load was inserted between their rollers but you would basically …
An analog computer was nothing more than a large number of high gain integrated circuits where you would put feedback around and an input resistance so you would design … You could set the gain on these amplifiers and you would have attenuators and amplifiers and capacitors to simulate integrators. So you would write this program and then you would go with a bunch of patch cords and you would program this big analog computer to simulate the set of conditions related to the particular project you were working on. Then this computer would plot out what the speed of the motors would occur when this huge plate of steel would hit it, etc., etc. But, anyway, it was fascinating to me to deal with analog computers. I guess, digital computers were still … I’m sure they probably existed but they weren’t as readily available as analog computers at the time. So I took courses in analog computers which, obviously, didn’t last too long or do me much good.
Of course, as you know, occasionally I hear people talk about the fact that usually … it’s very difficult to give them an example of how one technology obsoleted another. We talk about … people said FM radio would do away with AM radio but you and I know it didn’t. And that TV might do away with radio but it didn’t, etc., etc. There’s only one example I know of a technology totally obsoleting another and that is slide rules.
TAYLOR: You’re so right.
BEST: You and I went through college and in my days the success or failure typically in a course I took depended upon your competency on a slide rule. Because even though you might understand the problem, it involved lots of interactions on a slide rule and you might get the wrong answer not because you didn’t understand the problem but because you didn’t know how to use the slide rule. So, as you know, every engineering student either carried around a Post or a K&E slide rule. And that’s the only piece of technology that I can think of that calculators totally eliminated. There are no such things as slide rules anymore but I still have mine.
TAYLOR: Word processing has just about eliminated typewriters, too.
BEST: That’s true and I’ve often thought of it since my father was a typewriter mechanic. How would he have coped with the transition of typewriters from mechanical devices to electrical devices and, ultimately, to PC’s and word processors. Basically, his job would have been eliminated because he was a mechanic and had no knowledge in electronics so he would have never made that transition. It would have been very difficult. But, anyway, mechanical typewriters are gone, our slide rules are gone, and I’m sure there are other examples but that’s one I certainly remember.
So, anyway, I graduated from Georgia Tech in ’66 with an MSEE degree and had an offer from Tom Smith at Scientific-Atlanta and showed up out there. I’m sure Tom will tell you his story so I won’t tell you again, but he was the manager of the antenna and microwave department at Scientific-Atlanta. They were designing huge antenna systems a lot for NASA and primarily other military applications. But Tom had that job with this background knowing that there was an antenna reception problem in cable TV because he had worked in a small cable system in Mississippi, I think, for a fellow named Rudy Riley.
TAYLOR: That’s right.
BEST: So Tom, with that knowledge and with the knowledge that he had an antenna department under his thumbs, thought … gee, I think we can make a better cable antenna that has better side load rejection and front to back rejection than what exist today. So he did that and it was hugely successful. So he decided if there was any logic to his approach on where Scientific-Atlanta should go next, he just decided to follow down the tower ultimately right to the home, in that order. And, of course, the next piece of equipment after the antenna was the preamplifier. So, of course, there was some work going on at Georgia Tech but when I came on board at Scientific-Atlanta he handed that project to me and said, “The first thing I want you to do is to design a better solid state preamplifier than what exists today.”
Well, I looked at what was on the market at that time and it was primarily the very well designed Jerrold solid state tower mounted single channel preamplifier. The design at that time was basically a broadband amplifier with in front of it a cavity filter. So, essentially, it was kind of a double-tuned circuit in front of a broadband amplifier.
But the problem one had in those days was cross modulation. When you needed a preamplifier, of course, it was because you were trying to receive a distant signal. And, invariably, there was the likelihood that there was a close in, fairly adjacent strong channel which could easily overload the preamplifier. So I thought if there was to be any improvement made at all that … About that time field effect transistors were starting to become commonplace. They were famous because field effect transistors had a square log transfer characteristic. Square log meaning that they had very low third-order distortion components and it was third-order distortion that created cross modulation. So I said what I’ll do is basically look at the Jerrold design and do something very similar to that but use field effect transistors. And, basically, that’s what I did.
I designed a two-stage field effect transistor except it was very difficult to make field effect transistors have enough gain to make them broadband devices. So I, in fact, had a cavity filter in front of it and a double tuned stage after the first field effect transistor and a double tuned stage after the second field effect transistor. So this particular combination had lots more selectivity in front of the first device and between the two devices than the Jerrold device did. In all due respect to Jerrold, theirs was an excellent preamplifier. As it turns out, I don’t think we ever made a dime on this preamplifier because it was very expensive to build. It had a lot of hand-wound coils in it. It wasn’t quite as temperature insensitive as the Jerrold device because these inner stage double tuned circuits tended to drift in addition to the cavity up front. But, anyway, we sold a lot of them and it had about 20 dB better cross mod performance than the state- of-the-art Jerrold unit at that time. You know, we were in the business of selling preamplifiers and that project probably took me three or four or five months.
I can’t remember whether it was after that project or the first day I walked into Scientific-Atlanta, Tom came in and threw on my desk an instruction manual for a Jerrold channel commander. He said, “Alex, I want one of these.”
TAYLOR: This is solid state commander?
BEST: No, this is the old tube, channel commander one … tube channel commander. In ’66, as I recall, there were only a couple of them available and they were both tube versions. There was a Benco tube channel commander signal processor and there was a Jerrold. I’m trying to remember whether Ameco had one or not. I don’t think they had a tube version. I believe there was only those two.
But he placed on my desk an instruction manual for a Jerrold tube type channel commander and said, “Alex, at the next national show,” which was nine months later, “I want one of these made out of transistors.” So I picked it up and I said, “Okay, what is it?” He said, “You don’t know what that is?” I said, “I haven’t got a clue what that is.” So he said, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’re bidding on a headend project out in Gainesville, Texas. Obviously, we’re bidding the antennas, both sales and installation, but we’ll bid the headend also. And if we win the bid, we’ll buy some of these devices and you can go install them.” So S-A did bid that complete headend project … turn-key headend in Gainesville, Texas. I want to say it was probably about a six or eight channel system. And S-A won it. So we, in fact, bought about eight tube type Jerrold channel commanders and had them shipped on site. After the tower was erected and the antennas were placed up there, I was sent out to install and set up these channel commanders. So I did that.
In 1966 I was sent out in the middle of a cow field in Gainesville, Texas, which is about 100 miles south of Oklahoma City. I can’t remember, honestly, who the cable operator was at that time. But, anyway, it certainly made a lasting impression on my life because … I remember watching the cows come home everyday. They would pass right by the headend.
I installed those devices and set them up and had somewhat of a better understanding of what their purpose in life was and what they did and what were the good points and the bad points. And I came back and told Tom I was ready to take a shot at a solid state version.
But, you know, the funny thing was that I was a loner at S-A by necessity because there was no one I could go to at S-A that knew anything about television. I was it. They had no other business in television. They were the leading manufacturer of antenna measurement systems at the time, pattern recorders and …
TAYLOR: Tom knew something about television, didn’t he?
BEST: He didn’t really know anything about television. No, not really. He had a cursory knowledge but he had no in-depth knowledge.
TAYLOR: That’s probably true. He had played around with Rudy Riley back in … I’ve forgotten the name of the town in Mississippi now.
BEST: Tom was from Drew, Mississippi. I’m not sure, that may be the town where Rudy Riley was located.
TAYLOR: That doesn’t sound right, but I’ve got it on the tape.
BEST: Tom would admit to you he was not an electrical engineer–circuit engineer. He certainly knew antennas much better than he knew electronic circuits. So I really had no one to go to ask my questions about, “Gee, should I do it this way and should I do it that way?”
But, anyway, I started down and designed this solid state signal processor. You know, we were trying to come up with something, in addition to just being solid state, that was innovative. So somehow I came up with the idea of … gee, you know the first thing you do when you put these things in a rack is set the levels. So why don’t we design the meter into it. You just click this switch. The video level, audio level, subcarrier level … you’d never have to get a field strength meter–it would be built in. This was a great idea.
So I designed this thing with a meter in it. And, Archer, at the time I designed it, we didn’t have a spectrum analyzer. I will relay some stories to you during this conversation that I probably wouldn’t tell many people but I realize I’m telling the world.
TAYLOR: I will give you an opportunity to review the transcript and you can do whatever you want to with it. If you want to cut some of it out or embellish it or whatever, you’ll have that opportunity.
BEST: Some of it may be professionally embarrassing but that’s okay. Somehow I survived and everybody else seemed to survive that worked with me or about these things.
I never had a spectrum analyzer. I designed this thing with a sweep generator and a 704-B tube type field strength meter.
TAYLOR: Even Ken Simons doesn’t know where that came from.
BEST: To be quite honest with you, I have no doubt that there may be some of those things still operating somewhere because a fellow who later worked with me named John James, who now lives in Atlanta, still works on headends occasionally. He still runs across one or two still out there working. To be quite honest, those things were, in many respects, not up to the same level of performance as that Jerrold tube type version because I later learned there was one thing the transistor didn’t do so well. Transistors were not very linear devices. And so I can remember dealing with the spurious output frequencies that this thing sent out into the world and an adjacent channel world. They were certainly not as far down and not as good as the Jerrold version at that time. And so, as you recall, Scientific-Atlanta was not the only company that ultimately made a solid state processor that had this problem because I think it was those solid state processors that launched the rack mounted elliptical bandpass filters that became so prevalent in those days. And it had to do with getting rid of all these adjacent channel spurious output frequencies that these solid state devices generated in the output.
I designed that thing and we carried it to that show and it was quite popular. Scientific-Atlanta had a good name at the time. Of course, at that time also I think what helped Scientific-Atlanta was that it did not compete with the companies that were making broadband amplifiers. So when Ameco wanted to quote a turn-key system to a respective customer, they would quote the Ameco distribution system. Ameco had no headend at the time. Now what was their choice … to quote the Jerrold competitor system or to quote the Scientific-Atlanta system that did not compete with them in the broadband amplifier technology? And so, I think, a lot of other companies would choose the Scientific-Atlanta gear not necessarily because it was better or worse than Jerrold but because S-A didn’t compete with them in the other arena that they had developed products in which typically was the broadband amplifiers.
TAYLOR: There was another thing about Scientific-Atlanta that was attractive, though, and that was it was an engineering firm, really, and not a high pressure sales operation which I think made a difference. But what you say is quite true, I’m sure.
BEST: But I remember after having first developed that processor, I think, Tom came to me and said, “We need to hold a technology seminar here at Scientific-Atlanta and kind of show the world what we’re working on and what we’ve developed here.” Obviously they knew who the people were and you were one of the people who came to that. You probably don’t remember that. It was probably in the ’67 time frame now. I remember you coming down and our having the signal processor.
Now I designed the IF stages of this signal processor with a transistor which had better overload characteristics when you turned its gain down. That was a transistor called a “forward AGC transistor.” You could reduce the gain of a transistor by reducing the current through it or increasing the current through it. And a forward AGC transistor had the characteristic that it better handled these higher signal levels that were happening when you were trying to turn its gain down if you increased the current through it rather than reducing the current through it. So that was what I designed the IF with. Unfortunately, when you turned the gain down on one of these transistors by increasing the current through it, its effective loading on the coils that effected it increased tremendously. So a rather selected tuned circuit became very broad and tended to skew off to one side. I remember that didn’t seem to faze me at the time. I thought I had done something pretty good. But when you came in I had designed this processor, and everybody was in it, to be very flat at maximum gain. But, believe me, when you turned the gain down it became rather curved on top. So I remember feeding the multi-burst signal through it through a modulator and a demod and a processor. When you turned the gain down on it, I mean, the multi-burst came and rolled off the high end and the low end and you said, “Gee, Alex, this is something you probably need to focus on a little more.” And I remember that specific issue. So between the spurious outputs and trying to figure out how to make that thing flat as you varied its gain over there, was a real issue.
I also knew the thing was so difficult, to set it up and get the spurious levels down and everything, that it was very difficult to go from a lab-bench model to manufacturing. So they really struggled in manufacturing. I can remember in the early days at Scientific-Atlanta several hundred of those things on order, which in those days was a large number. I spent a lot of time in manufacturing trying to help them get it out.
And then, ultimately, I knew that … I used to track where Scientific-Atlanta sold headends because I knew that was where I was going next. Because when a typical customer tried to get them installed, they ran up against so many beat-related issues that invariably they called S-A and I was the only person that knew how to make them work so that’s when I ended up out in the field. In retrospect, that was the best thing that ever happened to me because after doing that about three years, working in headends all over the country, I could make them work but very few other people could because of the sensitive nature of trying to get the spurious outputs down, etc., and setting up and having them remain stable. I seemed to be able to do it okay. So I met a lot of nice people in the field and I traveled to a lot of places.
After about three years I came back and I saw this was not going to work. I was going to become a field engineer not a design engineer. So I came back to Tom and said, “Tom, I have a lot better understanding of what problems exist in the field related to signal processors. I know exactly what all the problems are so would you please let me have another stab at making a better signal processor?” Of course, he knew all the problems, too, and the fact that I was in the field all the time and he said, “Yes, let’s do that.” That’s when I got this other guy, John James. I taught him what I knew and he became the field guy and I got a chance to do it over.
That was the 6150 signal processor which, quite frankly I think, at the time really advanced the state of technology in signal processing. One of the things that had happened, and it was in Tiffin, Ohio … it was Continental Cable. Cable was growing in the late ’60s and there were starting to happen a lot of headend hub systems. Where a headend would be located somewhere and they would bring the signals back to another point, reprocess and then go out. And in Tiffin, Ohio, they bought a Scientific-Atlanta headend where it was a headend hub. Signals were going through …
End of Tape 1, Side A
TAYLOR: After running out of tape, we will continue with your story.
BEST: So we had installed this system, using a headend hub concept so that the off air channels were actually being processed twice, in Tiffin, Ohio, Continental Cable, for a fellow named Lyle [?] who is a great guy. I believe he’s still around. He may have retired, I’m not quite sure.
After about six months, they called Scientific-Atlanta and said, “We don’t exactly know what’s happened here but all of our signals appear to have trailing ghosts.” We normally thought … gee, trailing ghosts. We thought of all kinds of situations. We installed it in summer, now it was winter, maybe there was snow on the ground and maybe that created some problems. I remember drawing the elliptical diagrams between the transmitter and the receive site and I was going to try to figure out if somebody built a big silo somewhere.
So I flew up there one night and I’ll never forget it. Tiffin, Ohio, was not a real big town. Before I checked in … right there at the motel was a little newspaper stand and I grabbed a local newspaper. I got in bed that night and was looking at the newspaper. I looked down in the lower left-hand corner on the front page and it said, “Ghost expert arrives in town.” That so alarmed me because I had not a clue what was causing these ghosts and here I was, basically, on the front page. I don’t know, in retrospect, what the connection between the cable system and the newspaper was, but obviously it was a slow news day. Or somehow there had been enough complaints that this was newsworthy enough to make the front page in Tiffin, Ohio. I had not a clue what I was going to do and I just knew they were going to string me up before I got out of town if I couldn’t figure out what was causing those ghosts.
So I went in there and started looking into that thing. At that time I had read a lot of your articles related to transit response through television demodulators, so I was slowly becoming aware of what the effects of group delay were and the impact that it had. So after going back and forth between … In those days, as you know, what we did was we looked at the pictures carefully off air for the TV set. We looked at the pictures carefully after the first device and then we tracked it down the system and after the second device. And it was obvious what was happening here. There was very little ghosting off the antenna being enhanced by the poor transit response caused by the group delay in this first processor being enhanced after having gone through that same type of envelope delay a second time. So that any ghost you had off the air, or if you didn’t have one, these two signal processors, because of the differential group delay that occurred in the vicinity of the picture carrier was enhancing this trailing smear, if you will. And I became obviously aware of that. There was no antenna problem that I could fix. In fact, there was no problem I could fix at all. So sheepishly …
BREAK FOR LUNCH
TAYLOR: We’ve finished lunch and we’re going to start again. I’m not really sure where we stopped. We’ve been talking about the 400 megahertz hybrid development and I’m going to have Alex tell a little bit about his experiences in that connection.
BEST: Let’s see, Archer, I was trying to remember what year it was. To be quite honest with you, I’m not really sure what year it was but I remember at that time I had just been made engineering manager over the cable engineering group at Scientific-Atlanta and we were quoting the system for the Atlanta cable system. They came to us and at that time we were shipping and manufacturing 300 megahertz distribution equipment. They said, “We want you to quote for us for the Atlanta cable franchise a 400 megahertz broadband amplifier.” Which, quite frankly at the time, had not really been discussed in any great detail certainly at Scientific-Atlanta.
So I remember going to the distribution engineering expert at that time which was Jim Hart and told him we’re being asked to quote a 400 megahertz amplifier system. And he basically said, “Hey, Alex, we have a hard enough time getting these things flat to within these tenth dB’s we have to propose per amplifier after 300. I just don’t see how it’s technically possible.” So basically I went back to the group from the Atlanta cable system and said, “We don’t think we can do it.” Well, that was the wrong answer because they said, “If you can’t do it, then you don’t get the job.” So I said, “Fine.” Well, that wasn’t the end of it obviously because they then went over my head and said, “If you want this job, then it’s going to be 400 megahertz.” Obviously, not wanting to lose out on a job in our own backyard of that magnitude, we agreed to do 400 megahertz. I don’t remember exactly what happened thereafter but obviously the rest is history, as they say, because 400 megahertz hybrids did happen and did work.
You’ve probably have heard (???) tell this a hundred times that expanding bandwidth on a cable system is one of the few instances where the odds worked in your favor. In other words, the bandwidth increase was only 35 percent but the channel number increase was much larger than that. And there’s very few instances … I never was quite sure what that had to do with anything. He was correct but, you know, the bandwidth increased 35 percent and the channel capacity almost doubled. Well, it went from 35 to 54, but anyway.
But in spite of what I told them we couldn’t do, we finally agreed to do it. As I recall we were the vendor that was selected. But based on at least two engineers experts at the time, we said no – it couldn’t be done. I guess that’s another example of engineers tending to be too honest. They may not tell you the right answer but they tell you what they thing the right answer is at that point in time. So, anyway, that was my story about how Scientific-Atlanta went to 400 megahertz.
TAYLOR: Let’s go back to where we were before we broke for lunch.
BEST: I was telling you I had become an expert in the transit response phenomena of a non-envelope delay very selective filter and the fact that cable systems were now going through two processors in many cases was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. Plus, I had had an opportunity after asking Tom Smith to let me redesign the signal processor. After having spent years in the field working in cable systems, I had a pretty good knowledge at that time exactly what was needed.
So I had a chance to do it over and it was the model 6150 signal processor. This was now the mid-’70s, probably ’74, ’75. The basic thing that I did on that signal processor was I had some more engineers helping me at that time … there was a fellow named Jack Chastain, who still works for Scientific-Atlanta. I talked to him and showed him the basic selectivity characteristics of a signal processor. About the same time General Radio came out with an envelope delay measuring device which, for the first time since I had been at S-A, I was actually able to see this U-shaped envelope delay curve measured in nanoseconds. With that instrument and with the help of Jack Chastain … he quite frankly designed an all pass delay equalizer that essentially compensated as best one could with the three section equalizer the envelope delay caused by the filter characteristics of a processor. I was quite impressed, I have to admit, when we put this delay equalizer in series with this high a filter and did some looking at the 2 T pulse response before and after equalization. It was quite impressive, the improvement that it made. So we did incorporate that delay equalizer into the signal processor.
I remember I gave a paper at the National Cable Show, I want to say in ’75, which was titled “Signal Processing Requirements for Modern Cable Systems.” The major breakthrough, at least in my mind at the time, was the fact that this signal processor now had a delay equalizer in it.
And, sure enough, as a result of that, later installations where we processed twice didn’t show evidence of this so-called halo or trailing smear like the earlier ones had done. So I was quite proud of myself. That particular signal processor, which was designed around ’74 or ’75, I’m proud to say is still being sold by Scientific-Atlanta basically some twenty years later. So I guess you might say that it has stood the test of time in terms of being considered a good quality signal processor.
Not that it didn’t have its problems. I would have to say the best attribute of that processor was also its worse. The best attribute of that processor was its flexibility and its modular design all interconnected in the back at a 75 ohm impedance level that gave you all sorts of switching and other options in terms of offering flexibility. But, however, that signal having undergone so many electro-mechanical connections in the back, proved to almost be its downfall because we had lots of problems associated with intermittent contacts in the back of that processor. I’m told that those problems were finally solved with the help of Gilbert and some other connector manufacturers. So hopefully those problems are behind us. But, anyway, it was the addition of the delay equalizer which really, I thought, advanced the state-of-the-art at that time in signal processors.
So with the success of that, I then embarked upon … Now you have to realize in the mid-’70s a typical headend was eleven signal processors and one modulator so there was no real high motivation to develop a modulator because most of your sales were processors. But times were changing … 1975, as you recall, is when if you heard Sid Topol tell his story about getting HBO together with the satellite people and Scientific-Atlanta with the earth stations. That kind of took the cable industry, quite frankly, from one of being kind of running out of steam because essentially in the mid-’70s we had wired all the rural areas and we were now wiring the cities. And it wasn’t going so well because people in the cities had all the off-airs anyway. So when you showed up and knocked on their door and said, “I’m the cable operator. How would you like to subscribe to my system?”, they’d say, “Well, what have you got?” And you’d say, “Well, I’ve got all the off-airs.” And they’d say, “I’ve got those anyway.” So it was kind of grinding to a halt. In fact, I can remember some discussions at Scientific-Atlanta in the mid-’70s as to whether or not they wanted to get out of the cable business because it was kind of grinding to a halt and there wasn’t much growth. It was about that time that the story happened that I just mentioned.
TAYLOR: Was that before or after Sid Topol came into the picture?
BEST: That was after Sid. The company was started by six engineers from the Georgia Tech Engineering Experiment Station. One of those was a fellow named Glen Robinson who ran the company up until probably ’72 or ’73. And the company, at that time I want to say, was probably a $10 million a year company. It was in ’66 when I joined it … may have been $20 or $25 million by the early ’70s. But Glen was an entrepreneur and running a $20 million company was not his forte. So he had a friend named Sid Topol who, I believe, was working at Raytheon up in Lexington or Burlington, Massachusetts. He convinced Sid to come down and take over Scientific-Atlanta.
Now Scientific-Atlanta being an antenna company, had developed some large parabolic dishes for NASA. And in 1974 or ’75, Sid had the foresight to say, “Look, why don’t we take one of these satellite dishes to a cable show?” And we said, “Why would you want to do that?” And he said he knew that the Canadians were distributing television broadcasting to their affiliate stations by satellite over the Anik series of satellites. So he got the idea of getting permission from the Canadian broadcasters to let him take a large parabolic dish to a cable show, point it toward the Anik satellite and show the picture in our booth.
We did that at the Western Cable Show. We had an 11 meter dish mounted on the back of a flatbed truck and we had that thing pointed toward the Anik satellites. Of course, as I recall now, they were talking in French. But we showed that picture in our booth and people would come by and we’d say, “You see that picture?” And it was a perfectly clear, noise free picture, in French. And they’d say, “Yeah.” We’d say, “That’s coming from 25,000 miles in the sky.” And they’d say, “So what?” And we’d say, “But it’s coming over satellite.” “Well, so what. What’s that got to do with me?”
But shortly thereafter Sid put together HBO who was distributing by microwave in the northeast and convinced them to put their signal on the satellite. And there was a big fight … one of the Mohammed Ali fights, as I recall. Maybe the Thrilla from Manila, I can’t remember. Anyway, I remember at least one antenna was installed in Fort Pierce, Florida … an 11 meter dish. Looking back on it, it’s kind of funny because it was an 11 meter dish fully redundant in terms of LNA’s. It had a liquid cooled LNA. Everything one could spend to make sure that signal looked good. And as I recall, the initial systems were about $100,000 a piece to install that thing. But, anyway, the Thrilla from Manila or whatever it was, was carried on that. And, of course, it got a lot of press and the rest is history. You have to give all the credit to Sid for having the foresight to drag an antenna from Atlanta to Anaheim to demonstrate the technical capability …
TAYLOR: What year was this?
BEST: ’74 or ’75.
TAYLOR: The Manila fight was very late in the year of ’75, I believe.
TAYLOR: So you had the demonstration before that?
BEST: Yes. The demonstration would have probably been the ’74 Western Show. I know it was the Western Cable Show where the dish was first taken to show that capability. Obviously, then, that launched the era of satellite distribution. Then, of course, that necessitated that modulators became the norm rather than signal processors, obviously over a long period of time.
So then I was given the task of designing a modulator. So I started down that path using the same package design that I had developed for the 6150 signal processor … the plug in module concept. I knew that I was going to have a problem when I got to the vestigial sideband filter of the modulator because I was familiar with what those things did. In fact, S-A, quite honestly, had an earlier modulator called a 6300, so I knew the problems that arose there. I knew the problem of envelope delay caused by the selectivity of the signal processor and what that could create in distortion. I knew the same condition existed in the modulator because you had about the same selectivity requirements in a vestigial filter to get rid of the unwanted sideband. So I was prepared quite honestly and had, in fact, designed an 8 pole lumped element vestigial sideband filter. And it was to be followed by an all pass delay equalizer using lumped elements. But this 8 pole filter was quite cumbersome to tune as one could imagine. But that was the path I was headed down.
I have to confess to you, Archer, I’ve always considered maybe if I brought anything to the cable industry in those days it was the use of surface acoustic wave filters and the advantages they offered and I would like to tell you that it was all my genius planning. But I was sitting on my lab bench trying to tune this damn 8 pole filter one day when a company came to see me as they did when you were designing things, lots of folks showed up. A company called Sultech knocked on my door and came in. You know we were talking and they said, “Have you ever seen one of these things?” And I said, “No, what is it?” They said, “This is, essentially, a solid state bandpass filter,” made of lithium (???) and it has these transducers and you launch energy. Anyway, they went into physics and they showed me some selectivity curves. I said, “I’ll tell you what. Let me draw you a filter characteristic I need. How easy is it to make one of these things?” And they said, “Well, it’s not difficult.” So I got a piece of paper and drew them the bandage characteristics because one of the advantages of a surface acoustic wave filter, in addition to its very high selectivity, was the fact that you could design into it whatever kind of group delay you wanted. So I thought that was wonderful. You didn’t have to tune anything. It was in a small package and it had zero group delay if that’s what you wanted. So I drew for them precisely what kind of selectivity characteristics I needed and they went away and, in a couple months, came back with one of these devices.
Quite frankly at that time, I had almost completed the 8 pole filter design with an equalizer and I was really struggling with which one of these will I use because they had quoted to me $90 for this filter. And this completed module I had designed was almost in the same price range. And the surface acoustic wave filter was not without some issues. One issue was that it had 20 dB insertion loss. The other issue was that it had some internal reflections that created some delayed echoes. Much delayed … like we’re talking 30 microsecond kind of delays. And they had a hard time keeping those suppressed to the point that they needed to be.
But after going back and forth several times, I decided I was going to give that thing a try. So I put that thing in a vestigial sideband filter and took it to a cable show claiming a state-of-the-art advancement in modulators. Here is a cable modulator using a surface acoustic wave device as the vestigial filter. It was easy to sell its merits because all one had to do was feed a multi-burst video into a conventional modulator and take a spectrum analyzer and put it on its output and show them the desired sideband versus the undesired. With a lumped element tuned circuit, even with 8 poles you couldn’t get those other sidebands very far down. Now the truth is, as you know, color bars are not real representative of what a real signal looks like. And, therefore, had it been, none of the modulators would have ever worked because we would have always had interference into the lower sideband. But I took an old modulator and that new modulator with a surface acoustic wave filter and, I mean, there were no unwanted sidebands coming through that surface acoustic wave filter. It sold itself, really.
So in around ’75 or ’76, Scientific-Atlanta introduced the 6350 modulator with a surface acoustic wave vestigial filter. Gee, it was only a matter of time before everybody had one of those things in their modulator. I think they still do today … I’m pretty sure they do. The filters have gotten much better, much cheaper. But in those days, at least, once again I felt like it had kind of advanced the state of the art in terms of modulator design. But like I say I would like to think it was some strategic genius on my part that did that but it was because this guy showed up at the door of Scientific-Atlanta about the same time I was struggling, tuning one of these 8 pole filters. So he happened to be at the right place at the right time and I appreciated him for being there. So that’s how the saw filter got into the modulator. Once again, Scientific-Atlanta still sells that modulator.
I was never comfortable … at one time I was going to go back and put that saw filter into the signal processor and some have. It’s a little more difficult putting it in a processor because of the 20 dB insertion loss. It’s one thing to generate the high level clean carrier and let it undergo 20 dB attenuation in a modulator. It’s another thing to receive a very weak signal and to figure out how to make sure that weak signal is not degraded further and imbed this 20 dB loss device in a processor. So I was never comfortable with putting it back in a processor and I never did. But, anyway, that’s how the saw filter got into a modulator.
TAYLOR: In the process of digging into history of television and history of cable and so on, I’m coming to the conclusion that there is nothing new under the sun. That every new development is really a kind of an outgrowth of something that went before it. Then you go look at the one that came before it and there was something before that that led to it. You find that there isn’t anything that just bursts full blown out of nowhere. Somebody was wise enough to see the possibilities and use it. And that’s what you did with the saw filter and I think you’re to be commended for it.
BEST: Well, I appreciate that. And I guess the only other thing at Scientific-Atlanta in the headend equipment line, obviously, we later made a demodulator. You know, once again, we decided to do something, it certainly wasn’t new at the time, but we tried to advance the state-of-the-art a little bit and we made a synchronous demodulator. We actually had two of those. Just as we had a first generation processor modulator and demodulator and then later to be replaced with this later processor I talked about, a later modulator with the saw filter and a later demodulator with a synchronous demodulator in it, a true synchronous demodulator. Later there became chips on the market that were referred to as quasi-synchronous that truly didn’t regenerate the carrier and phase like it to the incoming signal. But that’s what we did in the demodulator.
You know, it worked quite well. In fact, as it turned out, although we did the demodulator thirdly because, once again, there was not a real big market for demodulators in the cable industry because you either processed it or you started with video and you modulated it. Until later, with so many signals of video due to satellite distribution, some cable headends for whatever reason, decided to take everything to video and put it on a patch panel. Because once you got to video, then one could look at certain characteristics of the video signal. There were wave form monitors. There were vector scopes and all kind of things one could do with video that you couldn’t do with at RF. So there was then some merit to taking even off airs to base band video. But there was a need for better demodulators so we felt a synchronous demodulator was a better way to go. And, as it turned out, the demod was a pretty good demod to the extent that we found there was a much bigger market selling them to the broadcast stations as performance measuring devices. Because until that point their main choice, I want to say, was a Rodin-Schwartz somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 or $15,000 or a TeleMet. And then here came the Scientific-Atlanta demodulator using synchronous detection for $2,000. So they were willing to sacrifice the lesser quality we might have over the Rodin-Schwartz for the $2,000 price tag versus the $10,000 or $15,000 price tag. So at least for the smaller TV stations, we probably sold a lot more of them to broadcast stations than we did in the cable market. But we ended up doing a synchronous demodulator and …
TAYLOR: Were the broadcasters using the synchronous version?
BEST: Yes. You know it’s been so long and you probably know better than I. There were some measurements that were better made using synchronous and there were some measurements that were probably better made using the envelope detector. It had one of both in it. And the synchronous demod, if it couldn’t lock up on the signal for whatever reason, it automatically switched over to the envelope mode. I’m trying to remember, Archer.
There were some strange peculiarities about measuring certain distortions with one versus another. For instance, as I recall, differential phase cannot be measured, I don’t think, with a synchronous detector. I think somehow it camouflages that thing. In this learning process I went through over the years, there was a story … We had sold cable operators some of our first generation modulators which, quite frankly, were kind of weak in terms of differential gain and phase. Maybe it was differential gain that was camouflaged by the synchronous detector because they later called me up to come visit the system. They had our modulators and a test demodulator which had an envelope detector. And they came and said, “Alex, your differential gain and your modulator … something’s wrong. It needs to be worked on. It’s not very good.” I was sure that they couldn’t be right so I took one of our new synchronous demodulators we had just done and I said, “Well, obviously it’s in the demodulator not our modulator.”
So I went up there with this new synchronous demodulator under belt. He showed me this mod-demod with terrible envelope delay and I’m saying, “You know, it’s got to be in that demod you’ve got. Let me show you this new demod.” So I put this new demod that I’d brought, put that thing in a synchronous mode and, I mean, there was zero percent difference or gain. There was none, none. I never even thought to switch to the envelope mode at that time. And later I thought about that because later on, you know, I left the poor guy knowing that his demodulator was no good and that our modulator was fine because there was no differential gain through this S-A modulator and S-A synchronous demodulator.
I went back to Atlanta thinking that I had done great things and convinced this fellow that we didn’t have a problem. I don’t know whether it was months or whenever later, that I was measuring differential gain and I flipped between envelope and synchronous and it went from zero in the synchronous mode to 20 percent. And I felt so bad but at that time it had not dawned on me that this particular demod responded differently depending upon what kind of demodulator you used.
Anyway, about that time we pretty much had a full line of headend equipment and I now was the engineering manager and probably had ten or twenty people under me so we later designed a satellite receiver. Scientific-Atlanta already had a satellite communication division and a cable division. And the SatCom division, as we called it, had already designed a satellite communication receiver for the (???) series of satellites and they sold them to COMSAT and they were like $25,000 receivers. Of course, as I told you, satellites were being used more and more in cable distribution. The typical cable operator couldn’t afford a $25,000 satellite receiver. Of course, we thought he could because it could go with that $100,000 antenna we had sold him. So we were more than pleased to sell him $25,000 receivers and we were doing fine with that until the company in Florida came along. What was the name of that company? That company still exists. It has become a major supplier of satellite receivers to the cable industry.
BEST: No, it wasn’t Harris. They were in there for a while but they were also extremely high priced … Microdyne. They came along about the time we were trying to sell $25,000 receivers and put one on the market for about $5,000. Of course, that was the end of the satellite business for S-A.
So then the cable division decided to design a satellite receiver. We said, “We understand you (???) guys and your need for your $25,000 satellite receiver but it don’t fly in the cable market.” Of course, it’s difficult for engineers who designed $25,000 gizmos to tell them … make one almost as good for $3,000. So anyway, they handed out the project to the cable division. I was the engineering manager and Jim Hart was the project manager for the 6600 satellite receiver which was done at S-A and was about a $3,000 device and, therefore, we stayed competitive in the satellite arena.
Somewhere in this whole process and quite frankly, Archer, I wasn’t involved too much and I can’t remember what year but S-A in their overall strategy of starting at the antenna, preamp, headend had now realized that they had grown and it was time to enter the distribution business. So, it was always a decision, when you decided to do that … a make or buy decision. Do you go buy a company that’s making them or do you start from scratch? And S-A had made the decision that they felt they could get there quicker by buying the technology. So they looked around at what was available and a company called SKL was in the amplifier business, as I recall, with a discrete component amplifier system. And S-A bought SKL for about $200,000, as I recall. I remember amplifiers showing up at S-A in all states of disarray. I was still kind of in the headend group and a team was assembled to tackle this distribution equipment we had bought from SKL. A couple of engineers came for six months with it as part of the deal.
TAYLOR: What did you buy? Did you buy just assets or did you buy the company? Do you remember?
BEST: I think we bought assets. We bought existing inventory and drawings. We didn’t buy the company because we never intended to use the name.
TAYLOR: And whatever patent and trade rights they had.
BEST: Right, exactly. But for $200,000, we obviously didn’t buy a lot. I guess it was a lot of money in those days. But once we got it in-house and starting tearing through it, we came to the realization that we hadn’t gotten a lot. Because it was about that time that hybrid technology was starting to surface and here we were with a discrete component amplifier that needed a lot of work on it.
TAYLOR: Well, SKL’s genius has been in their vacuum tube distributed amplifier. They had done that even before cable TV. That was what their business was, making laboratory wideband amplifiers. They just decided, well this could be used in cable television and kept on expanding it. They never got into the transistor business successfully. They were in trouble. They weren’t getting there and so they started copying. They made a real Chinese copy of the Jerrold Style Line One, they called it. It was so nearly like it that you could almost slip a Jerrold module into the housing. But it was strictly copy. It was trying to get out of trouble quickly.
So what you bought was the later stuff. The tube distributed amplifier was past its prime at this point … not desirable anymore. They had never gotten away from it very well.
BEST: Well anyway, we bought it and after about three months of evaluation realized that we didn’t get very much. But if it did anything to us, it launched us into the distribution business. I guess trying to cover up a mistake we had made, we put a lot of people on getting into the distribution business. We struggled for a long time in the distribution business. There was some real entrenched competitors and it appeared for a long time … I can remember, once again, some discussions of whether they would stay in the distribution amplifier business because it’s not easy to get into that. I can remember leaky castings … We’d send those things back and have them impregnated with some kind of rosin to keep them from leaking … heaven only knows.
There were some difficult years there. Slowly but surely they worked out those problems and S-A became a good vendor. I would say their strength at that time … what they did better, as I recall some of the feedback from the customers, S-A’s amplifiers probably had a better AGC system in them than maybe some of the earlier units.
TAYLOR: Did you have much to do with the design of the distribution amplifier?
BEST: No, I was over in the headend product line primarily. Tim Hart headed up the distribution part of it. A fellow by the name of Larry Clayton, Jack Chastain, Charlie Curry …
TAYLOR: I didn’t know him but I knew the others.
BEST: There were four or five others that were assigned to designing the distribution amplifier.
TAYLOR: Were you there when they went into the coaxial cable business?
BEST: Well, I was there. I know they purchased Systems Wire and Cable out in Phoenix. In fact, I saw the fellow they bought it from recently at the Pioneer thing, I believe. I can’t remember his name. You know, to tell you the truth I wasn’t involved in that and to be honest with you I never visited that cable plant. I remember the strategy at the time and it seemed logical. Since you had this team of salespeople calling on cable operators, the more tricks you had in your bag to sell seemed to make a lot of sense. Hey, while he was there he could sell headend equipment and distribution. And if he had a cable to sell, he could offer that for sale, too. Of course, in many cases it made sense to quote a turnkey discount. Selling them everything … headend, amplifiers and cables if they bought that. To my knowledge they never made any money by selling cable. And once again, there was some pretty good entrenched competitors who had excellent reputations … CommScope and Times.
TAYLOR: CommScope and Times … nobody else has really been able to go up against those two.
BEST: That’s right.
TAYLOR: The history of that Systems Wire, I think that I’m correct in this, started with Rome Cable up in Rome, New York. Bruce Merrill and … Rome was going to go out of the business or did and so Bruce hired the two guys–Jack Wood and Sid Mills–and brought them down to Phoenix and set up the draw bench and the whole thing. But it turned out not to be a profitable item for Bruce, either, so the fellow that you’re speaking of, and I can’t remember now either who it is, took it over. Physically it was in the same place that Bruce had had it but that became, then, Systems Wire and Cable, and SKL bought it and still operated it in the same spot.
BEST: Yes, it sure did. S-A had it for, I want to say, three or four or five years and then realized that they were not going to make inroads into CommScope and Times so they let it go.
TAYLOR: They acquired something from Anaconda, too. That flexible cable that they had … I can’t remember the trade name for it but it was a very flexible, very thin aluminum but it was a lapped aluminum not a drawn or butted. They used a lot of it up in the original Manhattan Cable up in New York but it was very leaky because of the joints.
BEST: Wrapping up my days at S-A. We were successful in the headend business and were getting to be reasonably successful in the distribution business so we decided to take the final plunge. The set top converter business was growing by leaps and bounds as channel capacity continued to expand. I was the engineering manager when we decided S-A …
At that time S-A had had a string of successes and, to my knowledge, not one failure in terms of a new product to any appreciable extent. Somehow it just seemed like everything they did seemed to work. So undaunted, we said, “Boy, we’ll just make a better set top converter.” So it was me and Jim Palmer that really kind of spearheaded that thing. Of course at that time, I guess Jerrold was making set tops and there was one made by Standard Components. Or if they didn’t make the set top, they made the tuner.
TAYLOR: I think they just made the tuner.
BEST: In fact, they made almost everybody’s tuner that went in a set top.
So we decided to make a set top. We said we’re going to manufacture this thing in Atlanta. We had taken apart some of Standard Components tuners and realized that no way did we have the manufacturing expertise to make those kind of things.
End of Tape 1, Side B
TAYLOR: Now we’re back in business with a new tape.
BEST: Okay, so we decided we were going to make a set top converter that could be easily manufactured so that we could make those things in Atlanta and just crank them out like cookies. The tuner was the difficult part because having looked inside TV tuners, you realized they were very labor intensive … lots of little gimmicks and twists of wire. We decided we were going to make a better tuner so Jim and I set about to design a set top converter. We used techniques that we were good at and that is putting components on PC boards and …
So we designed a set top converter. The other thing we were going to do is take it to 400 megahertz because most set tops stopped at 300. That was about the same time that the distribution equipment finally had made the leapfrog to 400 megahertz. So we just announced we were going to design and produce a 400 megahertz converter and we started getting orders. You couldn’t buy them from anybody else at the time. In fact, Cox, in a franchise they had in Chicago … I remember that order. We got an order from Cox for 400 megahertz converters.
Now we were pretty far down the line in designing this thing. Jim and I realized about three months before we put this thing into production that it was not going to work. But unfortunately, we had gotten ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Scientific-Atlanta had accepted a lot of orders. Franchise commitments were based on getting systems up and operating. I can remember going to Cox and saying, “We’ve got this converter here but it is not ready.” And they said, “I don’t care. You deliver when you say you were going to deliver.” Maybe it wasn’t quite that frank but, essentially, that’s what it was.
So we put this ill-fated set top converter into production over at S-A. It had terrible, terrible problems related to crosstalk between various compartments inside this thing … frequency drift on the output … you name it. I can remember at one time, in its heyday if you want to call it that, S-A was producing 1,000 of those a day … right down the street here. We were selling them for $70 apiece and they were costing us $90 a piece. So we were losing $20,000 a day and they were still no good. They were coming back almost as quickly as we shipped them.
Now it’s about 1980. We had a meeting one day and said, “This is not going to work.” So Jack Kelly, who was executive vice president at that time, Jay Levergood and myself got on a plane and flew to Japan. We had previously set up to meet about seven Japanese companies … going through a selection process to decide who we would pick to manufacture our set top converter. And after a series of trips and visits and everything, of course, we picked the [?], Division of [?]. [?] at that time was the world’s leading manufacturer of TV tuners … in a little, bitsy town in Japan called [?].
So we selected them and shut down our facility here in Atlanta, obviously, with a lot of stress related to some customers who didn’t get their boxes. We tried to buy boxes from other suppliers to give to them to get us out of this predicament. It was a very difficult time.
You will find almost any company you talk to in the cable industry, I find it somewhat interesting, and you’ll find a period of time where they would tell you how many millions of dollars they lost on some specific issue. Whether it be Scientific-Atlanta, which in their case it was the 6700 converter, as they called it in those days. I can’t remember the number … $25, $30, $40 million they lost. You can go to Cox and say what was your albatross and they will tell you it was their converter. Because, as you know, it was back in the QUBE days when every cable operator felt they needed a unique gimmick in order to win the next franchise. Warner was doing quite well with the QUBE concept and Cox had the INDAX (???) concept. I can remember when I was at Scientific-Atlanta, I was up to my eyes in difficulty with S-A’s converter when Cox came over and said, “Gee, we’ve had a host of thousands designing this new converter of ours called INDAX for a number of years. Now we’re ready to find a manufacturer. Scientific-Atlanta, how would you like to manufacture this thing?” I said, “Oh no … wait a minute … hold it.” “We’ve got our own set of problems here.” So, in fact, Cox ended up …
BREAK IN CONVERSATION
BEST: Anyway, Archer, as you remember, almost any successful company, at least that I’m aware of, had their albatross somewhere along the line. Scientific-Atlanta’s was the 6700 converter. In Cox it was the INDAX converter … who came to Scientific-Atlanta to manufacture that thing and we turned them down because we had our own set of problems with converters. Of course, Cox later went to Oak who manufactured, I think, 1,000 of their converters. But I think a lot of folks had those issues.
But anyway, we later took it to Japan and it obviously became quite successful. I can remember at Scientific-Atlanta … quite honestly it wasn’t easy, as an engineer, to take a design to Japan. I don’t know, you just didn’t have a good feeling about it. There were a lot of people working on S-A’s converter and all of a sudden that would all go away. But I can remember I found it somewhat ironic that after picking this (???) division to work with S-A, the first day, by chance, a team of their engineers showed up at S-A to start the so-called technology transfer … it was December 7th. I thought that was somewhat appropriate or inappropriate or whatever it was … but I kidded with them about it later that they showed up on our door step on December the 7th probably 1981 to start the technology transfer.
It’s funny … what goes around, comes around. I now hear that with the Yen/dollar relationship, S-A is considering bringing some manufacturing of converters back to the states which probably is true with the present dollar/Yen ratio that’s going on.
Anyway, S-A over the years, we started, as Tom Smith had kind of strategized … we started at the top of the tower, worked down the tower, through the headend, down the distribution and all the way into the home with development of products. And we were mostly successful.
TAYLOR: Let me ask you a little bit about the 6700 converter. You knew that the design was faulty before you ever put it in production, is that the size of it?
TAYLOR: Was it a matter of being pushed too fast by sales?
BEST: It was a matter of having committed to orders before the design was complete because of a track record of almost having never missed a commitment like that. And, when we did make those commitments previously where we committed to ship something prior to having it completed, somehow or another the design was completed and went into manufacture and it seemed to work okay. Here was an example of … gee, we’ve done this before, what’s the difference? We’ll accept these orders based on the schedule you engineers claim. Obviously, we engineers always felt we were pushed too hard.
But, then, getting to that point Jay and I and Jim all realized that this was probably not going to work. And Jay went to the customers and said, “We’ve got problems here. We need delays.” And they said, “No.” It was almost like they said, we don’t care how it works, just ship it.
I can’t relate totally even though I’ve been at Cox for a number of years. Since I’ve been at Cox … I wasn’t in the franchising heydays to know the commitments that were made to turn up service on a given day and what that meant to a cable operator. I assume you would put your franchise in jeopardy if you committed to do something by a certain time frame and couldn’t do it. And that’s, I assume, what some of our customers … the bind they were in. And, therefore, what we just assumed was we would put this thing into production and we would continue to band-aid it. And just maybe, with enough band-aids and enough talent, we could fix this thing.
TAYLOR: Of course, you say you were between a rock and a hard place … the purchasers probably knew about the rock but I don’t think they realized what a hard place they were going to be up against when the counsel began to get the complaints from customers that things didn’t work. I got called into one of the places up there around the Chicago area where the customers had been screaming bloody murder. I was called by the city council to go around and see if I could find out what it was all about. They knew pretty well what it was about but they wanted an outsider to come in. I got the stories from the people and, I’ll tell you, they were … It was awful.
BEST: You’re right, it was not a fun time at S-A.
TAYLOR: And for the franchisee, it was a rock and a hard place because he knew if he didn’t produce, he’d be in trouble. But then he produces and has bad results, he’s also in trouble. So, it was tough.
I was in Jay Levergood’s office before the converter thing got started. I’ve forgotten why I was there but we were talking and he said, “We’re going to build a converter. We’ve studied overseas and home and we’ve decided to build it right here. We’re going to build it in that building right over there because we have a good labor pool here and we can keep control of it. Everything would be right here under our thumbs.” I thought about that many times afterwards.
BEST: I remember sometime in that process, since the tuner was the real … I mean the descrambler and the (???), that’s no rocket science there but the tuner … There’s a little bit of black magic that goes on in a TV tuner. I remember in that process calling Standard Components back up and saying, “Look, we need some tuners.” But, at that time, they said, “Yes, we can deliver some in nine months.” And I’m saying, “That’s not good enough.” And they said, “That’s the best we can do.” So we had no tuner source. We had one of our own which wasn’t working too well to put it mildly so we just couldn’t seem to find an out.
I’m sure we created a lot of grief for the end customer, for the cable operator, and then, finally we shut down manufacturing until we took it overseas. There should be a good example there somewhere … a lesson to be learned. I’m not sure what it is. One is, don’t take orders until you’ve got a working design … might be one.
TAYLOR: Of course, the standard joke about Jerrold for many years has been that they put out the brochure on a product to see if anybody buys it and then they’ll make it. Or see if they can make it.
BEST: There’s a certain amount of truth there.
TAYLOR: I recounted this to some telephone guys one time and they looked at me and said, “Isn’t that the way everybody does it?”
BEST: You’re right.
TAYLOR: Even in the telephone industry where, almost, money is no object or has been in the past.
BEST: But there’s nothing like being burnt once to make that lesson fresh in your mind. Anyway, that was a difficult period of time.
Of course, there were a lot of other interesting things that came along during the years as you know of. At Scientific-Atlanta, being in the headend business, Sruki Switzer introduced the concept of phase locked headends. Of course, at S-A we were a major supplier of headends. We had made a phase lock modulator because there was a need for those to lock off air carriers to reduce the interference on carrying a lesser watts channel on an off air channel. So we had phase locking technology. And Sruki, as you know, when maybe the channel loading outstripped the hybrid guy’s ability to keep distortions low enough … I keep calling phase locking as kind of a band-aid approach to subjectively reduce the effects of composite triple beat or second order distortion. So S-A offered those and we did some work with Sruki. Of course, he also was connected with PhaseComm.
I remember one time, and this is a story … everybody who wants to develop things or unique things for the cable industry, and I remember that was my first example as I recall one specific instance related to phase locking that has come up time and time again even after I’ve been at Cox. Somebody develops something for cable, they don’t necessarily want you to pay cash for this new advancement. They want a few pennies per subscriber. Everybody wants to seem to have this constant revenue stream coming from subscribers. But I recall, I believe, Sruki had a patent on phase locked headends and Scientific-Atlanta was selling phase locked equipment. As I recall, one time in some negotiations between S-A, Sruki and, maybe, PhaseComm, that they wanted money out of the subscriber as a revenue stream coming back to them. Of course, we were kind of in the middle of that. We were the supplier of the equipment, you know, but who’s to pay … the cable operator, the subscriber, S-A? I remember some negotiations with PhaseComm over that. But fortunately, or unfortunately, hybrid technology got better and the need for phase locking diminished.
TAYLOR: I’m sure a lot of systems out there though that, I think, wish they were not phase locked and it’s very difficult to change.
BEST: Absolutely. We have at least two or three HRC systems still in Cox that would love to switch back over. But, you know, it’s not so much a matter of just changing … you’ve got the headend, you’ve got the converter and then you’ve got all those filters in the amplifiers.
TAYLOR: And all the subscribers.
BEST: That’s right, all the converters.
TAYLOR: It’s very, very difficult.
BEST: It’s not easy to change over so we still harbor some of those.
But anyway, it was another one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. And, in fact, I can remember I was impressed during testing through cascades over at S-A. We could turn the cone generator off and unphase lock the headend. And you could certainly overload the amplifiers a little bit and show the effects of CTB and then flip that switch on and, boy, all those beats just totally disappeared. So it was quite impressive. It was easy to see how you bring in a customer and say, “Okay, here’s a phase locked headend and here it is an unphase locked headend. Which one would you like?”
TAYLOR: One of the things that startled me, and actually I learned this when I was working for the city of Tucson on the Cox system down there. The city wanted me to do the certification of completion. It was a funny arrangement because I’m working for the city but the city couldn’t pay me because I wasn’t registered in Arizona. So the agreement was that Cox would pay my bills but I’d be working for the city to decide whether Cox was doing a good job or not. Larry Lawson came down from Cox but he had been at Scientific-Atlanta. We were measuring composite triple beat out on the system after cascades and AML. And I discovered that the actual triple beat measured is bigger with HRC than it is when you’d … and this is obvious because they’re all piled up.
BEST: They’re all lined up.
TAYLOR: They aren’t in phase so it isn’t necessarily a direct addition but the measurement is actually larger than … that was interesting to learn.
Another one I’ve discovered a couple of places, I don’t know the answer to yet, is that when it was phase locked, it seemed to have a double peak in the trace on the spectrum analyzer. Unlock it and it would go back to the single peak. I still don’t have an answer to that.
BEST: I don’t know.
TAYLOR: And I’ve seen it in two different systems. One up in Connecticut and then the one in Tucson.
BEST: I’m not sure what caused that. So that was the craze for a while. Then, bless his heart, he decided to go beyond that, Sruki that is, and get into gin locking and phase locking. Heaven forbid because, as you know, that takes the time synchronizers which, back in those days, were $10,000 a pop. Fortunately, the hybrids got better and better and that kind of went by the wayside.
Sold a lot of phase locked headends and I have to confess, it was easy to show the advantages of one to a customer.
TAYLOR: No question.
BEST: It was only after they put them in the field that the disadvantages showed up … where any ingress was offset, etc., etc. So yes, there’s still a lot of HRC headends, including two or three, I’m trying to remember, in Cox.
My days at S-A were very rewarding.
TAYLOR: One of the questions I had on here was, first, when did you lease S-A? And what was the reason?
BEST: Well, I left S-A in March of 1986. At the time I had kind of gotten to the point where I was what you’d call a technical salesperson. You’ll find very few engineers that do lab bench design their whole career … somehow they take a different path. I had gotten to where I was working with a group in Canada, a subsidiary we had bought called Digital Video Systems. And they were making a new signal format for satellite transmission called (???). So I was involved in doing some customer demonstrations on (???), etc., etc.
I was not looking for a job when I received a call from a headhunter claiming that an Atlanta-based firm was looking for a VP of engineering for their cable operations. Of course, it didn’t take much thought to figure out who that was.
TAYLOR: It would be hard to conceal it.
BEST: Yes, hard to conceal who that cable operator might be. So he asked me would I be interested in talking to them. And I said, “Sure, I’ll talk to them.” So, in fact, Jim Robbins, the present president of Cox Cable called me and said, “Alex, I know you’ve been in the cable industry a long time and I’m looking for someone. Would you have dinner with me?” And I said, “Okay.”
So I had dinner with Jim Robbins and told him what my background was and what my strength was and he said, “Alex, I appreciate you having dinner but, to be honest with you, I was looking for someone who had a strong background in cable operations.” And I said, “Jim, I essentially have no cable operations experience. I have been a product designer. I’ve visited a lot of cable systems from a headend perspective but I’m not a cable operator.” So he thanked me and we parted ways.
About two months later he called me back and said, “Let’s have dinner again.” So anyway, one or two more dinners and he said, “I’ve looked around and you have an excellent reputation in the cable industry. I haven’t spoken to anybody who didn’t think highly of you, so I’m willing to give you a chance.” I said, “I have to confess, after having been at S-A for almost twenty years, I’ve always been fascinated with being on the operations side but I’m not about to walk away from a twenty year tenure here.” I might go over there and six months later they might decide I’m not what they want. So I said, “Yes, Jim, I’m interested. I would like to negotiate some kind of employment guarantee.” And he said, “Employment guarantee?” I said, “You know, I’m walking away from twenty years with a company here. I want to have guaranteed employment for five years or so.” And he said, “Alex, I don’t even have guaranteed employment.” So I backed off of that requirement and thought what the heck … I’ve always wanted to try cable operations so I’ll give it a try.
So I came over to Cox in April of ’86 and have now been here about seven and a half years and have to say that Cox is a great company. It’s a private company and that’s all together a different environment than a public company. They each have their advantages and disadvantages. Cox treats their people very well and it’s a well run organization. I was accepted into the fold and, with the help of a lot of great people around here, think I have made the transition. I have just been tickled to death to be here at Cox.
It’s fun to be an operator now. It’s not bad to be a manufacturer right now. The thing about the manufacturing business, it was an up and down business. It was feast or famine. And it depended a lot upon the success of the cable industry, obviously, for a Scientific-Atlanta which is probably 60 or 70 percent cable related in terms of their products. So they would have good years and bad years. But at least since I came to Cox in ’86, there’s been nothing but good years. However, with re-regulation, maybe I’m about to see some of the more difficult times as a cable operator.
But Cox has been a great company. The people have been great and I’ve learned to make the transition. You know, it was not as difficult as one might think because I never had to move … it was the same city. It was somewhat strange that two weeks before I came to Cox I was on one side of the table negotiating and then two weeks later I was on the other side of the table negotiating with the people I had just left. So that created a lot of fun and joking along the way. But it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed both the manufacturing side and the operations side.
Not many people have been fortunate enough to kind of get in on the start of what has grown to be a major successful industry.
TAYLOR: Well, that’s what’s exciting to me and I was in it thirteen years before you were … on the operating side or the ownership/management. Didn’t know anything about it but we did it.
BEST: Well, you know, in retrospect, like I say it’s been great for me … I have no regrets. However, I’ve seen lots of folks become multi-millionaires in my day. Some who have worked with me and some who used to go and help me in cable headends who later left S-A and got some franchises.
E. B. Chester is a name that comes to mind and a fellow named David Smith who used to go out and work on headends with me. In fact, I remember one time, he was up putting some antennas on top of the tower and I was in the headend doing my thing. I got busy and, quite frankly, got careless. In the headend you always had a rotor on top. We had the fixed antennas but you always had a rotor for experiment. And I needed to look at a signal and I thought the antenna wasn’t working. Anyway, I reached up and grabbed the rotor and gave that thing a turn and I heard yelling and screaming. He was up on the tower … I almost knocked him off the tower. But he got on to me which he had an absolute right to do. But anyway, that was a fellow named David Smith. A fine fellow who later left S-A … went with E. B. Chester … got the franchise for Tall River, North Carolina, and later other franchises and did quite well for themselves.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is how I never, somewhere along the line, realized that there was a real fortune to be made by getting cable franchises and building cable systems and operating them is something … I don’t know. Looking back on it, when you’re an engineer on the lab bench, you’re caught up in your own little world …
TAYLOR: Making money isn’t the object.
BEST: Exactly, right.
TAYLOR: You’re having fun. You enjoyed what you were doing for sure.
BEST: I can honestly say that of my, I guess, twenty-six or twenty-seven years in the cable industry, my best time was the early days of sitting on a lab bench surrounded by all my test equipment, and designing circuits and building things which you then sat and looked at and said, “Gee, I did that.” That was the best times. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy what I’m doing now but, being in a corporate headquarters, sometimes you go home at night very tired and you can’t figure out what you did during the day. That wasn’t the case when you were product designing yourself. That was, undoubtedly, the best times.
But, it’s been fun. I can’t wait for the next five years because believe you me, and you know it, the changes that are occurring today are just unbelievable, unbelievable.
TAYLOR: I’d like to, and this is a good place to start it, I’d like to get you to start talking about what you think is in the future. I’ve listed a few things here: telephone convergence is, obviously, a major one; fiber optics; digital; HD-TV; multimedia, whatever that means. Where do you think we’re going?
BEST: Well, I don’t know. Of course as a cable operator, I think our destiny is to become the so-called provider of the information highway. Because, you know, there’s always the threat of the telephone companies overbuilding us. But we know as a cable operator, and they know as smart businessmen, that if you overbuild the cable operator and each of you gets half the subscriber base, neither one of you is going to like that business … now they know that. That’s why the cable industry has always only really argued against telephone entry. In other words, we don’t mind having them as a competitor if someone can guarantee us they can’t cross-subsidize from the regulated side to the cable side. Because if they could do that, then, of course, they could prop up the cable side until essentially they put the competitor out of business and then you’d be back where you are today. Well, we know that and they know that so it really makes no sense for the telephone industry to overbuild the cable industry.
But that leaves them in a real quandary. They’ve got no bandwidth in a world that is going wideband width and switch to the home with video voice and data. And so I understand their position. But it appears to me that the only solution to that is one which we just started, and that is joint ventures and mergers. And you saw it with U.S. West and Time Warner and, I think, history will tell there will be more and more of those. Therefore, that we do have the architecture of choice … the fiber coax. A star burst system is the architecture of choice to deliver video voice and data to the home.
There’s no question but fiber optics has turned the whole world upside down for us. And if you go back before fiber optics, we had bandwidth … we had no capability of switching. And it would only have been a matter of time for the telephone company to overtake us.
TAYLOR: Of course, we tried the switching starting with rediffusion and discade and tracks and SCAT and mini-hubs … sort of switching.
BEST: Maybe switching is not what I’m trying to say. What fiber optics has done for us is allowed us to target bandwidth. In other words, the phone companies have always been able to target bandwidth. If you call me or I call you, they targeted several kilohertz between you and me and it was ours to use. In the cable industry, I had several hundred megahertz of bandwidth, but I could not target it to a specific user. I was, in fact, a broadcaster. I didn’t broadcast one channel at a million watts over the year, I broadcast fifty channels at a few milowatts down a cable but I was a broadcaster.
TAYLOR: That’s right.
BEST: And I had no ability to target it. But once we started deploying fiber optics … I took fiber from my headend to a node and then I served 1,000 people. Now that several hundred megahertz of bandwidth was available to be shared by only those 500 people, I was approaching a minimum bandwidth per subscriber that allowed me to target services. Or in other words, I could deliver to you in a node a specific service or video program or telephony call delegated only to you and I had enough bandwidth to let you occupy that bandwidth without anyone else being involved. And it was only fiber that let me do that. Before fiber I might have had 400 megahertz, but it was shared with 100,000 people. With fiber, that 400 megahertz might be shared with 500 people. Or, if I wanted to shrink the node, with 100 people.
As I try to explain this to people who have a hard time with this concept, I say, let me explain it this way. Suppose I have 100 channel capability and 100 customers in that node. I could theoretically allocate to you a channel and say, “Archer, Channel 53 is yours and yours alone … nobody else’s. You just tell me what you want me to put on Channel 53.” And if I have the technical capability … headend, I can target a channel just for you a la video on demand.
Well, fortunately, we don’t have to have a channel per subscriber. There is the so-called contention model that works and the phone companies are experts at contention. You know that because if everybody picked up the phone in Washington at the same time, you’d get a busy signal. They don’t design the network to handle 100 percent occupancy or usage. Neither do we have to have a channel per subscriber. So with fiber going down to a node and using digital compression, I now have enough bandwidth per subscriber that I, in fact, can target programming. And now with the concept, that gives me enough bandwidth per subscriber to provide on-demand services.
Now all I’ve got to do is solve the headend problem, and that is being worked on a la the concept of the file server. Where one digitizes video and puts it on a large computer device switched through a packet switching device onto only the fiber where the person is located that requested that information. So it is the usage of fiber and the nodalizing of our systems into small numbers of subscriber per node, that has made the overall concept of the so-called broadband information highway to the home a reality for the cable industry.
Now, obviously, there are a lot of technical problems that have to be solved before this becomes a practical reality but it will, in fact, happen. We will, in fact, have huge file servers in our headends or located at some distance from our headends where video, voice and data can be digitized and packet switched to a specific user in a specific node. And it also, as you know, by nodalizing our systems solves the return problem which we never could seem to solve before where we had 100,000 people all of whose signals funnel back together.
TAYLOR: All through the collection.
BEST: Exactly. So I give Jim Chiddix … and I gave him a hard time when in 1988 he introduced, once again, the concept of fiber optics. Because let me tell you, I went to a fiber optics symposium in the cable industry in 1978 when in that year Times, at the National Cable Show, put twenty-one channels on a laser transmitter, carried over a piece of glass, converted it back to electrical signals and displayed it on twenty-one TV sets. The worst twenty-one pictures I ever saw in my whole life. I’ve never seen so many beats on twenty-one pictures in my whole life. But the point was they said, look, here’s television signals being converted to light, being converted to electrical signals, over single fiber or single laser.
We had a conference in Monterey, California, in 1978 where all the technological leaders of the industry got up and said, “We saw what we saw. Yes, we understand that could be kind of nice but we don’t need it right now. We’re too busy building cable systems and AML is working just fine with no beats. We just don’t see its place right now.”
And so when Jim introduced the concept in 1980, I said, “Jim, we’ve tried this. It didn’t work then and it’s not going to work now.” But, fortunately, he didn’t listen to me and he got the laser people interested in linear lasers. Maybe it was because the timing was right. The other problem ten years before, they were selling as many lasers as they could build to the telephone industry who was using them for digital systems. They didn’t need to be linear.
TAYLOR: That’s right.
BEST: So AT&T got interested and worked on linear lasers and the rest is history. Of course, we use lasers and glass, initially, to improve picture quality and reliability. But once you started doing that, all you had to do was step back and look at this architecture and realize that you were evolving this thing to a star burst architecture … much closer to what the telephone industry has in terms of architecture. And a little more thought about it and then one realizes that you could, in fact, now have enough bandwidth per subscriber to target programming if you could solve the headend problem.
And so with all of that background, one can realize with the telephone industry looking where we’re headed and looking at the dilemma they face, they are between a rock and a hard place.
TAYLOR: Indeed they are.
BEST: They have no bandwidth but infinite target ability. We have lots of bandwidth. We used to have no target ability, but we’re developing target ability by nodalizing our systems. And we can get there much quicker than they can get there.
Now as far as telephony, certainly with the activation of our return plant … I’m aware of four manufacturers making boxes to put in the home for cable phone service. Now maybe their initial market place is looking at the U.K. where they’re doing it today. I’ve never been convinced that we could replicate what they’re doing in the U.K. over here because they’re doing reasonably well with cable phone service over there because the British telecom doesn’t have a pristine reputation.
TAYLOR: That’s right.
BEST: We have a pretty good phone system in this country. So I’ve never been real enamored with taking the telephone customers away from them. I did think there was an opportunity if PCS made a go of it because we had the infrastructure in place to interconnect a lot of microcells.
But anyway, it appears to me that we have the upper hand. That may be a little bit of a David and Goliath.
TAYLOR: One thing they have that we don’t have in the same quantity is money.
BEST: That’s right.
TAYLOR: And that sometimes can be a pretty effective tool.
BEST: I feel if they act as rationale business people, they will not overbuild us. And, therefore, their only alternative is to merge or joint venture … buy.
TAYLOR: They will undoubtedly try some overbuilds.
BEST: They will try it. I think they will … to get us to the table. To let us know they’re serious. In fact, you don’t have to tell me because Omaha happens to be our system where U.S. West is overbuilding us.
TAYLOR: Fiber to the home?
BEST: A lot of people have asked me about that. I’ve talked to a lot of phone company groups and they say, “Hey, Alex, when are you going to take fiber to the home?” And I say, “Tell you what. I’ll take fiber to the home when you go to your local retail store and buy a TV set that has a connector on the back that says screw the fiber in here. And when you buy one of those, I’ll take fiber to the home.” Now I’m being a little facetious …
TAYLOR: That’s a good answer. It’s like my answer in 1973 to Corning. I was called up there to see how we can use fiber in cable television. And they went through a lot of demonstrations and talk and so on. As I was about ready to leave, I said, “You know, until you have a ten dollar (???) converter, it isn’t going to be used for distribution.” There would be special purposes … super trunk and so on. But to the home, a ten dollar (???) converter.
BEST: That’s right.
TAYLOR: Well, it was facetious even in 1973 but when you look at the cost of (???) converters now days, take the inflationary figure in and they’re not too far away.
BEST: You’re right. Plus, obviously, we’ve looked at them more analytically. But we plotted a graph on cost per subscriber as you push fiber deeper into the system. You know … 20 amps, 10 amps, 6 amps, 4 amps, 3 amps … and that curve goes like this as fiber gets closer and closer to the home.
TAYLOR: And, of course, the answer that somebody else would give you, not me, is that the cost of that optical converter keeps going down all the time. So that the two curves tend to balance a bit.
One other question is do you think ever, at least in let’s say the foreseeable future, coaxial cable will disappear?
BEST: No, I don’t think so.
TAYLOR: I’ve heard some people say that fiber is going to just take over and we’ll have fiber everywhere and there won’t be anymore market for coaxial cable.
BEST: Well, I’ve been wrong on several other things, Archer, so I’ll say I don’t think coax is going to disappear anywhere in the foreseeable future. You take fiber to the home and you can have gigabits to the home. The question is do you need gigabit capability to the home? If I can get to where a few hundred people share 750 megahertz, there’s some school of thought that says that’s enough bandwidth to do anything one can imagine.
TAYLOR: You can put an awful lot of gigabits down that 750 megahertz.
BEST: That’s right. We’re in the middle of our budgeting sessions so we are still taking six fibers to 1,500 homes pass per node. I will admit, I think sometime when we get to the file server concept, we may need to shrink those nodes. But we’ve got six fibers and we’re only using one of them. And we are now asking our systems to go to 750. They come back and say, “Yeah, Alex, last year it was 550, the year before that it was 450 and I’m going to wait for 1 gigahertz.” And I have told them, I’m going out on another limb … “I don’t think one gigahertz is going to happen.” I have been told by the S-A’s and others that … I won’t say there’s a brick wall but it is very difficult in hybrid technology to get enough linearity to go to 1 gigahertz. Even though, I believe, the C-COR equipment in Queens was discrete components. As I recall, I don’t think it was hybrids.
TAYLOR: I think you’re right.
BEST: But I’m trying to convince them that 750 may be where we go. If you ever made that statement before, you would be wrong. In other words, if you said 400 is enough, or 550 is enough, or 750 is enough, invariably it wasn’t a year later before somebody had gone beyond that.
But I believe … we now have other degrees of freedom. That is, if you take fiber to the node and have 750 megahertz, if that’s not enough bandwidth, I can shrink the node. If that’s not enough capacity, I can transition to digital and use compression. So I’ve got some other degrees of freedom if it’s bandwidth per subscriber that becomes the compelling argument to needing more bandwidth. Because if it was just bandwidth you needed, I always had to upgrade it again. But if it’s bandwidth per subscriber you need, I’ve got two more degrees of freedom. I can shrink the node or I can go to digital compression. So I’m trying to convince them that 750 is where we’re going and we’re not going to go any further. We’re taking six fibers for 1,500 nodes and that’s going to be enough.
End of Tape 2, Side A
TAYLOR: Okay, we’re back on after reaching the end of the tape. I wanted to try something out. I’ve been saying that if you say that there really isn’t a good reason for going fiber to the home, which I agree with, it’s also very difficult to go fiber to the tap, as we know a tap. Now it’s not the same thing as the telephone going fiber to the curb because they have twenty or thirty homes served from their cabinet or whatever they call it. But if you’ve got fiber from the tap to the home, you’ve still got to have coax everywhere in the system no matter how small your nodes are. If your nodes are 500, you’re going to have to have coax in front of every group of houses, anyway. You come down to 200, come down to 100 … there’s some point, maybe less than 100, where you could possibly do it all with fiber and with a little passive coax but mostly fiber. But unless you go fiber to the home, it’s, I think, pretty difficult. That means that, really, no matter how much fiber you put in the system short of going to the home, you’re still going to have almost as much coax as you have now.
BEST: I agree and, of course, this is very comforting to the CommScopes and the Times folks. Now the nature of their business is changing a little bit. They don’t sell as much 1 inch and 3/4 inch as they used to. And they sell a lot more 1/2 inch and drop cable … bigger drop cable as we go higher in bandwidth. I just can’t see the coax business going away.
TAYLOR: I sure can’t see it either. I developed this concept after doing a little studying on behalf of a client that was worried about it. In fact, they were going to try and make a sale of their business and they were being told by the buyer that coax is going to die … is going to be out of here in five or ten years. I maintain that as long as you can foresee, it’s going to be a lot of coax.
BEST: I guess I feel somewhat vindicated that we have the right architecture, that is the fiber coax architecture, by watching the phone companies who now are replicating what we’re putting in place … U.S. West. All you have to do is talk to the S-A’s and the G.I.’s and find out how many phone company people are coming through there wanting proposals for amplifiers and coaxial cable. And, in fact, are putting in place exactly the same architecture that we are.
TAYLOR: You mean for telephone service only?
BEST: No, I can’t say that. Of course in the U.K., you’ve been over there and you know they are putting a parallel fiber coax, fiber twisted pair. And, in fact, as U.S. West is overbuilding us in Omaha, they’re building three networks. They’re putting in two fiber coaxes and one fiber twisted pair for telephony.
TAYLOR: Fiber television when you say coax?
BEST: Yes. They’re building a fiber coax …
TAYLOR: A combination of fiber and coax?
BEST: Like we do … sub split system. They’re building a fiber coax mid split system and they’re building a fiber twisted pair telephony system. So I can’t give you an example of a telephone company only building a fiber coax network for the deployment of telephony only. I’m not aware of any but certainly that is possible. We think it’s possible … we know it’s possible but I don’t have any examples of them doing that. But it was U.S. West that claimed that they are going to deploy a fiber coax system over their entire service area. I want to say 100,000 homes passed per year or something like that using a fiber coax network. Whether or not that’s for telephone or telephony or video or video only, I don’t know.
Whether we were lucky or whether we were fortunate, I think we have the lowest cost architecture that lets you provide interactive video, voice and data to the home. It’s not obvious to me that anything is going to come along that’s going to provide a lower cost way to do that. It’s certainly not fiber to the home. It’s certainly not ADSL or HDSL. It is, in fact, a fiber coax network.
TAYLOR: Those are just interim ways to get around the fact that all they’ve got is copper pair.
BEST: So, I think, the future is bright for the cable industry. There are going to be a couple of rocky years. If we’re between a rock and a hard place, it’s because at a time when we need to infuse a lot of capital in our systems, our cash flows are being hurt. We need to infuse a lot of capital in our systems because number one, we have a formidable competitor coming on line next year in the name of direct broadcast satellite. And, obviously we need to infuse fiber into our systems if we want to be prepared to have the right transport platform in place to deploy the file server packet switch digital box in the home promise of the information highway. So at a time when we need to expand bandwidth from a competitive standpoint, deploy fiber from a future new business opportunities standpoint, our cash flow line is being hurt. So that’s the challenge we have, I see, going forward.
TAYLOR: I agree. We have some problems with the public presently, some of which we’ve helped ourselves do … we’ve created. When you can buy a remote control unit for six bucks in quantities of ten from Jerrold and then you lease it for three dollars a month … no wonder there’s progress.
BEST: That’s progress. And having been at Cox, we realize that with remotes and additional outlets. But, you know, how you got to that particular point … once you get there and you look at your revenue stream and you say, gee, I’m at a point now where $20 million a year comes from remote rentals and $15 million a year from additional outlets and you know you should drop those. But that is not an easy decision.
TAYLOR: That isn’t, that’s right.
BEST: And until someone came along and forced you to drop it, you just can’t in good faith bring yourself around to just doing that.
TAYLOR: Of course the other knotty problem that we face, and it may be a transient problem, I hope, and this is the interface problem … converter. Which I have thought from day one, back in the mid-’60s was the lesser of two evils. You had to have it and there were good reasons why you had to have it but it’s come along to whack us in the behind all the time now.
BEST: And, as you know, that issue it not going away. The FCC is going to attempt …
TAYLOR: No, it’s not going away unless we find a solution to it.
BEST: And unfortunately we’re headed toward a digital world where it gets aggravated for a while. Now I think that if there is ever a solution, it is when the TV sets go digital. If the TV sets go digital, it appears to me that the first time they would go digital is with the introduction of HD-TV. It’s not obvious to me that even if we start sending (???) down our cable systems and putting an (???) decoder, maybe some TV set manufacturer will say, gee, maybe I ought to build an (???) TV set but that remains to be seen. But certainly HD-TV receivers will be digital.
TAYLOR: Well, if you could get it so that the digital box had no controls, if you could stick it in the closet or the basement or whatever, then the customer problem with it would probably not be so great. And it strikes me, and I’ve been writing a column for the November CED on this line, that the hybrid system that Time Warner is using with the analog signals coming down up to 450 megahertz, I think, and then above that is a 300 megahertz of digital. And that digital will be coming in the full service network out of a server and then through ATM switches on fiber and eventually through coax to the home. But the customer will have … there will be that targeted capability in those digital lines … targeted to the customer. So that here you can bypass the digital side of it for the analog and let the customer use his TV set for all of that … tune the set to Channel 3 and then you use the remote controller to pick a program that goes on Channel 3 which can be either VOD or maybe just plain pay TV or pay per view or something. But at any rate, you get away from the customer control on the thing and it’s a hybrid that moves and eventually you go on farther than that.
BEST: I hear what you’re saying and, I guess, I have two response to that. There’s still the issue of, even in the digital world, whether they come from a file server and are (???) which may solve the problem, but if I transmit twenty digital signals and there’s a box that selects one and comes out on Channel 3, there’s still that issue … what if they wanted to watch this one while recording this other digital signal? It is the problem of them all coming in at one time and only one coming out. This funnel, as I call it, has really created the problem on the watching while recording or the picture and picture. And it’s not obvious to me if you go to a digital format, that’s going to solve it.
Now, on the other hand, if it’s not me just transmitting twenty digital signals like I used to transmit twenty analog signals but it’s offering them the true video on demand scenario, then maybe that solves it. Because the problem you have today is … here’s something I want to watch on this channel while there’s something over here I wanted to watch and, therefore, I want to record it at the same time. But the reason I want to do that is because they’re on when they’re on and I have no control over it. Now, if they’re on demand, then that necessity of recording goes away, right? Because if I want to see Casablanca now, I can watch it now. If I want to see another one now, I can watch it now. There is no longer the need that I have to record because it’s on now and I can’t stop it from being on now but I want to watch this and this at the same time.
TAYLOR: I haven’t gone into the pricing and operational mechanisms but, technically only, you could talk about outlets instead of households. My household might have one outlet, maybe two outlets, and each of those outlets is capable of being targeted from the headend. Now, I can plug in the VCR on one outlet and most of the schemes that we’re talking about will be four or five separate program channels on the coax that comes in. So I can have at least several outlets that are all independent and each have a keypad to select what goes on that.
BEST: If it comes from a file server, that’s true. I guess what I’m saying, I think what is going to happen next year before we get to the file server concept, there’s going to be a hybrid analog digital scheme.
Our scenario is that we’re a member of PrimeStar. PrimeStar is a medium power satellite. We are converting that satellite to digital compression and we’re going to be transmitting seventy channels over that satellite next year. And the purpose of doing that is twofold. Number one, we’re going to compete with you. Number two, that’s our headend in the sky for compressed services. You cannot afford, as a cable operator, to compress in your own headend. Compressors cost somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 a piece so you aren’t going to buy twenty of those and put them in a headend.
PrimeStar is going to carry HBO, Showtime … all the channels we carry today. So I really have no real interest in bringing those down compressed and putting them on my system, at least I don’t. Because if I do that, I’ve got to give those people a digital box … three hundred bucks. I’m carrying them now analog. If I was slap out of channels, I would. But I don’t think I would do that.
What I would take from PrimeStar is PrimeStar also, like Hughes, is going to transmit somewhere between twenty to thirty channels of near video on demand. As a cable operator, finding spectrum for twenty or thirty channels of near video on demand in the 6 megahertz per channel is pretty difficult. So not only from a spectrum standpoint but figuring out where twenty or thirty channels of video are going to come from. Where are they going to come from … a standalone video disk system? Those are kind of cumbersome to deal with. But if PrimeStar transmits that to me, I will take those, let’s say thirty channels of near video on demand … let’s say it’s seven movies with thirty minute staggered start time. That takes twenty-eight channels. But when it’s compressed, if it’s say only four channels per transponder, and that can be converted down to four channels per 6 megahertz, then it only takes seven channels. So I would be tempted to take those twenty-eight channels of near video on demand, compressed, put them on seven 6 megahertz channels on my cable system, and then come to you. If you’re a subscriber … you want basic service only … those are in the clear. You got a cable here, you don’t need a box. You want basic plus Showtime? That’s scrambled with Pioneer. I’ll give you a Pioneer box. You want basic, Showtime and access to twenty-eight channels of near video on demand? I’ll give you a digital box.
But those twenty-eight channels are broadcast on my cable system. Which means that that digital box I gave you has all of the same problems of your present set top, in terms of being consumer friendly from a watch one, record one. Because those are not an on demand, that is broadcast movies, stagger start times on lots of channels. But at least our scenario is, when PrimeStar offers that, since we are looking for unregulated revenue streams and pay per view appears to be one of the more promising ones, we are likely to carry those in a broadcast mode a long time before we start deploying file servers. And when I start putting digital boxes in the home because you want access to my movie club, you’re going to have the same problems with that digital box that you have with that analog box. Because they are broadcast …
Having said that, maybe it’s not quite so bad. Because if I carry seven movie titles a night, thirty minute stagger start times, so each movie title occupies four channels, and I run those seven for a week, maybe there is not a need for you to watch one while recording another because … heck, watch one tonight and watch the other one four days from now. So if I can take away the need to watch two things simultaneously or watch one while recording one, whether it be near video on demand run week at a time or whether it be true video on demand, if I can take away that need to watch plus record, I think I’d get away from some of the problems of the consumer issue. That remains to be seen.
TAYLOR: I’ve taken up enough of your time. I think we’ve done about all we can do, really. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the opportunity to get your history on tape. I appreciate the time that you’ve given to it. It’s been very interesting just to listen and talk.
BEST: I enjoyed it too, Archer, and I appreciate you considering me as you do this. Like I say, I’ve never felt like I was an historian in the cable industry. I don’t know, maybe twenty-five, twenty-six years in this relatively new industry is enough to be considered an historian.
TAYLOR: Very good. Thank you, again.
End of Tape 2, Side B