Interview date: July 29, 2019
Interview location: Chicago, The Independent Show
Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Note: Audio Only
LELA COCOROS: Hello, I’m Lela Cocoros for the Cable Center. It’s July 29th, 2019, and we’re in Chicago at the Independent Show. This is the oral history of Charles Cheevers, who is Chief Technology Officer of customer premises equipment at CommScope. And this is part of the Hauser Oral History Program. Charles, welcome!
CHARLES CHEEVERS: Thanks, Lela.
COCOROS: So, let’s start out with your early years. Where you’re from and your educational background and your early childhood.
CHEEVERS: I was born and raised in Ireland but I think we’re of Belgian origin. The name Cheevers, I think, is derived from the French for goat, chèvre.
COCOROS: Oh, yes.
CHEEVERS: And we landed in Ireland, I think, in the sort of twelfth century, I think, from what my father’s search for our history was. I was born in Waterford in 1965. Waterford is a small town. It was one of the Viking towns in Ireland, sunny southeast. It’s the extreme southeast of the country. And I spent great years there. I was educated in the Irish school system. We had a primary, secondary, and university education. So, I went through all those, didn’t do too bad. I went to school very early. I was — in those days, the government paid for a school if it went into a new area. And the Catholic Church — Ireland was prominently a Catholic country in those days. And the Catholic Church would ask for mothers to give their sons up — or daughters, give their kids up to the school, right? So, the priest came to our door and said, “Have you any children to offer me for the new school?” And my mother said, “No, there’s only this three-year-old here.” So, he said, “He’ll do.” So, I ended up going to school way too early.
CHEEVERS: But you could do stuff in those days and I ended up staying for — through all the years, you know, keeping up all the time. And eventually went to college and finished my degree before I was 21, which was a little bit too young. I kind of was always a baby in every class I was in. Loved computers. My father and mother bought me a ZX81 computer when they just came out as the first microcomputer. So, I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I left, yeah, the equivalent of high school to be — And, of course, that was a time — in 1982, the IBM PC came out and that was the year I went to university, as well. So, I enjoyed that and I did pretty well. And at that year — at the end of my degree, the head of class, the head of school decided he’d hire some students from the graduating year. So, he hired four of us that year and I was one of the people he hired to teach the next crop of students. And so, I started out in academia for a couple of years teaching computer science and programming.
COCOROS: Okay, so what lead you to Apple, then, from — is that where you went, or was there somewhere in between?
CHEEVERS: Apple came a little bit later.
CHEEVERS: I was two years working in the college as a lecturer. Enjoyed that.
CHEEVERS: Gave me the ability to do some public speaking. There’s nothing like standing in front of a class of young, eager minds to figure out how your style of communicating is and adapting that. So, that was a good experience for that. But I, because I’d wanted to be a programmer, I hadn’t really ever practiced my craft. And I found myself saying to the kids, you know — and many of them are older than me because I was only 20, starting out. So, I would say to them, “When you go out to work,” not having actually went to work myself.
And so, I took a job with a start-up in a neighboring county to Waterford, which was Cork County, where CommScope has an office today and is part of my – and where Apple is based. So, I moved down to Cork, to a small little country village called Kanturk. And a guy there called Paddy Scully had set up a mathematical company to develop mathematical software for the Amiga microcomputer initially and then the Apple SE and Mac II. And so, I started working in his attic, essentially, with six other people and we developed a mathematical application for the Macintosh up in this idyllic setting in north Cork, in Kanturk Village. Spent a number of years there and that company folded.
Then I went to work for a remote sensing GIS mapping company that had originally been formed to translate oil well logs, believe it or not, in the — When oil wells drilled down into various spots to test them, they created a well log, which is like an anagram for your heart, just different sort of hardness of rock. It would tell if there was oil there or not. And that company’s based in Denver, this company called QC Data. So, they pivoted from well log data analysis into mapping. And so, when I was out of a job in PS Squared, I immediately flipped into working for this company, which was all about doing image processing and getting satellite imagery and getting photographs and translating that into digital mapping. I did that for a number of years. It was interesting, yeah, we bought photography from Russian Generals of various cities in Europe to help map the roads of Europe. And one of the outcomes of the project was what we have today, which is the mapping systems for the GPS systems that you use. A company called EGT and NAVTEQ were the pioneers of all that stuff and we did mapping capture for those companies. So, proud of that. We did a good job of collecting that data. And I was on a trip with one of our marketing guys and he says, “You know, you’re too good for this kind of stuff. You’re a real computer science programming nerd. You should go and work for companies like Apple or Microsoft.” And so I did that. I decided I’d take his advice and I applied to Apple and then I spent — I joined Apple then in 1993, running some of their software and software test functions.
COCOROS: So, at Apple, actually, that was kind of a volatile time for Apple. Can you kind of talk about what you did there, and some of the things that were applicable to cable?
CHEEVERS: Yeah, it was really interesting. As you said, it was — Steve Jobs had been gone from Apple at that time and actually was still working in NeXT. At the time, Michael Spindler was the CEO of Apple, when I joined. And I joined in the Irish Cork facility, which is primarily for manufacturing at the time but had a growing software and SQA function as part of the overall Apple organization. So, Gil Amelia then came in from National Semiconductor and Gil Amelia’s famous for his 500 Days at Apple. And so, we were there when Gil was there. But, of course, then Steve Jobs was starting to come back in again. The history is written about how Steve came in and Gil Amelia went out, essentially. So, I was there during all that transition. I joined Apple, actually, I think when the stock price was at its lowest, at $11.95, which was great, (laughter) and had the pleasure of shaking hands with Steve Jobs a couple of times. In fact, I have an iMac — first iMac t-shirt, still unopened in its original plastic. Because he came in, he’s a fantastic guy, right? I mean, there’s lots of stories about him but what he, you know, what — I remember hearing him speak to a large group about the complexity of the Apple roadmap, right? He asked — he said, “I came in and I asked the product managers — tell me the names of the products you have.” And at the time, there was a Performa SKU of Apple products, for example, and they had 64 different SKUs of Performa with different configuration options. So, Steve Jobs knew intuitively it’d gotten crazy, right, from, you know, just too many —
COCOROS: Too many options.
CHEEVERS: Yeah, so what he did was he set about just focusing Apple, right? And he created the laptop, the consumer desktop, which was the iMac, and then the “prosumer” desktop. And he had a kind of — another quadrant in his four-point quadrant for something new, which obviously turned out to be the iPad to the iPhone. But he’d do that and he just streamlined everything to focus on those things. And, of course, you know, it was great focus but then what did he do? He changed the color of the iMac desktop so you could get it any color you want. So, that was interesting for the manufacturing team in Apple, to try and make a design that could clip on different covers based on which colors people actually liked for the iMac. So, you know, a fantastic guy for being able to make focus on things.
My first sojourn into the cable industry — I didn’t do too much on it but the Performa I mentioned had — I think it was Nu-Bus based cable tuner cards. So, Apple had decided at that time that people might want to watch TV on their Macs, so they created what was called a TV tuner card. And the Cork facility in Ireland had a lot to do with that development of that card on the projects that they did. And as part of that development, there was also in 1994, ’95, I think, there was some work with — I think it was Oracle in the U.K. I can’t remember but there was some program in the U.K. about trying to put a DOCSIS or MCNS – you know, a two-way return device — it may have been early DOCSIS. Maybe it was ’96, ’95 maybe. But put that into the Performa, as well, for two-way communications. That project was, I think, kicked off but never actually realized. And I don’t believe that the Mac had ever had an integrated DOCSIS or two-way device in it. But it certainly was discussed back in ’94-5-6 — I can’t remember — I’m still trying to figure out —
CHEEVERS: So, that’s the first time I ever heard about cable being used for two-way communications. And I was saying, sort of, aren’t we using Ethernet these days? Or aren’t we using –? Well, it wasn’t quite fiber then, but little did I know I’d be sitting here over 20 years later — you know, still how relevant coax and HFC is to, you know, the U.S. economy, essentially, and a lot of world economies.
COCOROS: So, you left Apple for Com21, is that right? In 1999?
CHEEVERS: Yeah, that’s probably one of the most interesting — So, I’m working in Apple, I’m enjoying it. Very, you know, innovative company and I have — I’m working in Cork and Cupertino at that time. So, bouncing between the two of them and had some team responsibility for both sites. And I’m sitting in my office in Cupertino and I get a call on my phone in Cupertino. And I know it’s forwarded from my Cork phone because I used to do that when I was in the U.S. And it turned out to be recruiter. He was based in London and he said to me, he said, “I got your name. There’s a company called Com21, fastest — one of the 50 top-growing companies in the Silicon Valley that’s looking to set up a development center in Europe to chase some new business. Would you be interested?” And I said, “You know you’re phoning me in California.” And he said, “Really?” He said, “Where are you?” Said, “I’m in Cupertino.” He said, “Wow, this company’s based in Milpitas, which is only six miles away from you. If I could get you a dinner tonight to have a chat with the CEO or someone there, would you be interested?” And I said, “Well, I’m always up for a free dinner and (laughter) always good to chat to CEOs.” So, he ended up lining me up with a dinner and I ended up eventually speaking to a really great guy called Pete Fenner, who was the CEO of Com21 at the time. And Pete and a number of others in Com21 then convinced me to part with Apple. They said, “That’s going nowhere. Apple are struggling.”
COCOROS: Oh, my goodness.
CHEEVERS: And the iPhone hadn’t come out. (laughter) “I’ll give you loads of stock.” And so, I got a lot more zeroes on my stock in Com21 than I had in Apple. But, of course, Apple stock is — just went through the roof at the moment, or from then, right? So, I obviously left a lot of money on the table but don’t regret it. I enjoyed all the development I did in the cable industry. But I decided I’d join Com21 and it was more around the fact that Pete and Com21 wanted to set up this, you know, brand new design center in Europe. And I’d wanted always to test my mettle to see could I actually start up something from scratch? Never had the gumption to do it with my own dollars as a complete start-up but it felt that way — of saying, here, go and do all this stuff now, right?
COCOROS: So, you were given a blank canvas, basically.
CHEEVERS: Exactly, yeah, and I ended up using — Com21 are no longer around, so I can tell these stories. But I ended up using my own — this is a public company, Com21 at that time, and to get stuff done quickly, I used my own credit card to start doing stuff in our — I chose Ireland as the site, obviously, in Cork in Ireland. And today, as I said, in the Cork airport, the CommScope facility is today — which is the original Com21 office and I’ll touch on that later. Brilliant bunch of people there. And so, I went around — went about saying could I really set up this really quickly? Then can I hire the right engineers, the right support staff to get this thing going, and can I get a product out in a year? Because that was the goal. They wanted me to chase this new market that was emerging that was called DVB return path on cable and LMDS (RCCL). It was the competitor to DOCSIS at the time. And Com21 had been very successful in the cable space, one of the pioneers of cable with the upstreams protocol. Brilliant guys like Paul Baran, who founded it, and Mark Laubach, who was one of the chief architects, and John Pickens, the CTO there. And they had been successful with their own proprietary cable solution before DOCSIS was created and had customers in Europe and already a sales presence in Europe.
But this was different. This was a development site, then, to go chase this DVB-RCCL market. And at the time, about 20-plus cable operators in Europe had said they would like to do this standard because DVB was a very good standard for video broadcast. But now, they were trying to use the DVB standard for two-way broadband capability. And Cisco had actually validated it, we thought, by buying a company in Denmark called COCOM, who had developed the first kind of DVB-RCCL system. Cisco paid $100 million at the time, which was a million per employee. I remember we were always looking at that. Anyway, so I set about it. I went out and found a developer; he was building a couple of buildings in Cork Airport. I said, “I’ll lease two of them” and we started filling them. And we got to about 100 staff very quickly and we created a new DVB-RCCL modem. We actually did a deal with Philips NatLab [Philips Natuurkundig Laboratorium], the part of Philips that does all the innovation and future stuff. Philips NatLab had been developing a headend device for DVB called an INA, an interactive network adapter. And because the team and myself couldn’t develop the headend device fast enough, we said we’d do kind of a partial buy rather than a full make on it. So, we did a deal with Philips NatLab to buy their partial developed INA from them to finally turn into a product. And so, that was done. It was very interesting working with Philips NatLab. If you’ve ever worked with a group of pure researchers, you know they have no hope of ever getting a product out (laughter) and they just like to noodle on problems all the time. I’m sure the guys who were with me at the time, if they’re listening to this, remember those days of trying to get progress on the thing.
But in the background, there was a big change happening. A lot of the cable operators in Europe had been bought up by — were consolidating and being bought up by companies that had U.S. origins, as well. And DOCSIS started to emerge as the only standard to really follow. So, in the end, then, one by one, the operators decided to not back the DVB-RCCL standards. So, you could see it crumbling and I think I mentioned in the pre-meet for this discussion a product manager called David Torr — I’ll never forget Dave’s time at BCE in 2001, I think. BCE was the yearly cable show in England and it was at the Olympia, typically. And there were about 14 cable operators on the panel talking about DVB-RCCL, and Dave said to them all, he said, “Okay, there’s, like, five or six companies here — are spending collectively maybe 100 million a year on developing the standard for you. How many are you all going to buy? How many modems are you going to buy of this standard next year? And so, they all kind of put their hands up and said, “I’ll buy 10,000, I’ll buy 20,000.” So, collectively, they were probably going to buy about two million dollars’ worth of devices. And then, Dave just said, “I don’t think we have a future with this standard. You know, the math doesn’t work out.” And he was right. And it was, you know, it was probably the most real and the most honest kind of discussion I’d ever seen at a trade show, right? Because it was right at the time when, you know, that a decision had to be made, right? And I think they almost made the decision on the panel that that was the end of it. So, we walked out of that room and out of that show knowing that the RCCL work was gone. And so, I was hired to do all that, so where was — what was I going to do? So, I ended up replacing my boss. My boss at the time was Paul Gordon, who left Com21, so I took his role as overall kind of VP of engineering of Com21. And we ended up then supporting the original upstreams products, the community products, the headend and modem devices. Did a lot of good work there on cost reduction.
And one particular thing that I think — really proud of and just to bring in another company into the history was — the community upstream solution was based on a proprietary ASIC that Com21 built. And it was expensive. And at the time, we were struggling with cash flow in the company. At the time, then, DOCSIS was bringing down the cost of this solution. And there were companies like Broadcom who were doing DOCSIS silicon solutions. But there was a new company that start — that also got in there, which was Conexant. So, Conexant decided at the time, in 2000, 2001 to do a DOCSIS silicon that was a soft MAC, soft medium access control. And so, John Pickens, myself, and a few others talked to Conexant about could we put the community Com21 upstreams protocol into the DOCSIS silicon using the soft MAC that was there? And Conexant did the work and we added to it, and we ended up translating the community modem into basically the same hardware architecture as a DOCSIS modem, leveraging the cost synergies of DOCSIS and being able then to create generally a lot more free cash flow for the company, which actually helped Com21 survive for a little bit longer.
Just on Com21, just to make sure I don’t forget a few things: Com21 was founded by Paul Baran and Paul is a legend in the industry. Paul was one of the first people to ever lecture on packet switching, when he was with the Rand Corporation. He’s in IEEE. He was honored by them, lifetime achievement award. He founded nine companies, including companies like Telebit, who were, you know, the first innovators in their time to bond two 56K modems together for businesses to make a higher link. He also founded companies like StrataCom and Interfax. I think Cisco bought them. And then, he founded Com21. A brilliant guy and I value the time that I ever spent with him. And, you know, he instilled, you know, innovation in the companies but unfortunately, we made a few errors along the way from that. We invested very heavily in inventory in the early 2000s when the market changed. And again, for the archive, I think it’s important to tell people about that because at that time — In 2000, operators like Adelphia were around, then AT&T Broadband. And Comcast were around, obviously, as well, just forming from those acquisitions. But the MSOs, the operators themselves would stockpile cable modems and most cable modem vendors at the time were just feeding this frenzy for more and more broadband. And the operators themselves then used to maybe maintain 30%, 40% more in warehouses than they’d actually need. But when the downturn hit, then they started to change the philosophy. And at that time, there was ourselves, Terion, Motorola, Thompson, probably, and 3Com were the main stock providers on the modem side. And one by one, they started to disappear during this real downturn, right, because the inventories were there. The MSOs changed their strategy to do sort of end-of-quarter buying based on more visibility into requirements. And we were left holding a lot of inventory because we made this decision to try and build and create a lot of inventory to try and get ahead in the market and try and be — we were number two for quite a while and try and get to number one by just outbuilding the competition. But we picked the wrong time, essentially. And that was the death knell of Com21, right? We never fully recovered.
COCOROS: Because you had a lot of surplus, so —
CHEEVERS: That was it, yeah, and that was what — so, a great company, you know? One of the pioneers. Also had the full solution, initially with the headend piece, and the modem, and the management system. So, we had — we were at a point where we said, well, how do we pivot from here? And so, the pivot, then, was to go chase the DOCSIS CMTS business. And that time, DOCSIS 1.0 had already been through and we hadn’t really had a CMTS in the DOCSIS 1.0 space. But DOCSIS 2.0 had just started to emerge. And, again, for the archive, originally the gamble was that DOCSIS 2.0 would just have what was called Advanced TDMA. But there was another protocol called SCDMA, which was — Terayon had driven that protocol. And so, I, along with the CEO and a few other people, we made a decision that we would build an ATDMA-only CMTS based on a new Broadcom headend chip Cset, ahead of the market and ahead of the specification. And so, we set about building that to come up as the first product in the space. And we did that successfully and I’m so proud of the team for doing that. It was an amazing run. We developed that product so quickly. It was called the Com21 DOXcontroller, which turned into the ARRIS C3 CMTS. Amazing development run. And we ended up putting our money where our mouth is. You rarely do this with a customer but with, say — in order for us to really make a difference, we — I remember going in with our CEO at the time, George Merrick, into France Telecom Cable and the CEO of France Telecom at the time — I can’t remember his name. I remember his CTO was Camille Yveres. You know, he basically said, “Look, we need a solution for a very noisy HFC plan. The coax is not great in France.” And we said, “We have just the thing for you,” because the new DOCSIS 2.0 CMTS with the ATDMA support in it would allow you to move around all that noise in the lower frequencies. And then, Cam Yveres said, “Prove it. I can give you a headend in Malakoff that is so bad that nobody’s ever sent a packet in this frequency.” And so, we’re there, oh, my God, so — you know, ’cause when you put this ultimatum —
COCOROS: Yeah, sounds like a challenge, right? (laughs)
CHEEVERS: You have to deliver it. And so, we end up going into this headend and, again, all my cable colleagues and everybody knows this: headends range from being something you could eat food off the floor to something that you never want to go into, right? And this was one of those never-want-to-go-in headends. This was in Paris, dark and — I don’t — like, it was probably built in the fourteenth century (laughter) and converted to a headend. But sure enough, we put the C3 or the DOXcontroller it was at the time in there. We turned on these noise-blocking ATDMA modes and we all waited for this modem to register on the CMTS on this channel. And it did, and it was an amazing experience. It was — Camille Yveres, who was a very kind of tough guy, very good guy, right? Not very knowledgeable but even he admitted that, “Yeah, you did it.” And we won that deal. And ironically, we won that deal from Cadant. Cadant was another startup in Chicago. And ARRIS bought Cadant as well as bought Com21 in the end and I’ll get there in a minute. But Cadant was the other company that was vying for that business. So, we beat Cadant on that solution, because the Cadant team hadn’t done the 2.0 system yet. They were waiting for the spec to finalize. And so, we did a great job there and we started then getting some revenue in.
So, that then — our star started to climb a little bit on the CMTS side. And then, what happened was that ARRIS starts coming into the picture now. So, ARRIS had bought Cadant, which had a brilliant C4 CMTS for DOCSIS 1.1 and — but they also wanted a one-rack unit pizza-box-type CMTS. A call was made from ARRIS — I think it Bruce McClelland – who was the last CEO of ARRIS before we joined CommScope. Bruce is now the COO of CommScope. I think Bruce made a call into Dave Baran, who was Paul Baran’s son, I think, or — well, no, he’s his son, but I think Dave picked up the call and ARRIS was looking to talk to us about using the DOXcontroller at the time as part of their portfolio. And so, we ended up, then — ARRIS did want to white label the DOXcontroller and the C3 CMTS and we ended up certifying the C3 CMTS for DOCSIS 2.0 with SCDMA very quickly. It only took — I think it took the team about six weeks in total to go from ATDMA-only to a full SCDMA certification and got first Broadcom-based 2.0 certification, I think, which is a great achievement, as well, then. And so, ARRIS, then, was looking at us and saying, oh, this team looks good and this company looks good. And long story short, then, we kind of ran out of money and Com21 filed Chapter 11. And then, ARRIS decided to pick up assets and the people from Com21. So, I ended up then joining ARRIS.
COCOROS: And how big a company was Com21 in terms of number of employees?
CHEEVERS: I think, at our peak, we were just under 300. I think, at the end, we were about 180, I think. So, small company. Output was huge. I mean, it was still in its start-up phase. It started in ’94 and was sold to ARRIS in 2003, but never really lost the startup mentality. In fact, every time we had an order, because Pete Fenner was a sailor — and Pete, unfortunately, passed away a couple years ago — someone would ring a sailors’ bell. So, you’d just literally go out into the room and ring and everybody would come up and someone would say, “Yay, we just got another order.” So, you know, it was just — as I said, we just made that one big mistake of, you know, having a strategy that we’d build a lot of inventory to sell through just when the market kind of tanked. And so, 2003, I joined ARRIS and we were sitting on a DOCSIS 2.0 certified pizza box CMTS, working with our colleagues in Cadant on the big chassis system, which has turned out to be one of the best solutions that the company has ever had.
COCOROS: Was this all still in Ireland then?
CHEEVERS: Yeah. I was managing a team in Milpitas and Cork and the teams worked together to develop the solution. And when Com21 acquired — or actually, when ARRIS acquired Com21, it took people from U.S. and from Cork. The entire Cork office was retained. And that team then went on to be focused on — lot of the downstream and the direct RF and the creation of the QAM signals, and I’ll go into that in a little bit of detail. But in 2003, then, we started — we rebranded the DOXcontroller, the C3 CMTS. That product sold extremely well and lots of companies took it and we were able to provide a software-based solution that was very software-based solution that was very adaptable and fitted into lots of different companies, including tier ones, right? It was sold to the largest operators as well as the smallest operators, because generally the smaller operators prefer the pizza-box-type scaling and then denser headends of — you know, 40,000 people or more required the bigger CMTS systems. The time to C4 — laterally, it became the E6000 from ARRIS.
So, I ended up working, then, for Bruce McClelland, who was the CEO — who is the current CEO of CommScope at that time. And one of the things that we wanted to do was to move ARRIS also from just being the data side to being the video side. And so, there’s a thing called an edge QAM, which was the product that would allow video to be transmitted to the set-top boxes. And so, we decided that we would then also pivot the work we were doing to provide an edge QAM capability. And so, we developed an edge QAM called the D5 Universal Edge QAM that’s — what’s significant about the D5 is that at the time, the technology for sending broadband signals down the cable network was typically an ASIC-based modulator. So, most of the devices at that time, in 2003 or earlier, had one F connector and could send one QAM channel. And you’d have lots and lots of these one QAM channel devices stacked in a headend, very power hungry and very space consuming. So, what happened was that — and I give the credit to the guys in Cork for this — they developed what was called — I believe we developed the first direct RF solution for cable. And that was the ability to not use an ASIC anymore but use a FPGA, which is a soft hardware chip to basically write special signal processing code that can create more than one QAM channel to put this digital signal into. And so, that whole direct RF, or direct digital synthesis, was born and that’s what’s allowed us today to compete against the fiber-only network and allowed the coax today to be able to provide a backhaul for 5G. It’s probably the most important technical development that certainly I was part of. And today, it’s the core of what we do in coax networks, where we have the ability through this soft FPGA to send out multiple channels. And just to explain that, Lela. You go from one channel in the sort of digital signal processing domain, it’s actually easier for an engineer to write a fast-fourier transforms, one of these mathematical things that can spit out a QAM channel for the entire spectrum. So, if the cable plant is 850 megahertz, and just say it’s 100 channels of QAM to fill it all, the mathematics behind it can allow you to create these QAM channels. The complexity, though, is that they sit next to each other. Like, each QAM channel is like a little square, six megahertz apart, we’ll say, if you were to visualize it. And then, the edges of the square touching, that’s where you have to be careful, right, because it’s an analog signal. They overlap. And if there’s existing channels, like original analog CATV, which is still there, you have to then be able to —
COCOROS: Separate —
CHEEVERS: — separate them and write code to separate them. So, when you start separating, the amount of code you write fills up the FPGA, so you have to — you know, you can’t do as many QAM channels. And then, you have to also pre-distort based on different conditions of the plant. And so, it’s actually easier, then, to generate the entire spectrum digitally than to put two or four or eight QAM channels mixed in with other QAM channels. And that was the challenge and the team did a great job of doing that. And so, I think I would give the credit — if anybody else wants to argue — I think that team in Cork, they developed the first direct RF solution, which I think is powering everyone’s solution today ’because everyone is doing it the same way. And I think that was a great achievement by that team.
COCOROS: So, that really, I guess, brought the preparation for 5G, really, on the horizon?
CHEEVERS: What I think it did do is because you could now — DOCSIS 2.0 — we actually had a pre-DOCSIS — DOCSIS 3.0 is really the precursor for the kind of bandwidth for 5G backup.
COCOROS: For 5G, right.
CHEEVERS: And — or 10G, as we’re calling it in the cable industry.
COCOROS: That’s right, 10G.
COCOROS: But that doesn’t mean …
CHEEVERS: Evolution. It means gigabits.
CHEEVERS: Yeah. Up to then, you had single carrier, 6 MHz channels that could do 40 megabits a second to a modem. So you were stuck in that you could never go over 40 megabits. DOCSIS 3.0 then said let’s change that by bonding these 6 MHz carriers together to groups of four or eight or 16 or 32. 32 of them together would be one gigabit per second in the sort of 256 QAM modulation. Before DOCSIS 3.0, the Chicago team here actually, in Lisle, they created what was called FlexPath, which was the ability then to — without formal channel bonding as defined by DOCSIS 3.0 spec — a similar technique where we were able to bond physical 6 MHz channels together as a logical group and then we’d send IP streams down each one of the 40 MHz streams. Like, packet one on the first one, packet two on the second one. And then, at the other end, we’d combine them back together again. So, you had — you sliced up the one gigabit into, say, five 200-megabit streams. Well, it’d be 40 megabits at a time. And in those days, then, we were showing — at the SCTE show back in — I think it was 2005-6, maybe, or 2007, we showed the world’s first one gigabit service over coax, which was essentially using FlexPath. And Bob Stanzione, our chairman at the time, was on a screenshot of him demonstrating this with Brian Roberts.
COCOROS: I remember that.
CHEEVERS: Yeah, that was a moment when we broke the sound barrier or the speed barrier for cable, right? First ever gigabit transmission of an IP stream. And that was all done on FlexPath, which was the precursor, then, to DOCSIS 3.0, which was the formalized, standard way of doing it. Once we had 3.0 on channel bonding, it was just a matter of how much we can mine out the entire frequencies of the coax spectrum. And today, now here we are with 3.1 where we’re bonding — we’ve gone away from single-carrier QAM now to use these — we call them OFDM blocks, where it — almost 200 MHz wide. And so, we can get really — you know, 10 gigabit type speeds now on the coax network.
COCOROS: It’s amazing, it really is. Talk a little bit about your years at ARRIS prior to the acquisition by CommScope. Are there any other milestones that you want to mention about your years there?
CHEEVERS: Yeah, I think for me, personally, I mean, I started out running the engineering team that was doing the C3 CMTS and the D5 Edge QAM. Then, I pivoted for a while to being the product manager in the edge QAM space. Now, the edge QAMS were an interesting area. It was — everybody thought the business was much bigger but there’s only a finite amount of video streams that are sent on cable. So, it’s not like the insatiable growth for — at that time, it was all QAM-based video, broadcast, linear content, and maybe VOD. At that time, then, video was growing more and more on the broadband side to where it is today, where 90% of video is sent over the broadband pipe. But back in those days, it was a QAM-modulated ATSC or DVB signal, but the market was very small. I mean, I think when I started running that edge QAM business in 2006, maybe, it was about $300 million TAM, right? So, it wasn’t huge at all but it was important technology because we wanted to be able to put all the video and DOCSIS services one F connector. So, I did that for a while.
I was also the CTO for ARRIS in Europe. So, I would help evangelize technology directions, work with all our service providers. I mean, in the service — in the vendor to the service provider business, our job is to help the operators with their technology decisions and directions. We hopefully — we get to be the ones chosen, that they use our products. We also like to help write the RFPs, right, and just guide them on whether to do this way or the other way or what’s technically feasible. So, in those days, doing a lot of that work with lots of operators in Europe but also in the U.S. and internationally. One of the biggest things I’ve enjoyed about my time in the cable industry has been meeting all these people across the world and sharing common language across this technology that’s been so important to the world’s economy. So, I did that for a while.
Then, I pivoted, then, to the CPE side. So, I’d been on the network side for quite a while. So, I ended up having a very interesting opportunity within ARRIS and Comcast. I think it’s back in 2010, I think. So, at the time, Comcast were moving very fast. Technology, lots of changes. Comcast were looking at the whole X1 evolution and all that technology in 2010. As a vendor to them, we were kind of still doing the monthly kind of synch-ups. And I think Tony Werner said to Bruce and Dan Whalen, who was running our account there at the time that, “You need to have somebody here with us who can talk the talk and has some senior level ability to be able to move the needle a bit and move things on.” So, I was asked then to sort of spend more time at Comcast specifically at that time, which was a bit off-target to what I was doing, you know, working with everybody versus more focused on Comcast. Yeah, so that was an interesting journey for me because I moved to — I was always based in Ireland with my wife, Paula, and two kids, Megan and Elle. But I went then into Philadelphia and spent two, three weeks at a time living in Philly and then commuting back home to Ireland then. That was tough on Paula and the kids.
COCOROS: Oh, that is tough. That’s a long commute. (laughs)
CHEEVERS: Yeah. So, that was a professional versus a personal decision. Turned out to be almost three years doing that.
CHEEVERS: And, you know, Comcast’s — out of that came things like the new XB6 gateway that Comcast and ourselves built. That’s still the fastest kind of cable device that’s out there, right? Has DOCSIS 3.1 engines, it has 8×8 Wi-Fi in it. And, of course, the whole raft of set-top boxes, the XG1s, the XI devices that Comcast use. In that time, too, we also bought Motorola. So, got to meet a lot of new colleagues and we brought a set-top business into ARRIS. We’d been always doing the data side and the telephony side. I mean ARRIS’s heritage had been a cornerstone voice, proprietary voice solution that sold over six million — a lot more than that, I forget what the number was. Multiple millions, tens of millions of lines, and then they flipped to DOCSIS. We had an edge QAM but we never had the set-top side.
CHEEVERS: So, when we acquired Motorola — Motorola, based in Horsham, so worked with the Motorola colleagues in Horsham. And I transitioned out of the sort of CTO-in-residence role to Comcast and got back to a CTO for the whole CPE team, including working with Larry Robinson, who came in with his team from Motorola, then, that was a world-leading set-top manufacturer.
COCOROS: Let’s talk a little bit about your vision for a six gigahertz Wi-Fi world and just what’s coming with the connected home in the future. You made a presentation earlier this year and I’d like to hear a little bit more about that.
CHEEVERS: Yeah, so, as we always say, every — we go to this great effort as a network site solution to get, you know, hundreds of gigabits per second to the home. But then, it has to be carried over Wi-Fi to the 90% of connects in the home that are Wi-Fi. So, Wi-Fi is as important for that last 20 feet, 30 feet, as the entire effort to pull this HFC network to your home. So, we’ve been going through different evolutions of Wi-Fi to the point where we are spectrum challenged for Wi-Fi now. The 2.4 gigahertz band is kind of, you know, crazy, in MDUs particularly. But even five gigahertz now is also filling up. And five gigahertz was, you know, pretty empty seven years ago.
CHEEVERS: But everybody puts their video traffic on five gigahertz because it’s higher bandwidth. So, we need some step function. And, at the moment, there’s an NPRM in front of the FCC to try and open up the six gigahertz band. And there’s incumbents like microwaves and some car-to-car communication. But generally, it seems to be on track to try and make almost 1.2 gigahertz, which is like five times more spectrum than we currently have for Wi-Fi, available in the six gigahertz band. Now, it truly is transformational for Wi-Fi because not only is there so much spectrum there but you cannot use that spectrum unless you’re a Wi-Fi 6 device, an AX device. So, if you’re Wi-Fi 6 device, you can also be scheduled. So, today Wi-Fi is a carrier sense, carrier avoidance kind of scheme, right? Or carrier sense, multiple access scheme, CSMA/CD, where you can listen before firing but then, when you fire, somebody else can fire at the same time and then you have to back off. But in scheduled systems like LTE, you know the slot you’re going to transmit in, and DOCSIS is the same. So, the Wi-Fi 6, now, you have — only allowing, you know, the latest Wi-Fi 6 devices to participate in the spectrum, or six gigahertz Wi-Fi. But you also then can schedule it, so you can have a really deterministic experience. And, in fact, you can potentially replace the robustness of an Ethernet cable in the home for in-home communications and not have to put Ethernet between your devices if you want that gaming-level quality. But it also brings in new paradigms, right. Because there’s 7 x 160 MHz channels or 14 x 80 MHz channels. Now in an MDU situation, you can have apartment one having channel one, apartment two having channel three, apartment four — three, four, you know, and so on. So, it makes the robustness of Wi-Fi much more reliable to bring these new levels of services about.
COCOROS: And CableLabs is working on a dual-channel Wi-Fi.
CHEEVERS: Yeah, they have some novel ideas about how to use multiple channels to be more robust in transmission. But again, with six gigahertz Wi-Fi, that kind of makes it simpler, right? You just —
COCOROS: Because it’s more direct.
CHEEVERS: — have so much spectrum and then it’s just clean. So it’s pretty innovative but, at the same time, you know, six gigahertz, Wi-Fi 6, is so transformational. It’s kind of like the Model-T Ford today for even Wi-Fi 5, which is a good solution, to a Bugatti or whatever the top end car is. It’s that level of — and people don’t really, truly understand that enough in — because it’s been such a — it happened so quickly, it’s amazing. I have looked at decks from people 12 months ago —
COCOROS: And they’re out of date.
CHEEVERS: Yeah. But there’s no mention of it there.
CHEEVERS: Then, suddenly, in the last 12 months, it’s the hottest thing in Wi-Fi. So, hopefully, the FCC will be able to deliberate and get us Wi-Fi —
COCOROS: A favorable decision.
CHEEVERS: Yeah, by middle of next year, we’re hoping.
COCOROS: So, let’s talk a little bit about where you see the industry going and what you feel is going to be cable’s role going forward into the future.
CHEEVERS: I think we’ve mined so much out of the cable network. We’ve brought the number of cascades down, the number of nodes, our nodes down, as well. So, depending on which operator you are, you could be anywhere from node plus two to node plus 10. Which is amazing, right, that we’ve constantly been able to achieve with the HFC network, the ever-increasing speeds that the consumer demands. We’re at the point now where we are looking at more symmetric speeds. There still really is no upstream app that forces symmetry from a residential perspective. There are some apps strictly in there, like, people are starting to use more cameras for security, installing more cameras in their homes. The bandwidth of those is going from kilobits per second to one megabit for a 4K camera. So, we are trying to bring in more symmetric ability on the coax network. And there’s a couple of technologies that we’re driving towards. I think CableLabs will call it DOCSIS 4.0, perhaps, right? But you have full duplex DOCSIS, which was designed then to allow you to get that symmetry where you can share the frequency for both downstream and upstream transmission, ’cause at the moment, they’re separate. So if you have a gigahertz spectrum, you nominate portions of that for downstream and portions for upstream. But with full duplex, you can overlap the frequencies. The other one, which ARRIS has innovated and my colleague, Tom Cloonan, has been driving a lot of, is extended spectrum DOCSIS. And that’s the ability, then, just to use what DSL has been using for years, which is just increase the frequency that you use. And we believe that three gigahertz of frequency and even up to six gigahertz is mineable. As you bit load and add — you know, modulation decreases, of course, but you can mine it all the way out there. So, we think that the cable plant, the HFC itself is probably still good for, you know — today at one gigabit could even do 30, 40 gigabits by following the full duplex-extended spectrum path. So, we don’t think anybody’s going to rip out the coax anytime soon and replace it with fiber. In fact, the only time I thought people would ever do that was when the cost of copper was so high that you could take out the coax and then pay for the entire replacement in opex to put in fiber. And it hasn’t quite reached that yet, although copper is diminishing as a resource in the world, right? Someone once told me that if China — every Chinese home — because China’s two billion people, I guess, right? If every home in China had to be connected with twisted pair DSL, there isn’t enough copper in the world to do that.
COCOROS: To do that, right.
CHEEVERS: But we have a great copper network that’s not going away anytime soon, I think.
COCOROS: So, what about the legacy of cable and just kind of what it’s done for society?
CHEEVERS: Well, I was asked to comment about sort of the 5G world, and part of 5G is entertainment. I mean, CATV, there hasn’t been a better way to bring, you know, broadcast entertainment into the home than the CATV network. I mean, it’s given us entertainment, it’s given us news, it’s given us sport, it’s given us all that stuff on the downstream side of things. So without that TV wouldn’t have existed the way it has today, this — and the cable itself, then, in terms of bringing in sort of content and channels and stuff. But what’s been more remarkable, I think, is just the pioneers who created a two-way solution on this. These standards run to, you know, tens of miles on the thinnest string of coax in an insulated cable, right? You think about squirting down a tiny, millivolt signal down that cable over tens of miles and be able to take it, demodulate it, and take out the digital value of it reliably. It’s phenomenal, right? So, those pioneers who developed all that, just my hat’s off to them. But that then enabled us to have a broadband delivery which the whole economy in the world is living on, right? So, if every home today, be it, you know, just for entertainment, be it for productivity, be it, you know, digital life stuff, be it banking, be it whatever it is, that’s all now founded on the cable network. And so, I think going into the future of, you know, a more digital economy and more digital lifestyle, then the cable network is there to bring all those services to you. So, I think we’re moving from the connectivity era to the service era where people will have more services to the home from education and lifestyle management and health management. And the cable network is brilliantly suited to deliver not only the bandwidth but the robustness and security, as well. And we’ll probably even end up hosting a lot of the 5G network cells on that plant, as well, ’cause it’s there and can be used. And technologies like low latency DOCSIS and mobile backhaul will ensure that that’s achievable. So, a huge, brilliant platform for the next 10 years and plus, probably.
COCOROS: That’s good to hear. Well, Charles, thank you very much.
CHEEVERS: Thank you very much, Lela.
END OF INTERVIEW