Interview Date: September 26, 2000
Interviewer: Rex Porter
Ron Cotten describes his start in cable, the technological challenges and solutions, and how the formation of SCTE addressed the dearth of knowledge and education for operators in the early years of cable television. He discusses the gulf between the technical side and the industry management. Cotten talks about the problems with SKL amplifiers, the generally inferior quality of equipment, and the building of systems in Concord and Oakland. He goes on to describe his engineering education, his move to CableCom and work with microwave. He concludes with comments about the fundamental changes brought about by fiber optics, and the crucial role of telecommunications in the economic lives of the world’s nations.
REX PORTER: I’m Rex Porter, and I’m here at the AT&T Media Facilities to interview cable industry pioneer Ron Cotten for The Barco Library oral histories. Ron is presently the vice-president and director of technology with CH2M Hill here at the Denver Technical Center. Ron, why don’t you start off by giving us a little of your background before you ever heard of the term cable television.
RON COTTEN: Well, let me see. I was born in San Francisco. My father was in the Navy. We moved liked gypsies from coast to coast and finally ended up in the Bay Area in the early ’50s. Then when my father got out of the military after 21 years of service, through World War II and Korea and all of that, we moved over to a little town, what was then a little town, Concord, in the East Bay. I graduated from high school there in 1960. This is my 40th reunion this year, which is a scary thought. I immediately went in the Air Force as soon as I graduated. I spent a year down in Biloxi, Mississippi at Keesler Air Force Base. They put me into an electronics program; I was there for a year, and basically learned how to maintain long-range search radar. After I graduated from the technical school there, I moved on to a radar base about 30 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico on top of a mesa, it was West Mesa Air Force Station, and spent three years in the Air Force there. So that kind of got me started into a career in electronics. I got out of the Air Force in 1964, just before the Gulf of Tonkin, and went back to California. I was going to go back and start going to college, and on the way back the transmission in my car broke down. The guy I was traveling with, we hooked a tow bar up to it, it was on a bottom line and the tow bar broke, and we ended up wrecking both of the cars. So I ended up back in California with a broken foot and had lost everything, didn’t have anything but the shirt on my back. So the prodigal son returns, right? At any rate, I went to the unemployment office in Pittsford and I was still on crutches. They told me about a couple of different jobs and one of them was something called cable television over in the little town of Lafayette, which is on the eastern side of the hills from Oakland.
PORTER: Is this just an interim thing? I understand you wanted to go back to school, finish your college education, or had that been a plan at that point in time?
COTTEN: Oh, no, that was the plan. The job was strictly to put a roof over my head and food on the table, you know. And of course my oldest son was on the way; too, that was a complicating factor. So, no, I had absolutely no plan whatsoever to get into cable television as a career.
COTTEN: Yeah, and the more I’ve talked to other people, I think that’s a pretty common experience, too. So at any rate, I went over there, I was on crutches, and Jerry Sanders was the chief tech there. Jerry’s still in the industry; he works at, I think it’s Adelphia now, it’s in Ventura County, California, and I see him periodically, but Jerry hired me and I started as an installer and worked on the long end of a shovel and did aerial construction and underground construction, worked as a technician.
PORTER: Tell us about the cable and the equipment that was in Lafayette at that time.
COTTEN: Oh, it was awful.
PORTER: Younger guys want to understand about if a cable system was really a cable system back then.
COTTEN: Well, this was a system that kind of had a checkered past. I don’t know who the original people that owned it were, but at any rate, it ended up being owned by Greyhound Bus Company, which also had a financing division, and SKL, which was the equipment vendor that sold the electronics that went into this.
PORTER: That’s Spencer-Kennedy Labs.
COTTEN: Spencer-Kennedy Laboratories, right. But the system had… it was a tube type; the only amplifiers were tube type SKL amplifiers. It was a 12-channel system, but it only had nine channels on it because the headend equipment at the time simply could not handle adjacent channels on the high-band which is channel 7-13. All of the signals were off-the-air from either San Francisco or Sacramento. The cable was a real mix of different types of cable. Most of the newer stuff was a CommScope cable called 49/20 and 49/30, which was…
PORTER: Even back then it would have been Superior Continental.
COTTEN: Superior, right, excuse me, Superior Continental. That’s pre-CommScope, and it had a foam dielectric, it had a solid copper center conductor, and then it had a copper tape, a corrugated copper tape that was simply wrapped – there was no seal on it – it was just wrapped around and overlapped, and then it had a jacket over it. You can imagine how water friendly that cable was. But the original core system of Lafayette that had been built… that was all the outlying areas was 49-20 and 49/30 – the core area had been built with a cable called Alumigard, and Alumigard was a similar construction, foam dielectric, solid copper center conductor, but the corrugated wrap, the shield, was made out of aluminum instead of copper, and this was really fun because with the copper when it gets wet all it does is it oxidizes and stuff, but it doesn’t basically evaporate into thin air. It doesn’t completely oxidize away. Well, the aluminum does. So, I mean, you can imagine. This was clearly before CLI, too.
PORTER: You didn’t have pressure taps. That was kind of funny that you didn’t have pressure taps back then even.
COTTEN: No, not there, but we had chromotaps, which was one step up or down from a pressure tap, depending on your point of view. They were awful. And then the taps, the taps… we had chromotaps, which were in a little circular can, and then you had two connectors that you put the cable into, stripped back the center conductor and stuck it in there, and crimped a ring onto it with, and then you put the drop to it. Well, the next generation up from that was multitaps. The chromotap only had one output, so if you had four customers on a pole, you had four chromotaps on the pole stacked up one right after the other.
PORTER: And we didn’t have C-center conductors back then like we do now.
COTTEN: Oh, no, oh, no. But the multitap, the SKL multitap did have C-center conductor. It was a tin can, and when I say a tin can, I mean a square box tin can with a lid that kind of just came off, which was attached with a little chain so you wouldn’t drop it. You would strip back the cable, put the center conductor about that far, you would strip back the shield, and you would stick it in there, and you had a clamp that went over the shield to hold it in place, and then you wrapped the center conductor around a screw and screwed it in. That was the first C-center conductor. And then you had what was called a tap adder, and you had basically on a printed circuit board either a two-way splitter or a four-way splitter that you could stick inside there, and then you brought in the RG-59 drop from underneath, and you did the same thing. You stripped it back and you wrapped it around the terminal screw and then clamped down the shield. It was rough around the edges.
PORTER: About how many amplifiers deep was the system?
COTTEN: Well, that was an interesting story. When I got there it was probably 25-30 deep, but this was back in the days before people in the field, anyway, really understood the basics of what the limitations were in these systems and so forth. So we were just in the process of turning up the towns of Orinda and Danville and so forth, and in Orinda, the cascade went to 55.
PORTER: Not very well.
COTTEN: Hey, it’s a great number! You can divide it by 11! So I was running service at the time we turned this up, and I would hate getting the service call from this lady right out at the end of this new area that we had turned up. I would go out there in the daytime and she would come in, and the pictures were more or less there. You can imagine 55 amplifiers deep. But she said every time the sun went down the pictures went away. They just went away! So I set up a time when I would go out there at night, and I went out there at night and they were gone. There were no pictures whatsoever, nothing! Well, what it was, of course, is none of us knew anything about the temperature changes and the affect of temperature changes, especially on long cascades, and long cascades where there’s no effective gain control at all. We figured that out though, and it really took us awhile, and it took us a while to get new customers out there even before we finally… What we finally ended up doing was putting in a trunk, this 55 amplifier cascade, again, nobody really knew what the limitations were and how to go about engineering the thing, and so it kind of meandered around in a great huge horseshoe. So of course what we did was, eventually just before I left there, was put up a trunk line to cross the top of the horseshoe and reduce the cascade, which was really what was needed.
PORTER: So when you left there it was still SKL equipment in Lafayette?
COTTEN: Oh, yeah! It was all this tube type equipment, and it was all hooked together with RG-11 jumpers with in-fittings. So you would come into one of these amplifier locations, you’d go half-way down the pole, you’d have an in-connector, you’d have a thermal equalizer, you’d have another in-connector, a piece of RG-11 go into the trunk amplifier, come out of the trunk amplifier with an RG-11 jumper, into a 208 bridging amplifier, which was another tube type amplifier, and then you’d have two outputs out of that. One of them would be the trunk, and if the trunk went up and split, you’d go up to the top of the pole, there would be a splitter hanging up there with in-connectors on it, you’d go into that, and then you would hook up all the trunk lines to the various connectors. So it was all put together with jumpers. Lots and lots of connectors. The line extenders beyond that were what’s called a 209, and then you just came into that and out of that, but again, all of the splitters were mounted on the pole and there were individual connectors and individual jumpers. So that leads us to the adventure we had on the Danville side of this thing. This was about the time that the Dow-Corning 5 Silicon compound came out, and I forget who it was, but somebody got the great idea that we had so much trouble with these connectors filling up with water, we were going to go and we were going to stuff these connectors all full of this silicon compound DC 5 so we didn’t have all these outages caused by water. We took a vote, it was unanimous. We thought this was a great idea because nobody knew!
PORTER: All you knew is what the people that were working in the system with you knew. We had no network back then.
COTTEN: No, no, there was no network. There was no network, and actually the Bay Area had quite a bit of cable in the East Bay, but still there was no effective way to trade war stories and a little bit of knowledge, hopefully, to avoid some of this stuff. So we started about midnight and the whole crew of us, there were four or five guys, we went out and we took connectors apart, all of these jumpers throughout this long… the cascade to Danville was only 45 or 50 or something, but all of these connectors, we took them apart in the middle of the night, and oh, by the way, there were no bucket trucks in those days. Bucket trucks did not exist. This was all ladder work and hooks in the middle of the night. Well, the next morning about seven or eight o’clock, it was cold, it was raining, and we finally got the last of it done. We sent one of the guys to go check signals and see what they looked like, and there weren’t any. We couldn’t figure out what was going on here! So we went back halfway and there weren’t any. A quarter of the way and we could just barely get a reading! Well, as it turns out, of course this Dow Corning, one of the wonderful things that it does is it changes the dielectric constant of the connector and with that many connectors it basically, over the span of this long cascade, just absolutely destroyed the pictures. So we had to go back to every single one of those connectors and take them apart, and clean them out, and put them back together.
PORTER: That’d be an all day job!
COTTEN: Oh no, it was a three day job. This was a major deal, and again, it was because we didn’t know any better. We were just a bunch of kids and we were out there doing the best we could, and it seemed like a great idea at the time, and there were no standards. There was no legacy within the system, within the industry to draw upon of guys who had made a lot of really dumb mistakes so we wouldn’t make them again. Well, we were the guys making the dumb mistakes for the guys that are coming along now.
PORTER: Probably a lot of DC 5 sold to everybody back then who did the same thing you tried.
COTTEN: Oh yeah, it was unbelievable. That was a couple of war stories about that. At the same time, we had a lot of success. People would chase our trucks down the street to get service because this was a hilly area and the whole area was full of 30-foot masts with people trying to get television signals. So in spite of the problems, the business was successful.
PORTER: You told me one time about an entrepreneurial move you made, and that was working out a deal or having a deal where you could take down antennas. Want to tell that story?
COTTEN: Well, you know, one of the… I told you I’d gotten this job through the California Employment Service. It started at minimum wage, and minimum wage was like $2.25 and hour. So, this was not something that we were going to be able to retire early on, you know what I mean. When I was doing installs, I would do installs during the day and do all of these hook-ups, and just as a matter of course, I would offer to pay the folks $25, remember this was in 1964, 25 bucks and I would come and take their antenna down and haul it off for them. Lafayette and Orinda, that’s all kind of upscale area, so a lot of people wanted to get rid of their antennas for aesthetics of their house. So I would do that, and then I would have an ad running in the paper and I would take that $25 antenna and I would take it over to Concord and sell it.
PORTER: Where you worked later!
COTTEN: Where I worked later – I would sell it and put it up for $225, and I used to make more on the weekends than I made working my day job. It was relatively cool, and so it was a good little business for a while, and of course later, when I left Lafayette and went over to build the system in Concord I suppose I could have taken some of those same antennas down again, but I didn’t.
PORTER: Well, talking about not being a network of engineering, people and technicians, and being unable to talk to each other and find out that we were doing the same things over and over again wrong, and having no affiliation from system to system unless the same MSO owned those systems, that leads me into your involvement in starting what changed the labs really of all the engineers and technicians in the broadband industry today and the cable industry, and that’s the SCTE. So tell us, since you were the first president that we had, and you were there, as I was, at the founding meeting back in San Francisco, talk to us a little bit about starting the SCTE.
COTTEN: Well, there’s probably 12, 14, 20, I don’t know, war stories that could be told like that where we had made a lot of really dumb mistakes. Trying things to make the systems work better, to make them more reliable, it was a very challenging time. If you look at today, of course the technology is much, much more sophisticated, but the problems, I think then, required just as much creativity to solve because the technology was in its infancy and it was really bad. I mean, by today’s standards it was horrible. That was the bad news. The good news was that we were able to build an industry in spite of those problems and rapidly, I think, over time the technology started to improve and a lot of that was driven by the experience of the people in the field providing feedback to the vendors. But there was really not a lot of interaction between the various operators until, I think, the vendors started to kind of get their act together, and then I think there was a lot more cooperation on the part of the operating folks to take advantage of the new technology, to understand all the quirks of it, and to compare notes in the face of very, very rapidly changing technology to make sure that we were all dealing with reality and how things really are, as opposed to how we might be led to believe that they were, or what conclusions we may come to on our own that were out in left field. So, in the Bay Area… we had a lot of cable in the Bay Area for a major metropolitan area because of the hilly terrain, and in 1969, 1968, of course Chuck Tepfer’s publication, and Bill Karnes had talked about this, the need for some sort of venue for the industry to share technical knowledge, experience, solutions, how to point out all the potholes in the road out there that you could and did break axles on. So it was this kind of an idea who’s time had come, and for myself personally, having been in that earlier stage and having made so many of those fundamental mistakes simply because there was no textbook, there was no place you could go to say, okay, I’m going to build a cable system, how do I do that? How do I do that in a way that’s going to work? How do I do it in a way that I can predict its performance before I build it so I can optimize it? There was nothing to draw upon.
PORTER: Even the home study courses, like CIE and RCA had home study courses, but they weren’t dedicated to wide-band frequency…
COTTEN: Oh, no, no, they were more focused on television, radio, FCC licenses, stuff like that. There wasn’t any resource. And the vendors, the vendors, with all due respect to the job that they did, which I think was credible over the years, a lot of times the vendors didn’t really understand the limitations and how this equipment should be taken and assembled into a complex, large network that would work well. That’s certainly not a shot at the vendors because I think the vendors, given the times, and given the available technology in general, did a great job. It was clear, I think, by the late ’60s it was clear that the industry was going to grow, and in fact I think it was in ’72 that the FCC froze all new construction. I know it was ’72 because I built a headend in Piedmont in a redwood tree, but by God we beat the grandfathering clause. That’s another one of those war stories. It was about that time that I think it was really clear that we had an industry here that was going to grow, that had something to offer. The operators were starting to dabble with local origination, and there’d been a couple of experiments in pay-per-view and those kinds of things. Those were outside of the industry, it was the thing that John Saeman had been working on in San Francisco, but it was clear that there was a market for multi-channel television services, and really in 1972 the FCC confirmed that because the broadcasters jumping up and down and protesting that their ox was being gored. But about that time, the equipment started to get better, the cable started to get better, the construction techniques started to jell in terms of what would work, what wouldn’t work, the real fundamental flaws in the equipment were really kind of being revealed, and it was a time when I think everybody kind of… at least the colleagues that I worked with in the industry kind of lifted their head up from what they had been consumed with and kind of looked around and said, hey, you know what? We ought to get together and talk about some of this stuff because we can really help each other.
PORTER: So to put it in a nutshell, here we are, a group of technicians and engineers and installers, and we’re facing the dilemma of having to really learn only by making mistakes. And then there was a group of you guys, of us guys, but there was a little core group of you guys who were willing to step forward and say we’re going to start our own technical association society, and we’re willing to stand up and be counted. We’ll have a president and secretary and treasurer, and sort of lead this group and come up with all the groundwork and paperwork that has to be done, and you were quite a leader in that because I know you were elected as our first president. So I’ll hush and let you tell us about what it was like in San Francisco in 1969.
COTTEN: To kind of set the stage, I’d mentioned the manufacturing side of the industry before, and in general they had done a fairly credible job, but a lot of the problem was that the management would typically, at that time, basically follow the directions of the vendors whether it was problematic or not, and a lot of times it was because manufacturers were great at manufacturing, but they weren’t so great at implementing their equipment much less other people’s equipment with it into a complicated cable system. And I think the general attitude at that time of the operators towards the technical people was really one more of… people weren’t viewed as having an engineering capability at the time. They were really viewed more as grunts that would simply go out and get the work done, and didn’t have a great deal to contribute. Well, that simply wasn’t the case. I mean, the fact of the matter is, speaking for myself and I know lots and lots of other people who were out there in the field making it happen, I think that to a large extent we, as a group, invented the technology in the broad sense of the deployment of that technology. As I was saying before, it was kind of a time when people just in general kind of stuck their head up above the fray and looked around and said, jeez, we ought to be talking to each other. At the time Bill Karnes and Chuck Tepfer and others were kind of kicking this around; there was a real concern on the part of some people in the industry that this was a veiled attempt to unionize the industry because of course the telephone industry was all unionized, the utility companies were all unionized, unions were big back then. I think what they didn’t realize is that we were all rebels and we’d have never stuck with a union.
PORTER: We’d have struck against the union!
COTTEN: This was not in cards! And I think history has pretty much bore that out, but there was a real general perception with some in the industry that this was a veiled attempt to unionize the industry. But you know, we decided we were going to do it anyway! We didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission. We didn’t need our employers’ permission to do this, and we didn’t ask. We did it. So there was somewhat of an element of rebelliousness in starting the Society because we were dealing with problems that we would find out this guy over here had found a solution for, or this guy over here had the solution for another problem, and I had a solution that they could have used. We felt that this was… we weren’t going to do this anymore. So in 1969 we kicked the thing off, and of course none of us had any idea of how to go about setting up a professional organization. But we did know what we wanted to accomplish, and what we wanted to accomplish was to really get a venue for the exchange of ideas, and hopefully turn that into some sort of training capability that would help all of us that were working in the field and the technical arena. Remember, back in those days, the division between the technical and the management in the industry was the great divide. Today I think there’s a lot more crossovers with a lot of the people in management come out of the technical ranks, and there’s a much keener appreciation in this day and age, there has to be. The technology has to be precisely deployed in today’s market if you’re going to keep customers, and I think there’s a keen appreciation of that on everybody’s part. Back in those days, that was not the perception at all.
PORTER: And even today at the MSO level, especially, the engineers have taken on an executive role and been given some credit now for being intelligent, trained members of the team instead of like you said before, being grunts, or being presumed to be… just go out and change a tube and that’ll fix it.
COTTEN: Oh yeah, there are some really bright guys in this industry, really bright, bright guys.
PORTER: That brings me back to, before we get away, while you were still in Lafayette, and especially when you moved on forward, you were one of the first guys, probably the first guy that I ever met in the cable industry that was really reaching out for electrical engineering training, formal training. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to go to work in the daytime in a cable system and have to carry a load of electrical engineering studies?
COTTEN: Well, it wasn’t much fun, I can tell you that! I started night school in January of 1965. I typically carried nine units, three nights a week, and then did homework on the weekends. In 1968 I went to Diablo Valley College and in 1968 I got my associate’s Degree. I started on my bachelor’s degree at a little college over in San Francisco, Heald Engineering College. It was the only state accredited college that had an engineering degree at night in the whole Bay Area. Today that sounds kind of weird, but back then it was the only alternative. So I had to commute, work all day in Concord and then commute over to downtown San Francisco after work.
PORTER: So you left Lafayette Cable System and went over to Concord?
COTTEN: In ’67.
PORTER: Now was this an SKL system?
COTTEN: No, and one of the things I wanted to say before we leave Lafayette, one of the things that was a real fundamental turning point in the industry was the transition from tubes to solid state equipment. We went through that in spades in Lafayette. The system had originally been built with SKL tube type amplifiers, and in 1966 the transition started for SKL to solid state. SKL was kind of reacting to Ameco and Jerrold, who had come up with the TML series and the Ameco 60 series, I think it was, which were basically a rack mount little amplifier that went in a box up on top of the pole. SKL kind of reacted to that. Well, this is back when the solid state stuff was really, really primitive by today’s standards, and the reliability was just horrible. We had times when SKL had stuck with the model of jumpering things together with RG-11 jumpers, but now they had a little transistor trunk amplifier and they had a little line extender, and then they would have a directional coupler up there and you’d hook all the stuff up with jumpers, and you’d do this out through the system. Well, we built up some of this stuff and the power transients… one time the power went off and it came back on, and it blew out every single amplifier in about a five mile piece of plant, every single amplifier. The trunk amplifiers were all individual, what you would call a bridger amplifier was nothing but a line extender which was fed by a directional coupler, then you had line extenders off of that. Every single one of them. This made the Dow Corning thing look like a cake walk.
PORTER: I take it the transistors held?
COTTEN: Smoke ’em. We are talking cooked. In that section of plant you could see the smoke slowly waft above the treetops. And of course it was because the solid state stuff was so fragile. SKL had made a fundamental strategic blunder. They had just on the power supply, they had a little power supply like this that went in the little box, and it was just a transformer, just a transformer! So there was absolutely no transient protection. It worked us to death. We had an assembly line going with guys going back and forth into the field. It looked like… I don’t know if you’ve seen ants that’ll find a pile of stuff and they’ve got a big… We had technicians’ trucks coming and going bringing these amplifiers back, and then we had an assembly line set up in the back shop trying to go through and simply take circuit boards out, find a good circuit board and match it up with a housing that hadn’t been fried. And the thing that was really irritating, and these guys are probably all dead by now, so I’ll go ahead – this is kind of not so nice thing about SKL – SKL was having this trouble all over the country, and they owned us. So they’d take all the stuff that other paying customers had sent back to them and they’d send it to us.
PORTER: So you had to fix them?
COTTEN: Had to fix them.
PORTER: And then it was your equipment?
COTTEN: It was frustrating. So at any rate, Ed Allen had been the manager there for a while, and I was the chief tech at Lafayette in 1967. Ed went over to Western Communications, and he asked me to come over to build a brand new system over in Concord, and this was a chance to get away from them SKL amplifiers, and I was out of there!
PORTER: Was it a Jerrold system?
COTTEN: Yeah, Concord was a Jerrold, Starline One. Now this was back when Starline One was the latest and greatest, you know. And Starline One was no work of art, either. A lot of problems with that, but it was a lot better than the SKL. My point here is that the transition, once we got into the solid state equipment, the guys who went through that on the early stages, which was the early Ameco, Jerrold, SKL, and some of the others, this was a very difficult time because the manufacturers struggled with the reliability problems, the operators struggled with it. It was clearly how the industry had to go. For the guys out there who’ve never worked on one of these tube type systems, as bad as this stuff was, it was an improvement. So that was the road we needed to go down. But the first few steps along the road were very painful for everybody involved. Today, equipment is great. It is great today, and you can go out and you can buy almost any vendors equipment today and it’s all good. Back in those days…
PORTER: And it’ll interface with other people’s gear, too.
COTTEN: Oh, yeah, and back in those days you were taking some big chances because there was some stuff that was terrible and there was some stuff that was really terrible. You wanted to minimize the damage. That made me very, very conservative in terms of my approach to system design in terms of architecture and layout, and in terms of the reliability of all the components. It just made me really conservative over my career.
PORTER: So you finished this cable system in Concord…
COTTEN: Ran out of antennas! I bought and sold all the antennas in the system, so I had to move on to Concord.
PORTER: But at the same time you’re going to school trying to get your EE.
COTTEN: Yeah. So in 1967, I moved over to Concord, brand new build, we started that from scratch. That was fun. Rick Cleveringer and I built the headend together. We had put in a solid state headend in Lafayette and had to take it out because we couldn’t get it to work. It wouldn’t work with adjacent channels on the high-band channels, and we finally ended up putting in an Entron mixer, an active mixer that had additional filtering and stuff in it. We went back to the strip amps in that headend. Well, the Concord system we built with Channel Commander Ones, as in one, for the younger guys out there. So the headend was all tube type, the system was Starline One, this system had aluminum cable, thank God!
PORTER: And you had your own standby powering at the headend, I understand.
COTTEN: And for those days, that was revolutionary to have a standby generator. We had put a quarter-inch plate steel roof, and quarter-inch plate steel around the… we still used a wall type air conditioner, but then the door was made out of quarter-inch plate steel because this was up in the hills and people would go up there and they’d break into anything that they could. They’d also shoot up the place. So the whole place was kind of bullet-proofed, literally. Concord was built with very conservative architecture, and in fact, my understanding is that it’s just in the last year or so that the original cable is being taken down and replaced with…
PORTER: Is that aluminum sheath?
COTTEN: Yeah, it was aluminum sheath cable, but the P-1, this was early P-1, we built it with ¾-inch trunk and half-inch feeders, which was unusual for the day. Usually it was half-inch trunk and four 12 feeders. We did a lot of things, I think, that were relatively innovative. We did some good grounding in the system, which made the system, for its day, relatively reliable.
PORTER: Now did you get your degree while you were still at Concord?
COTTEN: In 1967 I got my associate’s degree. I continued to go to school, and then in ’68 I started over at Heald Engineering College, and continued there until I left Concord, which was in 1971. I left Concord to… When I was at Concord, one quarter – now Heald was on the quarter system – I figured, hey, it’s only, what? Nine weeks or whatever for a quarter? I forget, nine or ten weeks, whatever it was. So the stars were aligned in terms of the schedule. You have to understand, when you’re going to night school, you’ve got courses that you’ve got to take in sequence and you’ve got pre-requisites that you have to take and all this stuff, well, the planets all aligned and I could take differential equations, physics, physics lab, and some other…
COTTEN: No, this was post-calculus, but there was some other difficult course, and I could get them all in one quarter, and I could knock them down and be done with them, and that would really tidy up my schedule moving forward. So I went for it. It goddamn near killed me. It was tough. Four nights a week, four hours a night, and of course all the homework that anyone could ever desire. It damn near killed me.
PORTER: And working in the daytime?
COTTEN: Working in the daytime, yeah. I never did that again! That one went into the bin with the Dow-Corning and some of the others. There’s something to be said for seasoning, and I learned my lesson.
PORTER: So tell us about how Focus Cable started in Oakland. That was one of the biggest cable systems of its time.
COTTEN: Well, at the time, it was one of the first – this was in 1971, before the freeze – it was when ThetaCom had finally figured out that their single-ended 20-channel attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear wasn’t going to work. They had come out with a fairly respectable solid state push-pull 270 megahertz amplifier. It had stud mount transistors and some other things that were pretty cool for the time. So Oakland was going to be built with… it would have been one of the most advanced systems anywhere at the time – 270 megahertz, it was going to incorporate AML for local distribution to reduce cascades down to a reasonable level, and of course this was another learning experience, it was going to use the latest and greatest of the day in cable, which was dynafoam. Oooh, that hurt!
PORTER: Which was a styrene dielectric.
COTTEN: It was a polystyrene dielectric like a polystyrene cup, and if you take the dielectric and just handle it, it will just crumble away and go away, and it also propagates water like a pipe. It was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time that didn’t work out too well. There have been a lot of those in the industry. The idea was it had lower attenuation, which at the time was a major deal. Systems were, at that time you were talking about 1-inch foam dielectric, regular polyethylene dielectric cable, and bigger and bigger cables to get the loss down because the pass band of the systems were going up and it was getting lossier, and the dynamic range of the amplifiers was so limited that you just couldn’t get the reach that you needed in these systems without lower loss cable.
PORTER: Or multiple headends which nobody wanted to do, right?
COTTEN: Right, and of course that’s where AML came in, but AML was brand new at the time, too. So, anyway, cable in Oakland was going to be a world class system for its time, and I was the first employee hired there to go over and do that. I was still going to school. For a number of different reasons, I wasn’t too happy there so after about nine months or so, I decided to go do something different and that something different was because I’d been going to school now since 1965 and this was January of 1972. I’d had it. I had had it. I wasn’t going to do this anymore! I had three quarters to do to finish my degree and that was one of the big motivations, but there were some other things. TelePrompTer and I were not a wonderful fit.
PORTER: TelePrompTer owned the cable system, or was a major partner?
COTTEN: TelePrompTer was a major partner, there were local partners, but TelePrompTer was the managing partner, and so at any rate, I told them I was leaving, and Roger Wilson, who was the vice-president of TelePrompTer, great guy, came out and asked me to stay part-time, to go ahead and finish my degree during the day, and to ensure a good transition to the next engineering person to just work part-time there and go ahead and finish my degree during the day, which I did. To this day, I think it was wonderful of Roger to do that, and the industry had a lot of guys like that that were just great people. So I went part-time at Oakland. Rick Cleveringer came in to basically pick up the reins and go with it, and I concentrated on getting through my degree, which I did by the following October.
PORTER: So it’s 1972, and you’re a young man with your EE and now you’ve decided to leave Focus Cable in Oakland, California. What’s next?
COTTEN: Well, some of the folks I had worked with at Concord, Gene Jack, who’s a wonderful guy, wonderful guy, he’s retired and lives in Montana now, hooked me up with CableCom General out of Denver, and they came out and talked to me. They were looking for an engineering vice-president for an MSO in Denver, and of course I had lived in New Mexico for three years and just loved this part of the country. So they didn’t have to ask twice. I actually started for them before I graduated by about a month, and kind of just worked through all that. I moved out here to Denver and was with CableCom for about five years. CableCom had lots of the old, old systems through Arizona, through the Midwest. In fact, in Clay Center, Kansas, we rebuilt that system and the old Ameco 60 series we had serial number 001. It was absolutely incredible and it had been modified to put sockets in place so that the transistors could just be popped in and popped out. It was incredible. And of course in Arizona, some of the old systems there had G-line, which is a single conductor transmission scheme.
PORTER: We called it microwave over a wire.
COTTEN: Microwave over a wire. I think it’s this town of St. Joe, Arizona, which is just west of Holbrook.
PORTER: St. John’s?
COTTEN: St. John’s, maybe. The G-line came from Holbrook and came underneath a, I think it was a 215,000 volt transmission line. So you talk about lack of shielding! This little town only had 50-60 homes in it, it was a tiny, tiny little place, but it was rough around the edges. It was really rough around the edges. We had strip braid… the trunk line that went through Cottonwood was military surplus 50 ohm coax with a solid dielectric cable, it was about that big around, and in Cottonwood the headend was in a chicken coop, and I mean a chicken coop with chickens and all that implies. It was rough around the edges.
PORTER: So those Arizona systems were some of the original cable systems built.
COTTEN: Some of the very first built, so we got to deal with a lot of the very, very early way people did things and how they improvised because that was earlier yet, and you have to keep in mind that there were not products that you could go out and buy off the shelf to do this with. You had to basically get what you could and jury-rig it to make it work. A lot of ladder lead… now, underground… one of the original underground subdivisions in I think it was either Holbrook or Winslow that had direct buried, unjacketed 412, and it would come up out of the ground in a little arc like that in unjacketed cable and then attached to this little piece up here were pressure taps and they would go off across the sand to various trailers in this trailer park. And where it came out the ground it looked like a big spider, is what it looked like, and of course you just scratched back the dirt a little bit and the shield… there wasn’t any shield. The shield was gone. A lot of interesting stuff. And of course there I got introduced in a big way to microwave. CableCom had common carrier microwave, it had CARS band microwave, both FM and AM, the original laser link was not an optical fiber product, it was an FM multiplexed microwave system that was built in the early ’70s that ultimately they took off the market.
PORTER: Was it Hughes?
COTTEN: No, no, this was not Hughes. They were competing with Hughes. I think the only deployment was in Colorado Springs, which they just could never get it to work. If you looked at kind of the blocked diagram of it, it was just too complicated to operate in an analog world where you had to have very, very high dynamic range. It just didn’t work very well. CableCom, one of the interesting things about that period of time, sweep testing was just really starting to come into its own, and a lot of that had been driven by in the early ’70s and late ’60s the new solid state equipment, the Starline One, the Starline 20 single-ended, and the Starline 20 push-pull to a lesser degree, and some of the Vikoa and Ameco and some of the other stuff on the market had a lot of problems maintaining its frequency response. The sweep testing was invented to basically – and I forget the name of the guy that did it, but it was at Teleview, Charlie Clements? Do you remember Charlie? Charlie Clements and his group up in Seattle built a temperature chamber, which was really revolutionary at the time, and kind of figured all this stuff out, and kind of jury-rigged some of the early equipment to do sweep alignments. Well, in the middle ’70s, sweep testing started to really become a fundamental tool of system technicians and engineers to keep a system running. Some of the early sweep systems, the Avontech and some of the high level sweeps and so forth, were just coming into use at that time. So that was an interesting time, and again, as always the technology was moving at a very, very rapid pace, even though it was at a much more primitive level than it is today. The rate of change was still nonetheless very, very rapid.
PORTER: So when did you leave CableCom General?
COTTEN: I left CableCom in 1977 and hung out my shingle. I was in business for a lot of years through the franchising wars of the late ’70s and the early ’80s. I had about fifty people in the company and we did a lot of system design work. There were no computer programs at the time to do system design, and so we kind of pioneered some of the software to basically allow us to put the system design process into a production line so that you could do it rapidly and effectively and optimize the systems.
PORTER: You were doing system layouts and designs for both cities, aiding the cities and their selection of franchisees, and you were helping the franchisees…
COTTEN: With the detailed engineering design of the systems, right. We did a lot of work for operators on one hand, and the cities on the other hand, with the cities in evaluating the various proposals that would come in on the operators, for the operator we would come in and develop an engineering plan to be incorporated into the proposal to basically demonstrate how they would go about building out the system if they were awarded the franchise, and we did a lot of those. Most of them, frankly, were successful. Now the technical piece of it was only one part of the franchise, and certainly not the most important part, but we had, I would say, probably 60 or 70% of those that we did that the franchise applicant was successful, and the architectural approach that we had recommended and documented was ultimately adopted in those areas. So that was an interesting business in the sense that it was an opportunity to do lots and lots and lots of fundamental planning for big systems and little systems. We built some little systems on turnkey basis. We operated a couple of systems, small systems, for some new entrants into the industry that didn’t have established operations. I had a little cable system over on the Western Slope that I built and operated for awhile, and then we had a part of the company that did contract installs and SMATV systems, which of course satellite had come into its own at that stage and we did a lot of satellite work.
PORTER: About the same time fiber optics came on board. Tell me about the first time you saw or used fiber optics.
COTTEN: The first time I saw anything about fiber was in 1973. I went to a kind of think tank seminar out on the East Coast about optical fibers. There was really nothing being used at that time, and it was really kind of a what if, and here’s maybe some of the theoretical possibilities and so forth. That was really the first time that I had seen anything about fiber. I didn’t deploy fiber until the late ’80s when fiber started to become really a… at that time it really wasn’t a commodity but it was pretty commonly deployed at that time. And then of course in the ’90s it basically revolutionized the network architectures for cable systems. I think without fiber you simply could not have the loading capacity that you have today. You couldn’t have the bi-directional transmission capacity that you have today. And I don’t think you could have the reliability that you’ve got today. So fiber really has been a fundamental change and huge improvement in the technology, and probably, in my opinion, maybe one of the most – in terms of the transmission network – the one with the most impact since I’ve been in the industry. Prior to fiber, we had basically been refining and refining and refining existing technologies which were RF amplifiers, coaxial cable, and they got really, really good compared to what they were in the old days, but it was still the same basic technological approach to the problem. Fiber has really fundamentally changed all that, and much, much for the better.
PORTER: You got to work for Bill Daniels for a period of time as his vice-president of engineering. Can you tell us what it was like to work for Daniels?
COTTEN: You know, you hear about people that have great reputations, and sometimes those people live up to those reputations and sometimes they don’t. Bill was a guy who if anything probably outpaced the reputation that he had. Bill was a great guy, he was fair, he was demanding, but in a very, very positive way that I think inspired people rather than made them angry, and I think Bill was one of the best people, outside of working for him, one of the best people I ever met, much less worked for. Bill was a great, great person, and he truly deserved the reputation that he enjoyed.
PORTER: You worked there, and then I believe you hung your shingle back up a time or so.
COTTEN: Working for Bill was really fun. I had, in 1984 – I think it was in ’84 the FCC froze rates…
COTTEN: And business, and basically the industry slowed way down as a result of that, and at the time I was kind of looking for something else to do anyway. There’s pros and cons to running a business like that. It’s a lot of fun for a long time, but it’s a lot of work, too. Daniels and Associates had been a client of mine for a long time, and Bill Kingery, who worked for Bill, was going to start up an operations group again, and I had done a lot of work for Kingery over the years, and so they asked me if I would like to come join them, which I did. It was a very entrepreneurial environment. The business model was to buy systems, generally systems that were distressed, at a low price, invest the necessary capital and resources into those systems to turn them into… basically to turn a broken down old nag into a racehorse over a period of two or three years, build the value in that system, and then at the right time have an exit strategy to sell that system at a much higher profit than it was purchased for.
PORTER: When you went to work for CH2M Hill – I always get it wrong, I’m probably saying the name of the company even wrong – but how did you get to that company?
COTTEN: Well, I kind of have to go back to Daniels. When Bill sold his business out to United Artists in ’89, which subsequently merged with United Cable, which was subsequently acquired by TCI, when Bill sold out we all had a nice payday out of that, which was great, and I decided to go back and hang my shingle back out and started a company called Engineering Technologies Group. We had that company for… Dale Lutz was my partner in that, as well as Roland Heeb and Byron Leach over at NCTI. We had that company until, this was in ’89, until 1995 when it was acquired by Antech, or ’94, excuse me. We did some great things there, we did some innovative software stuff. We had about 100 or so people in the company, and really did a lot of the pioneering work on fiber and fiber architectures, and all the different modeling on how to optimize that, develop the tradeoffs and so forth. That company was acquired by Antech in 1994, and I stayed with Antech for three years, which was part of our acquisition contract, and left them in ’97, and had really kind of semi-retired. I got hooked up with these guys in late ’97 and they were, CH is one of the largest engineering companies in the country, and they were starting up a telecommunications group. They wanted me to help them out as the director of technology, chief technical officer, which I agreed to do for a while, and in the last three years we’ve built the company up, the telecomm group up to one of the largest design groups in the world. We’ve got about 600 people, and are doing some really great things. In April, I went from full-time to part-time with them, and so I’m working part-time now and kind of…
PORTER: Going to relax?
COTTEN: Little more relaxed, little more relaxed pace.
PORTER: At least 30 years ago, all of us charter members of the SCTE got asked an intriguing question, and we thought it was kind of funny at the time, I’m sure. But I remember we were asked to say what we considered as the most important product of the last 20 years in the cable industry, and then we were asked to look out in the future and I can remember, I’ve still got all those forecasts, and I can remember your forecast, and it was pretty right on. You talked about there would be computers hooked up to cable systems. We had no idea of that back then.
COTTEN: You remember this? I don’t remember this.
PORTER: Oh, I absolutely do.
COTTEN: I hate it when that happens!
PORTER: You hit a lot of these things right on the head. I’ve still got the old directories. I’ll let you read this sometime and see what you said. You’d be surprised. What I’d like for you to do is kind of give me an idea… let’s do that all over again. How do you see the future of broadband communication and HFC networks going out into the far future?
COTTEN: First of all, I think the future in this industry is as bright as it ever was, and it probably will be. My youngest is eight and he could probably say the same thing when he’s my age, is my guess, and the reason for that is if you look at the world economy and the world situation, of course we have tremendous population difficulties on the planet, which is one of the bad news things. One of the good news things is the threat of at least a general highly destructive war has diminished tremendously, and I think as a result of both of those things, most governments are turning their attention towards economic development with some view at political stability and the need to provide jobs, the need to solve some of the problems, and so forth. Economic development, if we’re going to solve the problems we have today and in the future is something that we just have to do, and if you look at what are the underpinnings of economic development, and of course one is an affordable labor force, and two is transportation, and three is communications. If you have those three elements, you can build your factory, or whatever it is, you can build it anywhere. You can go to sources of less expensive labor if you’ve got transportation and communication. While simultaneously transportation is getting more and more expensive, and of course we all read about the oil situation, and the reality is there will never be more oil available to us in the future than there is today. It’s going to diminish and continue to diminish, and of course that’s going to drive prices up. So what that means, in my view anyway, is that for telecommunications, telecommunications is one of the fundamental underpinnings of economic activity, but its role is going to increase in the future as opposed to transportation’s role which is going to decrease. So when gasoline hits $20 a gallon, people are going to be substituting communications for transportation, and that’s probably the only thing that’s going to help the traffic here in Denver, I suppose. But the networks that we’re starting to build today are really, in my opinion, the precursors of very extremely sophisticated networks that will really serve society as a major, major element in driving economic activity, not just here in the United States, but worldwide. And I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface on the complexity and the capability of these networks. I think we’ll see a trend toward a greater and greater optical content, and of course more powerful computers, but also a dispersed network where as transportation becomes more expensive it becomes less important in the overall scheme of things. For people working in the industry today, at least in my view, they’re in the right place at the right time, and I think even into the distant future that you’re going to see lots and lots of opportunities in telecommunications that are going to get better.
PORTER: I want to thank you, Ron. I’ve enjoyed having this opportunity to talk to you, and I’m sure the Barco Library thanks you.
COTTEN: Thank you.