Interview date: October 11, 2023
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
STEWART SCHLEY: Hello there, greetings, and welcome to the Hauser Oral History Series presented by the Syndeo Institute at The Cable Center. It’s October of 2023, I’m in the Denver Studios of the Syndeo Institute, and it’s my pleasure to talk, via the magic of broadband transmission, with Ted Chesley who is an individual whose journey in and around cable and cable television almost reads like a human highlight reel of the technology evolution this industry has undergone. So it’s our privilege to spend the next hour talking with Ted, and, Ted, I just want to say thank you for being with us.
TED CHESLEY: Oh, no problem, it’s my privilege to be here, so whatever you need to know, maybe I know, maybe I don’t, but go for it.
SCHLEY: I bet you do because here’s the opening question I’m going to ask. As a kiddo, were you transfixed or interested in tinkering with gadgets, were you an engineer from the get-go growing up?
CHESLEY: Well, basically, my engineering experience came from my years in the Air Force. I spent nine years in the Air Force, I was in airborne radar. I worked for about four years of that — four or five years of that on an ICBM launch crew, nuclear weapons. And then for my final year and a half or two years in the air force, I was in the PMEL Lab, Precision Measuring Equipment Laboratory, metrology. So that’s where my love of test equipment actually comes from. But in my final year of the Air Force in Great Falls, Montana, I worked part-time for TelePrompTer Corporation who operated the cable television system in Great Falls. And I worked in the evening, and I mostly repaired the old dual-load high-band tube-type amplifiers that they used at the time and some leading — at that time, leading-edge, solid-state equipment that Ameco line extenders, things like that, that were just coming into the cable television market.
And in the background, I also would be working at night. I provided assistance at the terminal end of Intermountain Microwave Transmission System — commercial microwave transmission system that brought over the Spokane broadcast channels into Montana. Because, at that time, most cable systems were high- and low-band systems, actually, channels 2 through 6 and 7 through 13. And because of FCC rulings, unless you were in an urban-type setting, the number of channels was quite limited. In other words, you probably had in Great Falls, at the time, maybe four channels off the air, the main broadcasters and PBS. And so what happens in order to fill up that band is they would put duplicate broadcast signals on from some other location. And in areas like Great Falls and many other parts of the country, they basically had to import them via microwave because, at that time, there was no fiber link. But anyway, that’s basically where I got my first education in cable television and my first experience with it. And when I got out of the Air Force in 1968, I was offered a position to go to northwest Mexico or New Mexico in the Farmington system for TelePrompTer, and I wound up there for about four years. And after my stint in Farmington, they offered me a job as a field engineer in the southwest region located in LA, so I moved to LA. From there on up, it’s been nothing but a wild ride with cable TV, I can tell you that right now.
SCHLEY: I know we’re going to talk a lot about microwave transmission because it was an essential part of the industry in the day. Can you explain what microwave frequencies were and why they were suitable for use in an early cable television environment?
CHESLEY: Sure, well basically, there’s the number of different microwave bands or frequency that — as you’re well aware of, and most commercial bands are in the 6 gigahertz, 8 gigahertz, or 11 gigahertz bands. But the cable television industry, as it evolved, needed to be able to transmit their carriers to remote systems, interconnect urban systems with outlying subdivisions that would be connected to master headends, things like that. The only way to get there, at that time, was via wireless or microwave, and the FCC assigned a band of microwave frequencies called the CARS band, community antenna relay service, to cable television. And that was a 500 megahertz-wide band existing from 12,700 megahertz to 13,200 megahertz. And that band was initially used for the early AML-type systems, amplitude modulated link systems, that transported carriers from a central headend to outlying systems, sometimes through things like repeaters on mountains, that kind of stuff. But anyway, at that time, that was the only way to take a centralized headend where your satellite receivers would be located at and get that service out to outlying systems. At that time, if you were even on satellite, and most were not in those early days because the satellite transmission part of cable television wasn’t there yet. But what we did is we picked up the broadcast signals with high-gain antennas off-air, sometimes a great distance, and filled up as much as we could of the low and the high band, which were separate bands at that time. The mid-band, which was a whole bank of channels, about nine channels or so, was open. And nothing was in it in the early days, and we filled up the bands that were available to us with other broadcast systems, so we did a lot of duplication. But in order to fill some of the open channels and provide more services to customers, we went into local origination, mostly with videotape machines. What we do is cycle in movies and various programming on videotape machines, modulate that on the open channels, and that’s how we filled up the bands. And that also was the impetus to go ahead and fill up the mid-band, all those nine channels in between the low band and the high band that were not being utilized. And so that all started coming together in the early ’70s, 1968, 1969, 1970. And when I in the Farmington system, that was a 270- to 300-megahertz system. And we began to load channels into that mid-band area in about 1970, 1971, but that was after I had already moved into the LA area.
And one of the things that we did in TelePrompTer in Los Angeles, we had a design lab there, and it was run by an engineer by the name of Tom Ruder. Now Tom linked up to Phil Hamlin out of Seattle, and they worked in development of the broadband converter, the early broadband converters, set-tops, that would allow us or allow a customer to tune any of the channels outside of the normal high and low broadcast bands. And that’s when things started to really explode because people could put things into those open channels, mostly locally originated, or perhaps even in urban areas where they had enough broadcast that they could receive, maybe at 100 miles, 200 miles from the next big urban area over and stick that in the mid-band. And then we had the advent of the real local origination, which was video programming that was originated from these — the colleges, the schools where they would have — we would run a cable to them because there was no two-way cable at that time. We would run a cable to them, and we come back, depending on the circumstance, either via a single-channel microwave transmission that would transmit back into our headend or via a cable, which we would run to them and come back over a separate cable.
And along with that, at the very same time because we were expanding into the mid-band, we started to have to fulfill certain requirements of the municipality, in other words, carry the local council meetings, those kinds of things. And the same thing all held through there in Spokane, which we’ll probably get to later on, we carried the city council meetings back to the headend via microwave. We could do it that way, or we could do it via a separate cable, which we would have to run for that purpose. And, of course as the industry expanded and got into the ’80s, and we started seeing two-way equipment come out, then we could basically come back with some of that programming over the sub-band on cable. But anyway, all this stuff got started around the early ’70s when the industry really started to expand, and that would blow everything open.
And in line with that, there had to be a method whereby we could connect remote communities like a small town outside of a larger one with our central headend. And in order to do that, there was a development project that was undertaken by TelePrompTer Corporation and Hughes Aircraft, and they formed a joint company called Theta-Com to develop a microwave system whereby they could transmit broadband signals over the bandwidth that was allocated by the FCC. At that time, we had experimental or they had experimental allocations for 18 gigahertz, and that was a pretty high band in the early ’70s. Equipment was very, very expensive because of the frequency, the high frequency. But they decided to experiment with that band because they figured that if they had a channel band with an 18 gigahertz, it could carry more signals. What they did is they began to experiment with the 18, and the initial equipment that was designed and built primarily by Hughes Aircraft was put into the TelePrompTer system in New York City, which they had the cable system in at the time. And that went relatively successful, but they had little problems. I mean inside the city, there are enormous problems with reflection and things like that, and so they decided they were going to run a rural test. To run a rural test, they figured that one of their leading systems — I take a little credit for that, was Farmington, New Mexico.
SCHLEY: As you should, as you should.
CHESLEY: So we became the rural test site for the initial 18-gig AML microwave in 1970. And I had already transferred, at that time, to Los Angeles, but I went back to Farmington, and we went over to the other side of the San Juan River, which really was nothing over there. And we build a little facility with an 18-gig antennas and a short-stub-type tower. And we ran a cable from the headend through the city of Farmington and across the San Juan River and up to this facility and transmitted back to the Farmington headend. It was a pretty semi-successful test, but we ran into a lot of very same problems that they had been running into in New York City as far as stability and problems with the early 18-gig equipment and things like that. And they decided that they would go ahead and use a more friendly band, I guess you could call it, at 13 gig. And the equipment was easier to get, and it was much cheaper than going as high as 18. Plus the characteristics of the microwave was such that you could go further on 13 than you could on 18, and so there was more potential there. So they began development of the AML equipment in Los Angeles, and they came up with a very successful, early AML system. And once it was proven out, we never got to test that in a rural setting, but they did test it in a number of urban settings, mostly back East, and I think LA had a test going as well that. And the — after they had come up with a successful system, we did put a system of 13-gig AML into Los Angeles and transmitted over to El Segundo and a couple of other sites in LA.
SCHLEY: And, Ted, I want to interject just for a second because what you’re saying is really — I think it’s not well appreciated. We know that community antenna television was about retransmitting over-the-air television signals. You figured out ways to do that. But you guys were also populating this expanding channel territory with local origination stuff and figuring out what to do with this pipe in a way. I mean is that a fair way to look at the early experimentation?
CHESLEY: Absolutely. You’re a broadcaster, you know the term dead space very well, and we had a lot of dead space in the early days. And then some of the brightest minds in the cable industry, the fledgling cable industry, said, “Well, wait a minute, we’ve got an awful lot of space here that we could put things in and attract more customers.” So they began that expansion, and it started with filling up the empty channels in the low band and the high band that weren’t being used by broadcast with local origination and a number of other inputs. A very simple one was the weather channel. Put a weather channel out there, put a camera on it, modulate it on the VHF carrier, and put it on the cable system —
SCHLEY: Was it literally just text, was it just information showing up on the screen?
CHESLEY: Well, text and sometimes little graphics, the little weather vane or whatever. But when we first did that, that was unique, and that was something that nobody had ever done. And the customers loved it, loved it because they could look at the local weather and see what their local weather was, and so that started my — from my impression —
CHESLEY: — it did with me, certainly, started to flag a lot of management, upper management to say, “Well, wait a minute, we can do a lot more with this than what we’re doing now.” So we put the local origination on with — I can remember all those banks of videotape machines that we would change that — We had a local origination guy. He would go change the videotapes, and we’d put a different movie on, and that kind of stuff. And they’d contract with a company out of LA or someplace, and they would routinely bring in new videotapes with new programming and take the old ones away, and, yeah, it was a real process.
SCHLEY: And this was before the satellite revolution took hold, right?
CHESLEY: Oh, yes. The satellite revolution came about starting in about the mid-’70s, and we’re about to get into some of that. So anyway, out of Los Angeles, like I say, we did some initial installation of the early 13-gig microwave. Worked great, took services out to a lot of the peripheral communities in Los Angeles. I remember El Segundo as being one. And the reason for that is, is because we set up the microwave, and it worked, worked fine, I mean it wasn’t too far, about seven miles maybe to the transmitter. And the problem was that all the sudden, we started getting blanks in the microwave, and it would blank for maybe a minute or maybe shorter time than that. And every so often, it would blink, and we couldn’t find anything wrong with the equipment. Anyway, I figured, well, what we’re going to do is we’re going to go out to El Segundo, and maybe we got something in the path, and we’re going to go ahead and take a look. Like a moving flag or something along because it’s all fairly low-level because we were on a building over at El Segundo that wasn’t any higher than maybe two stories. So anyway, I go over and I set up a telescope, and I set up, and I’m looking back at the plant, data comm plant, which is very close to LAX. Lo and behold, I have a blank. What is it? We’re looking right across the 747 runway in LAX, and every time a plane took off, it would blank the microwave. And so anyway, that answered that question, didn’t necessarily solve the issue, except later on when you went to fix services, they would move the receive site out of the way of the airport.
SCHLEY: But it was — that’s a great anecdote, and there were gremlins and there were — you were doing new things. Was it fun, did you enjoy that part of the gig?
CHESLEY: Well, yes, it was. It was very entertaining and very fun, and it was a good time. We saw lots of things and figured out lots of things. It wasn’t fun from the standpoint that if you had live service to the customer, they were having trouble. Because the customers, they pay for a service, they want to have that service. And we can talk about that later on when it comes to analog issues versus digital issues. There are different situations that occur in interference with both of those. Some are more tolerable to a customer, and others are not.
SCHLEY: I did want to point out, we talked about satellite briefly, there was an interesting moment where you guys transmitted a speech. I think a live speech from the speaker of the California House to the Western Cable Show in Anaheim, California. Was that kind of a seminal moment for you, or what was that about?
CHESLEY: That was a seminal moment for a lot of people. The test that you’re speaking of was a major test was set up by TelePrompTer and Hughes. And what it was is scientific — and Scientific Atlanta was involved as well. And what we did is that the 1973 Western show — Western convention, cable convention at the time, we set up a link to Washington, DC. And it wasn’t the California Speaker of the House, it was the federal speaker of the House, Carl Albert. And he made a speech to the cable convention in Anaheim via satellite, was carried over IntelSat, and we used satellite receivers, and we set up outside. I was on the team that did the setup — a 25-meter, Scientific Atlanta, trailer-mounted, Cassegrain antenna with a maser frontend. Masers are the early LNAs, very, very expensive, very complicated. Well, not particularly complicated technology-wise, but complicated nonetheless. And out of that, what we received on the satellite receiver, we’re using a commercial satellite receiver, was the video and audio of the speech. We took that into the convention hall, modulated it on to a carrier that was carried throughout the convention hall, but at the same time, we fed an AML transmitter. We have that channel as well as some other convention feeds and used an AML, which we had installed — temporarily installed on top of the convention center to feed the microwave signal to Newport Beach, El Segundo, and I think another location in LA but I don’t recall it at this time. But anyway, it was a very, very successful test. It was the first use of a satellite transmission to any kind of a cable outfit. And it basically started a revolution, and the revolution was satellite reception of programming. First one out of the box, there may have been some earlier ones, but the first really commercial one out of the box was HBO in 1975. And they started transmitting HBO programming over the satellite. And then there were others that, of course, followed along. But that was the beginning of the satellite involvement with cable TV, which still is out there to this day.
SCHLEY: And, Ted, at this point in your career, I think this is when you made a segue or a move to a new company, which I believe was AML out of Phoenix, is that the chronology?
CHESLEY: Yeah, that is correct. In 1973-’74 timeframe, Kaiser, who was tied up with Hughes Aircraft, took over the AML division. And still — it was still — I can’t remember whether they actually labeled the equipment Theta-Com or Kaiser, but I recalled that it was still the Theta-Com branch. But anyway, there was some heavy-duty financial shakeups in late 1973, and I wound up transferring from Los Angeles to Milpitas, California, TelePrompTer up there, and worked extensively in the Bay Area up there, with installation of AML microwave on the hills around the Bay Area and transmitting down to the systems below. And also doing things like emerging technology things on the landline cable, like sweep and those kinds of things, and we were really starting to get into the technical operation of the systems at this time. It wasn’t just a matter of carrying a few broadcast channels anymore.
SCHLEY: Okay —
CHESLEY: But then, then what I did is I had an offer to go to AML because I was — I couldn’t say an expert, but I was one of the top technicians who worked on AML. I got the offer from friends that I had worked for before and worked with in the AML division to accept a position as a field engineer for Theta-Com in the Phoenix, which I took up, and so we moved to Phoenix.
SCHLEY: I think we can call you an expert in microwave transmission. I mean who else –?
CHESLEY: Well, I was one of very few that worked in that in the Phoenix operation. Working in there as a field engineer I conducted most of the in-house training that we had for the various operators who were installing AML, conducted an awful lot of field training in line with installations and things like that. When somebody would have a problem, I would go out in analysis and try to find out what was wrong. One of the problems that we found is — that might be entertaining — and this was a TelePrompTer system up in Connecticut I believe, just out of New York City. They were having a terrible time with a transmission paths to one of their AML sites. So they asked, “We need some technical assistance,” they asked me to go up and help, and so I went up there, and revaluated the system. The transmitters were fine, couldn’t find anything wrong with the receiver. So I said, well, maybe there’s something in the path that’s a problem, reflections or something along that line. So I go up and I look up there on the tower, and up at about, oh, 100 feet or so is a 10-foot antenna, microwave antenna at the transmitter. Well, it was a little different than most microwave antennas, which you see the red Andrew lightning flash. These guys have gone out and painted on the radome, the cover, a great, big daisy, covered the whole dish. —
SCHLEY: Because why not?
CHESLEY: And I looked at that, and I said, hmm, that’s the only real thing that’s any different from a normal path, and I said, “What did you guys paint that daisy with?” So he said, “Let me show you the paint,” brought it out, and it was Rust-Oleum paint, lead-bearing paint. So all they did was paint a shield on the doggone radome! Anyway, we took the radome off, the signal came right up, everything fine. But that’s just one anecdote of thousands.
SCHLEY: You’ve got airplanes flying in the way of the path, you’ve got Rust-Oleum paint, the life of an engineer. I want to make sure, Ted, that we give ample time to a couple of your adventures. You went back to your stomping grounds in the Pacific Northwest in Spokane to work for a rising company called Cox Cable. Give us one anecdote or story about why that part of your career was meaningful?
CHESLEY: You want one, one out of hundreds?
SCHLEY: Hey I’m the putting the pressure on you. Give me a good one.
CHESLEY: I can give you a couple.
CHESLEY: Well, to begin with, how I wound up at Cox was that I worked with one of the people that I considered a real mentor to me. And that was an engineer in charge of my microwave transmission, name of John Wright, worked for Cox in Atlanta. And John was a great guy, he come out of the — actually, he’d come out of the Southern Railroad system. And you want to talk about anecdotes, he had them all about the railroad. I had worked with him on a number of Cox-AML installations, and we kind of formed a mutual admiration society. And when they were going to build Cox Cable in Spokane, he came to me and asked me how I would like to transfer with them as a system engineer in Spokane. And it was delightful because it was back in my own country, and I took the job and moved into Spokane in 1976, and we built the initial system there. And I spent — just to summarize, I spent nine years with Cox in Spokane.
Some of the initial problems we had — and the Spokane system was new, and it was urban, and it was late ’70s. And we had all kinds of new technology being rolled into the industry at that time, both in the plant like cable and connectors, things like that, and also equipment. And we were using pretty much exclusively Scientific Atlanta equipment and using some of their earlier equipment. Of course, Scientific Atlanta being located in Atlanta, Cox and Scientific Atlanta had some relationships, but anyway, it was good gear. And at this time, we were building a system that was out to about 330 megahertz with spacings that we had originally designed to go further to 450. As we build up this system in there, we ran into a number of different problems, and mostly with some of the newly introduced equipment into the cable plants. One of the interesting ones we put in Spokane was unjacketed aluminum cable, brand-new stuff, P2 that came from CommScope. And the P2 cable was one that had been designed with a polystyrene dielectric, and it had less loss than the older P1 with a more polyethylene-type dielectric. Anyway, we installed a whole bunch of this stuff. Well, the problem with that was, that we got into — and I’m going to mention some other problems. But one of the ones we got into is when we would have a electrical failure that caused the power line to come down against the cable, the cable, being unjacketed, of course, provided a path to ground — our grounds, which happened to be in some locations better than theirs for the current flow. Well, we had multiple outages that were due to that problem. And when you went out and took a bucket, and you went up to the cable, and you physically grabbed a hold of the P2 cable, you shake it, the center conductor would rattle inside of the sheaths because all the polystyrene dielectric had evaporated because of the heat of the electrical transmission. So that was one problem we learned with P2 that we quickly replaced with the P1. We had other issues with that too because with the newer cables, it was the connectors. Because the connectors that were being developed, dimensionally, they were very, very precise because they had to grab that sheath, and they had properly grab the center conductor, and that was partially the seize mechanism inside of the equipment, that was more the equipment manufacturer’s issue. We had the first 40 miles of cable built in Spokane, mostly in the downtown area, and the temperature did us a favor and dropped to about zero degrees.
CHESLEY: Well, when the temperature dropped below freezing and down in the 20s, we had multiple suck-outs or pullouts of the cable from the equipment, and that was all over town. It took us a literally three weeks of 24 hours a day working to try to solve that issue in conjunction with the cable connector manufacturers. Of course, we brought that to their attention immediately because the connectors would let the cable go.
SCHLEY: Right, right.
CHESLEY: And anyway, new connectors and considerable amount of fieldwork. I had crews running all over the city of Spokane, which is a medium-sized city, trying to restore service to customers that we were beginning to put on the system. Also interesting was we’d have — when I talked about the electrical coming down against the cable, we’d have surges, which would, of course, blow out the equipment. And we’d go out, and we’d open the equipment up, we dropped a lid say on the line extender, and the only thing we could see — outside of the burned components — the things that we could see the most was a spiral of aluminum foil. And that was the electrolytic capacitors, and the power supply blowing out, and they blow out the spirals of the film that was wrapped up in the capacitor, really interesting. And there’s a dozen in one —
SCHLEY: Well, Ted, if I may? Why this matters is the backdrop to this. You mentioned you’re going north of 300 megahertz. Channel capacity was increasing, people are paying more for cable television now. The business was growing, and you had some pressures to perform, right?
CHESLEY: Absolutely, well, the only fortunate thing about this is we only had 40 miles up, and that means we didn’t have that many customers at that time. So we resolved those problems and went forward with the installation. We had a couple of super trunks, which are very long line trunks that are generally used from a headend to go ahead and serve a remote head– a semi-headend, kind of a slave headend. And we were using one-inch cable on that, and with the same Scientific Atlanta. Now Scientific Atlanta, at the time, made one of the most secure seize mechanisms in the housing as far as seizing down against the center conductor, and we put in one-inch cable. But again when the temperature would drop, the one-inch cable would, of course, contract, but the one-inch cable had a tremendous amount of contraction with falling temperatures to where it would literally jerk the doggone connector and the cable clean out of the housing. So to solve that problem was the same thing that we found other systems that had been doing, using the same kinds of cable with the same problems up North, is we put in a half-inch jumper. We would put a half-inch jumper with a loop in, and from the one inch to the housing. And we never had a problem with the one inch jerking anything out of the housing. However, we did have problems with loops. Yeah, see, you keep leading me on with these things.
SCHLEY: Well, all of these, you’re reacting to new problems and discovering new remedies. And this was, I guess, taking you up into, say, ’84 when you pivoted to a company called Rock Associates, and I’m fascinated by this part of your story. Maybe just talk about who Rock Associates was and how you came to be there?
CHESLEY: Okay, well skipping through the nine years in Cox in Spokane, I had an opportunity to go right next door into northern Idaho about 30 miles across the state line and work for an independent group called Rock Associates. They consisted of four partners who own systems in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a couple of other Idaho systems, Susanville, California, and they own seven systems in Alaska and a couple in Colorado. Anyway, they needed an engineer for the company, they didn’t have one, so they offered me a position over there. And I thought, wow, that sounds like a pretty innovative — because they were an innovative group of guys. We had worked with them in my term with Cox Cable in an assistance fashion. We’d go over and help them with various technical things in the system, and they had installed some microwave up on a butte or essentially a mountain, they call it a butte, outside of Coeur d’Alene, and we had gone up and helped them install that. That was FM microwave, single-channel microwave. And anyway, they offered me a position as an engineer, and I took it. And the interesting thing about these guys who were very innovative people — in fact for a period of time — you were in LA, is that correct?
SCHLEY: I was for about five years, yeah.
CHESLEY: Well, you — are you familiar with Z Channel?
SCHLEY: Yes, a revered, independent film and programming service, sure.
CHESLEY: They owned Z Channel for about a year —
CHESLEY: — a year, a year and a half in LA. And well, they were also involved in cellular phone when we started to cellular phone come in. But I wasn’t involved to any great degree in any of that. But anyway, I went to work for them, and they were a very innovative company in that they weren’t afraid to try new things. They joined other much, much higher-up, company-wide CEOs like from TCI, places like that. And CableLabs, they were a member of CableLabs and a bunch of that. We did a lot of innovative upgrading things in the Coeur d’Alene system and the other systems that they owned, and the most of which had microwave interconnects except for Alaska, of course, it was all satellite. Their farthest northern system in Alaska was Kotzebue. It sits about 100 miles above the Arctic Circle. And the interesting thing about Kotzebue — and these are mostly very simple cable systems, but they’re all satellite fed. And the very interesting thing about Kotzebue is, you went to their satellite receiver, it was a 30-meter dish or 10-meter, excuse me, 30 feet.
SCHLEY: Okay, okay.
CHESLEY: And it sat right next door to another 10-meter dish that the power company in Alaska used, Alaska Power. And there’s two of these 30-meter-diameter antennas sitting side-by-side. And when you view them like this, they were virtually horizontal. We’re looking up like this, it’s like you would look at the satellite down here. They were virtually horizontal, and that was because of the angle to the satellites, which were, of course, over the equator. That was a whole different issue with its own problems. I spent lots and lots of time going up to Alaska helping those guys upgrade systems and work on the — install satellite dishes and things like that. But one of the most innovative things that the Rock group got into was the SkyPix program as we’ve talked about before. And then also, they did a lot of — for smaller rural systems, I mean we introduced fiber, a fiber platform on the Coeur d’Alene system out to fiber nodes. And most rural systems were not doing that at time, this was the late ’80s. The urban systems were. And we, of course, had been keeping track of what they were doing, so we knew pretty much know how it was going for them. But anyway, we put some of the initial fiber in. We did lots of things, we had microwave running, we had fiber running, we had repeated microwave running. And all these things were available later on when we talk about the SkyPix project in order that we could do some substantive testing of the SkyPix project, and we did that. We were actually the only system to have done anything like that anywhere at any time prior to that.
SCHLEY: It’s interesting to me, Tom. One of the precepts that drives this organization, Syndeo Institute, is a concept called intrapreneurship, which is the willingness and the will to innovate within a company. What was it about Rock Associates that filled that, that yen to be forward-thinking and to be out and front with technology and implementation?
CHESLEY: Well, these guys were a group — as I said before, a group of four people, very entrepreneurial. They had been in various businesses of other kinds, and they had formed a very close association. One of the members of the Rock group, Sam Adams, was a very good financial guy. So they had a good mix of people there, and they were very innovative. And their thrust was to do as much as they could with their cable television business, and they had some others on the side. And so they involved themselves in a lot of the initial discussions at the higher levels about innovation, about where the industry was going, that kind of thing. As I said, they were members of CableLabs, and they were drawn into this project on digital transmission. And this was far earlier than anybody else was even thinking about digital in the headend or whatever, but — and it was out there. And some of the digital transmissions that they were looking at, at the time, were things like Intelsat that was doing digital transmission across ocean, that kind of stuff, very high-level stuff in the government of course, military.
The discussions came up about, well, oh, at the high level again, that maybe digital transmission might make some sense over satellite. And there was a group that got involved in this, and started looking at it, and developed some equipment to interface with digital transmission and actually put initial transmissions up on the satellite. It was a group out of Ohio. I forgot the exact name of them, but anyway, they got involved with an investment company that had named themselves SkyPix for the project. And there were some demonstrations at the very high levels of upper management of people like TCI or whatnot and Rock was, of course, associated with that as well. And our guys happen to think a little bit out of the box. Everybody was interested, oh yeah, that looks pretty good, and there’s some things we can probably do in the future and that kind of stuff. But our guys looked out of the box and said, “Well, wait a minute, we got it up on the satellite now, eight channels of it, what can we do with it on the system?” So they thought about it, and they came to me, and they said, “What do you think we can do with this?” and I told them. I said, “Well, yeah, we can probably do it.” So they tasked me with the task of trying to find a way to take these existing digital transmissions, eight programs, to PSK on the satellite and translate that onto the system and carry those digital carriers on the system, okay. So I took a look at this, and the carriers that were up there at the time were on the SBS6 on the Ku-band, which is an 11-gig band. And that was commonly used for transmission of programming to standard satellite programming, the FM modulation, to cable systems as — along with the C-band transmissions. And also, the TVRO users that have — the private users that had their dishes.
SCHLEY: The big, backyard dishes.
CHESLEY: And, of course, they put a monkey wrench in that in the mid-’80s in that as soon as they started going up, and the TVRO industry came up with low noise LNBs and the receivers and such as that for home consumption. Everybody started getting HBO and what was carried on the cable system as premium channels off the air on TVROs. So enter the advent of scrambling. So around the mid-’80s, all the pay services, HBO and Showtime and them, started scrambling. So the equipment was there to receive off the air. Of course all of that was not digital, but anyway, we took a look at it and said, “Hmm, well, we can take and put a KU antenna on top of the building, and we can receive the SBS6 transmission of the satellite carriers.” And we used a standard Ku-band receiver to translate them down into the 950 to 1450 megahertz band, which is what comes out of an LNB, so just like a cable system would do on individual programming. And so I figured, well now, what do we do with it once we get it out of the satellite? And I said, hmm, I’ve worked for years and years and years on the AML microwave system up at 13 gig, and we do it by block translation in the AML. So I said, why couldn’t we do that at the lower VHF frequencies and translate this digital band down into frequencies that we could actually put on the cable system up above our existing bandwidth? And we were like 330 at the time. So I went ahead, and I designed some block converters, bought the oscillator, designed the block converters, and got some specialized filters because we had to filter it. And we brought it down, and we filtered it, and we took, and we used the SkyPix receiver. Now the SkyPix receiver was a special digital receiver because all the others were, of course, analog FM receivers for satellite. And that was a special — a digital receiver. So we took that receiver, but the problem with that receiver was it ran at 950 to 1450. Worked fine if you were looking at the output of the Ku-band satellite out of the satellite down converters.
SCHLEY: Sure, right.
CHESLEY: But it didn’t work on VHF carriers on the cable system. So essentially, what we had to do was convert it to a frequency that could be put on the cable system and then we had to re-block convert it back up to 950 to 1450 or reverse what we had originally done.
SCHLEY: Ted, okay, help me with this. When you’re dealing with these conversion issues, was the essential intention to shove more content down the pipe by using digital compression or was it to improve the signal quality or both or what? Why bother with this?
SCHLEY: Okay, okay.
CHESLEY: Both, because the testing that they had done on the QPSK satellite digitally transmitted satellite carriers to this specialized receiver that they had built to receive digital, to decode digital, indicated the total quality of the digital signals. Because digital transmission, above everything else, has one overriding quality, is that what you get at the end is the same as what you put in at the beginning.
SCHLEY: Got it.
CHESLEY: That was the beauty for cable, and when we introduced cable, the digital into cable. But for this particular project, they could use their digital receiver directly off of the satellite and demonstrate the digital, but that wasn’t on the cable. So our task was to put it on the cable. So what we did is we went ahead, and we downconverted it into a VHF spectrum that we could modulate on to the cable, which we did. And in a block fashion, not like a regular, single-channel modulator, but in a block fashion, and we overlaid that on the cable system at the high end. Now we have to filter that in order to keep the noise off the satellite out of the VHF on the system. But we did that successfully, then we transmitted it through the system cable plant, coaxial plant up to a trunk amplifier cascade of something on the order of 20 amplifiers, that far out in the plant. Now out there, analog transmission started to get pretty, pretty garbagy.
SCHLEY: To degrade, yeah.
CHESLEY: We did that, we transmitted it through the AML microwave, a repeated AML microwave link, which transmitted up to a mountain outside of Coeur d’Alene from headend, and then repeated it to transmitters that went to system in rural areas that were like up 25, 30 miles away.
SCHLEY: And it worked?
CHESLEY: And we also put it through our — in on the system, it went through our initial fiber, out to fiber nodes.
CHESLEY: So we essentially were looking at this digital transmission through all through three mechanisms.
SCHLEY: Right, right.
CHESLEY: And we had the same result at the end, with every one of our tests a perfectly clean, headend-quality digital signal.
SCHLEY: And so what’s interesting to me, this really predated the wholesale evolution to digital within the industry. You guys were I think years ahead of that movement, right?
CHESLEY: Well, we demonstrated that, and we worked on improving our translation — our block conversion, because that was a relatively simple way to do it. I mean there was a lot more exotic ways we could have done it better, but we didn’t have near the equipment, test equipment nor the resources to do that like a big development lab would have. But people came out looking at our demo and then — You’re aware of the fact that in the Western show that year, 1991 in November, we did a demonstration in Anaheim, which was seen by a dozens and dozens of people at all levels in the industry. Plus we had had previously a couple of the trade publications that did an article, a couple of articles in the trade pubs on that. And we had shown the demonstration was the — that was the cornerstone, boy, I tell you. Because what we did is we set up — we took our KU dish, we didn’t get another one, we took the one off the roof, transported that to Los Angeles. I took a technical team with me both out of Coeur d’Alene, and I brought in even a couple of the guys out of Alaska, technicians out of Alaska that had satellite experience. We went in and set up the satellite receiver. Our guys wired into the convention center to a demonstration booth, and also I think we put the — we put that — I’m not sure, I can’t remember, I’d have to look at the reports. I think we might’ve put it on the internal distribution system in the convention. But anyway, we had lots and lots of people, I got pages of people that saw the demo and the presentation and all that kind of stuff, and that was a very exciting time. And everything worked flawlessly. It surprised me because I was right there, my guys were right there, we’re all ready to jump on a problem. We didn’t have any!
SCHLEY: Here’s what I think is fascinating about your career arc. You worked in tubes, you worked in tube amplification way back, and now, you’re messing with digital video delivery. You went on to deal with fiberoptics and vast channel expansion in the next phase of your career, which was —
CHESLEY: Well —
SCHLEY: — take us through that.
CHESLEY: Yeah, let me just quickly diverge just real quick back to those early days. That was a time when a cable system, as we said, the initial equipment was low-band and high-band, tube-type amplifiers. If the amplifier had a problem with a response or whatever, you replaced all the tubes. You didn’t replace one, you replaced all of them. But anyway, that was in the days where some systems — a couple of things, I’ll make a couple of points. We used early cable that was actually military grade type cable, coaxial cable like RG8, RG11, that kind of stuff. And we used a couple of exotic types of coaxial cable that had been developed for our purposes that used things like flat copper braid, a shield instead of the braided wire, things like that. In the days when you had complaints after a rainstorm or whatever that your high band was going away, and in a particular area, you would go down that area in the alley and you’d take a long pole, and you would bang on the cable and watch. And your guy at the other end will watch the level come up. That was one of the issues, and we had things like up pressure taps which essentially — was not a bidirectional tap, which we use now — but it was just a pinpoint. And you screwed it into a holder on the coaxial cable, and it just poked through the cable and touched the center conductor, little things like that. Wouldn’t work at all when you went above channel 13, but for the day and age, it did its job. And just little things like that are just — I think back on them and think of how far we’ve gone in this industry.
Back to the SkyPix thing, yeah, we did the big demonstrations, but then there was stuff at the top that went on. And it wasn’t really pursued. That technology on the SkyPix program was still there, and the people that had developed it were still active, but they wound up working with some other folks. And actually, it’s my understanding, they were behind EchoStar, which was one of the very first DBS systems that came out in like 1974, 1975. But, yeah, that was an opportunity in my mind, and I’m sure that the other folks involved feel the same way. That was an opportunity that the cable industry missed. Everybody that saw the demonstrations saw the beauty of the digital transmission. And it was just amazing to me that you didn’t have some of the bigger guys jump into the fold and go full bore. The manufacturers like SA [Scientific Atlanta], GI [General Instrument], guys like that, they should’ve been on top of it. But of course, I realized, at that time, they were working on a lot of different technologies.
CHESLEY: A lot of the focus was on equipment for the headend for digital transmission over the satellite directly to the headends, and also to fiber. I mean fiber was expanding very rapidly at that time too with innovation and with development. And there were other — lots of other things on the plate, but I don’t know why people didn’t get into it, but they didn’t, and they should have.
SCHLEY: I’ve got to believe that the work you did with SkyPix did have influence going forward. It played a role in the digital conversion that was yet to occur in this industry.
CHESLEY: Well, unfortunately, the earliest guys were the DBS guys which was our competition. So somebody was there —
SCHLEY: Somebody was paying attention.
CHESLEY: But anyway, that was — I’ll never forget that project, that was fascinating.
SCHLEY: It is fascinating. Then there’s this whole next era of your career where you worked for Century, for Time Warner Cable as a consultant, and I don’t even know how to encapsulate that, but what was happening technologically? What was one of the highlights or a couple of highlights you worked on in this latter half of your odyssey?
CHESLEY: Well, Rock Associates sold the company to the Century Cable in 1995. Now up until that time, there was another thing that goes along with this. In 1979, I was elected the technical vice president of the Pacific Northwest Cable Communications Association, PNCCA, which was all Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, western Montana. And I stayed basically as a technical vice president of that association until 1975 when they disbanded, with a couple of breaks where somebody else had taken it for a year or two years, I think about a couple of years. But anyway, in 1995, the PNCCA disbanded, and mostly because a lot of the systems had gone and been acquired by very large operators. And the large operators had their own thing going, more or less, and so anyway, that’s way above my pay grade. I guess that’s a favorite term.
SCHLEY: We should also mention, you’ve been active from the very get-go in SCTE, now a subsidiary of CableLabs. What does that part of your contribution look like, and what do you take away from that?
CHESLEY: Oh, well, absolutely. PNCCA did a lot of training, onsite training in all four of the states. I’d go over to their individual meetings and do some training. And then in 1988, we decided that we would form a chapter up in the Northwest because we did — at that time, there — I think there was the Rainier Chapter and the Cascade Chapter over in Portland and Seattle, but nothing on the east side. So in conjunction with my association with all four states, we decided we’d form the Inland Chapter of the SCTE, which basically was the eastern side of Washington and Oregon, Idaho, and the western side of Montana. And so we formed that and guess who got elected first president of it? And anyway, through my association with Rock, working for Rock, they were excited about our involvement in that because, again, the innovation was there. And, in fact, they had allowed me, in my position as their Chief Engineer, to go and assist Cable AML in projects such as the microwave and MMDS in Argentina and places like that. When I proposed that to the Rock group, their answer to me was, “Oh, how exciting, this is great, go do it.” And so if I want to point to anybody that was a big influence on me in the industry, it was the Rock group, but anyway, I did that off and on, not all the time. But when I went over to Century, the funny thing about Century, that was a Leonard Tow group. And many of the people that worked for Century at that time had actually worked for TelePrompTer back in the early ’70s, and I knew them because that company was a derivative of the TelePrompTer breakup. In working with their chief engineer, a fellow by the name of Mike Harris, was a good friend of mine from the early ’70s. And we had a lot of things to do out there in Century system because they immediately started using me as a staff engineer to go to many of their systems around and about and help with various technical problems. But Mike also, amazing to me, is here I’m working for staff engineer for a major MSO, and Mike has told me that I had the ability, if I needed to use it, to work 25 percent of my time in consulting for Cable AML or others that might ask for some help. That was amazing, very few other people up in the industry had that kind of agreement with who they worked for. And it didn’t happen when Century sold to Adelphia because I was only with Adelphia about eight months when Century sold to Adelphia in 1999, and they weren’t coming on this working for somebody else’s business at all. But that put me in a position where I had to make a choice because I — at that time, I also had an offer from Cable AML to come on board with them as a contract engineer, not an employee but a contract engineer. Thereby I got into the consulting part of my career, nine years in consulting as TRC Consulting and mostly for Cable AML, and I did projects both domestically and internationally, all over the world. And the foreign stuff was a little AML, mostly MMDS, but also some real exciting projects like the 30-gigahertz LMDS we did in Poland and Bolivia and a few places like that. That was exciting so that was broadband transmission over a shorter distance, of course, to customers and wider band. And that was pretty exciting to put that in and fire that up.
SCHLEY: You’ve sort of been everywhere and done everything is my takeaway in cable engineering circles. You went back to work for Time Warner Communications in Coeur d’Alene, correct, in the mid or 2009-2010 timeframe?
CHESLEY: Yeah, that’s correct. I worked nine years in consulting as I’ve said from about 2000 to 2009. At the end of that nine-year period, I loved what I did, but I was thoroughly fed up with customs and security and all the hassle of hauling around expensive test equipment and stuff like that into foreign countries. And anyway, I had done a lot of work in AML for Time Warner in some of their systems as a contract engineer for Cable AML and got to meet some of the higher-up engineers in their regional offices and their regional structure. And one of the ones that I worked the most with is a fellow by the name of Vic Gates that was a divisional engineer out at Denver — and out of their Denver divisional operation. And Vic came to me one day, and he said, “Gee, how would you like to come to work for us in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, as a Northwest Regional Technical Operations Manager?” And I said, “Hmm, yeah, that sounds not too bad,” A, being Coeur d’Alene’s my home —
CHESLEY: Well, Hayden, just north of Coeur d’Alene, and I am sick and tired of traveling. Well — except a little domestic travel is fine and dandy.
SCHLEY: Sure, sure.
CHESLEY: But I am tired of this international stuff. But anyway, interviewed locally for that, and a long story short, I got hired on with Time Warner as the Northwest Technical Ops Manager in Coeur d’Alene, and this was in 2009. Vic asked me how long could I give him, and I said, “Well, I’m getting older and ancient here, so I can probably give you about three years at least until 65,” and that kind of thing. Anyway, I wound up giving him six. There was just so much going on and so much fun stuff and working with the guys, and I retired in 2015 after six years, right after the transition between Time Warner and the Charter.
CHESLEY: And so I didn’t have a whole lot of time working for charter, except I had worked for some of their systems in the past under Cable AML, I worked with AML. And then after I had retired, I wound up going back with Cable AML and working as a contract consulting engineer on projects that would come up in retirement. And many of those, if not most, were with Charter. And so everywhere from LA to Northern California to other — Texas and other places like that. My Time Warner years were a very exciting time.
SCHLEY: I was just going to say, Ted, when you think of all you’ve seen and all the really big transformations that have occurred from early tube-based amplification to 12-channel cable systems to the channel capacity increases, the digital conversion, the introduction of fiber, broadband, two-way systems. You’ve seen all of these key inflection points. What do you see coming next though? What continues to energize or excite you about this business you know so well?
CHESLEY: Well, if I had to — and I’m by no means at any level to project, but if I had to look at it just the way everything has gone through the years, I would say that where we’re fast moving is to fiber to the home. Most cable systems, including this one here, have got competing operators that are providing fiber to the home whether it’s carrying strictly internet or whether it’s carrying internet programming like TDS [TDS Telecom] or strictly internet with Ziply, which was Frontier here. I envision that’s where it’s going. In the early ’90s, I was a regional vice president on the SCTE board for two terms from the Northwest in the early ’90s. And we used to talk about — in light of the SkyPix issue, I used to talk to a lot engineers in the SCTE about the advent of digital and also the fast expansion of fiber at the time. And it was absolutely in my convicted — convinced opinion that it was going to be fiber to the home. He who controls fiber to the home controls the industry, and now we’re starting to see it. So I think the cable systems that are presently still tied to the plant, the coaxial plant, and, of course, with fiber introduction to reduce node size, that kind of thing, eventually it’s going to move to fiber to the home. It already is in a lot of cabled areas now through cable companies. I envision that as being probably the number one landline method of delivery of telecommunications, both telephone, fire, cable and things that we don’t understand now today that will be there. Streaming is already there, interactive gaming is already there.
And the next thing is going to be a vast expansion of wireless. I think what you’re going to see is an awful lot of wireless transmission for a couple reasons — a couple of distractions too, but a couple of reasons. Number one, it’s the only thing we have today that will get you from point A to perhaps a difficult point Z without infrastructure, going on the poles and places like that, and you can do that with great economy. I mean one transmitter, one receiver or a small receiver in a customer’s home, that’s pretty good economy. And you can do that with great quality because of digital — the digital implementation of heavier and heavier compression as we look at it, more and more compressed in, improvements in MPEG and improvements in the modulation, the actual QAM modulation itself. They can’t transmit with great reliability at this point, a very high QAM modulation, 1024, and above, but that’s coming, that’s coming. The better they get with forward error correction because that was an issue with satellite transmission in the early days, and now we could — and on cable with digital on cable, we can transmit a pretty dirtied up signal and still get a decent response out of our set-tops. But I think that’s what you’re going to see is a mass push, particularly in the rural areas, of wireless. I don’t see a lot of expansion, except by digital compression perhaps, in the satellite. And the reason for that is because you have a limited assigned bandwidth. Unless they open up the bandwidth, combine things like the 11-gig commercial bandwidth and the higher bandwidths, things like that, I don’t see a whole lot of expansion in the satellite. Because the arc is pretty — are well filled out with two-degree spacing, and that creates a problem with earlier systems that are using smaller antennas perhaps but not the conformity of a larger, more modern antenna because two-degree spacing allows that wide antenna to see the adjacent satellites which presents an interference issue. Normally, ever since about the mid-1980s, we’ve used five-meter satellites. Though a lot of people are still using 3.7-meter satellites, but you’re basically on the edge because the larger the satellite, the narrower the beam width. So as you go to a big dish, like a five-meter dish, you have a very narrow beam width. And as you go to a smaller dish, you much broader beam width, has the chance to see the adjacent satellites. That presents an interference problem. Now you have a certain amount of overhead of digital that helps you with that. In analog systems, you’d have incident beats and crap like that. And sometimes if you’re using a small enough dish or not properly aligned, you’ll see the adjacent satellite program behind yours, like a ghost. So very interesting when you start working in a satellite world. You got a whole presentation from me about working in the satellite world.
SCHLEY: I want to tee up one last theme for you, which is what’s compelling about if you’re starting out today devoting yourself to a career in this business? What’s in it for a young graduate student for instance in electrical engineering, what’s the attraction of staking your claim to this cable telecommunications business?
CHESLEY: Well, you have to look at it from a couple of different directions. Number one is the one that you just mentioned about a degreed engineer, someone like that. And the other direction is from somebody you would hire off the street, that’s a good body you can teach to be an installer or that kind of thing. Now, the technology is evolving very, very rapidly in our industry, all kinds of different things, and much of it, I don’t really understand. I understand the concept, but I don’t understand the in-depth technology. You’re going to need more and more qualified engineering people that understand the fundamentals of engineering electronics, telecommunications, things like that, that can more readily adapt to new technologies as they come out, can understand them, can learn them. That’s going to be critical to our industry, is having that knowledgebase, but not just in the large, urban corporate centers or large, urban central locations but also out in the fields.
CHESLEY: Because a lot of these technical issues that we run into in this day and age are digital related, modulation related, issues with QAM. You have to have people that have a fundamental understanding of the fundamentals. We used to say that all the time. If you’re going to work in radar or whatever, you got to know electronics. You got to know the fundamentals, know what a resistor is, know what a capacitor is, know what circuitry is. And nowadays, of course, it is not a matter of going out and fixing things like we used to. A modulator breaks or a scrambler or something along that line, in the old days, we went in tried to fix it. We went into the circuitry, we got a blown chip here or a blown transistor there, we were going to fix it. Or in the old days, you had a tube go out, you replaced all the tubes.
CHESLEY: That kind of technology in the field needs knowledge behind it. Now you don’t need a ton of people, you need — on every system depending on the size, you need one or two guys that really are sharp in this type of stuff. Digital — all systems now of any size are getting into commercial digital transmission. There’s the entertainment digital transmission VOD, now this is separate from regular programming, and then there’s the commercial transmission. You’re selling internet and data transmission to commercial entities. You got to have somebody that understands that to a great degree in order to support a commercial entity. That’s a lot different than just (inaudible).
SCHLEY: I think that fundamental point, the convergence between a foundational base of knowledge, but the ability to adapt is a really great point you make. And it’s a good closing note for our conversation today. Ted, it has been my privilege to walk through memory lane and take us not just to the present, but to the future with you. Your journey has been amazing, and we appreciate you being willing to share it.
CHESLEY: Well, you’re leaving out my little red wagon with all the stacks of stuff I was going to talk about there.
SCHLEY: I wondered, it’s kind of up to Ted, he name-dropped a couple of guys as we went through, which was which was nice, I jotted down names. But is there anyone you’d want us to single out as an influential guiding force that we would want to — beyond the folks you mentioned? Beyond some of the people you’ve named in this conversation, are there others who really put an imprint on your career trajectory and were influential in your professional life?
CHESLEY: Yes, obviously, one of the — there’s a blanket appreciation I have for groups of people, and then certain individuals. Early on in the transition to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, the engineer, the regional engineer I worked for was a fellow by the name of Bob Beaman. And Bob was a tremendous inspiration — there were a couple of us field engineers — to us in support of all the systems that we went into. And, yeah, he was one of these guys you could bounce things off of and would think about it and all of that. Management, at that time, a manager that had a lot of faith in me, and I appreciated that was a fellow by the name of Ted Channick in the industry. Of course the Rock group, the Rock partners, I’ll never ever, ever forget the support they provided to me and the faith they in me to do the job. But that kind of a description also applies to many management — upper-management personnel and — both in administrative management and engineering that gave me the opportunity, had the trust and faith in me that I could get it done for them and — you know? And everybody I worked with.
I’ve got a couple of plaques out there that — from the PNCCA days of — one is a Man-of-the-Year plaque from the early ’90s. And another one was the one I’m really proud of for them — that they had a special award that was given to just what they considered the most influential or best people in the industry. And most of the time — It was called the Harley Steiner Award after an early member of the association. And it was given to managers and some marketing people. Marketing people always seem to get awards, and an engineer had never gotten this award. So one year, and I think it was 1992 or three, they gave it to me, and without a doubt, I — and I remembered it. It was in the meeting we had in Portland, and we had moved around Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and I never forget that — I’ll never forget that. That was an honor that was — had ever been given to an engineer, but I got that.
SCHLEY: Did you, did –?
CHESLEY: But anyhow, I’ve got all kinds of plaques and stuff on the wall.
CHESLEY: I used to have a power wall, you are familiar with power walls?
SCHLEY: I don’t have one but —
CHESLEY: In the Portland office, in my regional offices in where I was, and I had a power wall up there, along with the other wall that had a bunch of doggone technical charts. You know how the big charts used to come out all the time?
SCHLEY: Once an engineer.
CHESLEY: Yeah, that was fun. It’s been a fun, a really fun career, and as you pointed out in your notes, I’m still going. I’m still doing — not 100 percent but intermittent consulting projects for Cable AML. As an example, I’ve been doing some work for Cable AML in Maui, Hawaii. And over the last year, I’ve had seven one-week-long trips over to Maui, not all at once but different ones working on some microwave projects from the Haleakalā Volcano out to these east coast. It didn’t involve anything with Lahaina. I mean that — that’s on the other end of the island. Same guys, but that and we’ve all kinds of different, little, domestic projects popping out of the woodwork where people are having trouble with the microwave. Still a lot of AML microwave out there because there’s all kinds of situations where a big system can’t feed a smaller system or a series of smaller systems across the lake, across the mountain, across difficult terrain, there’s no landlines. So the easiest way to do it is by microwave, and AML was originally developed for that. California. Several of the systems that I worked on have now been upgraded in California to fiber, but it took an arm and leg if you want to put anything up in California especially within the coastal zone. That’s a real hassle, and so microwave is the way they did for a lot of years until they could do that.
CHESLEY: Another point I’d like to make with the guys who come in, we talked about two to paths into the cable industry. One is the engineering path that you talked about. The other is hiring a guy off the street. If somebody comes in at the bottom, he’s going to be an installer, he’s going to start as an installer, that’s about the lowest spot on the ladder. But if he likes the industry, and a lot of people fall in love with the industry, the best thing he could do is take as much training as the corporation is willing to provide. And most of them do provide training, whether it be SCTE or Jones or one of those, and learn as much as you can about the technology, learn the fundamentals. If it is not covered in the courses he’s taken, find a fundamental course on electronics and/or radio communication, take that, and start learning the fundamentals and learn it. Because it’s an exciting industry, and it becomes more exciting when you start throwing things like fiber into the mix and stuff like that. It’s all very, very intoxicating to a technical guy, and you’ll get into it that way.
But there’s also some very important things that the guy that comes up from the bottom has to learn. All of us make mistakes, nothing wrong with making a mistake. The problem is, is when you don’t take the steps to correct a mistake and/or you try to make your — try to blame your mistake on somebody else. Never, ever do that. That’s a bad thing to do, because that creates bad feelings throughout the crew because it’ll get around. So fix your problem, admit you’ve made a problem, fix the doggone problem, and don’t lay it somebody else. Treat your guys as a team, work as a team. Don’t get out there, and try to be the king of the hill because you won’t be. There’s always somebody better. Just like going into a bar fight, you might be big and tough, and you might beat a lot of people up, but there’s all that — always that little guy who’s coming out of the back of the crowd that’s going to put you on the floor. So there’s always somebody that’s better, smarter, and knows more.
SCHLEY: I love that we asked this question because that was the greatest moment of this interview. That was terrific.
CHESLEY: Well, I’ve worked with a lot of guys, have hired a lot of guys, I think I’ve had to reluctantly fire one guy. The way I — to give you an idea of my management style — If you’re a manager, be firm, follow the rules. The company has rules, those are the rules you follow, but be fair, and treat everybody equally as you can. But my management style, I had two technicians, which I did one time, and I had to do this a couple of times. And they were both good technicians, I wanted — didn’t want to get rid of them, my gosh, and they liked their job. I looked into it, they did a good job. And the one would come to me independently and say, “Well, Joe Blow over here isn’t doing the work, I have to do half his work.” Then pretty quick the other guy would come over and say, “This Joe Blow isn’t doing his work, I got to do half his work,” and it gets to the point where there’s a real friction there. I get them in my office, I say to them, “Look, I have gone and I’ve reviewed your work. Both of you guys are doing a great job and you’re doing the same amount of work. So you’re coming telling me the other guy isn’t doing the job. Well, I can’t have that, and I can’t have the fighting in the crew because it causes nothing but disruption. So I want you guys at home and think about it, and you-all come back into my office tomorrow, and you tell me which the two is going to leave.”
CHESLEY: Anyway, they both come in individually and say, “Yeah, you’re right, you’re right. I’ll try to change my attitude,” and both of them did that. And we went on forward, everything worked great from that point on. But that’s how you do it, you try to — that’s kind of like what was the Israeli king who was going to cut the baby in half, Solomon or something? That, yeah, that’s right you are both arguing about the baby, we’re going to cut the baby in half and give you half each.
SCHLEY: I think this is the first time — I’ve done a few of these interviews — that anyone has referenced the bar fight analogy, I love it. So well done, my man, (laughter) well done.
CHESLEY: Well, you have to work with all kinds of people. In Spokane, I had a bunch of mostly construction people, three or four, and one technician. And these guys actually their background was they had been and were members of the Diablos Motorcycle Gang out of Santa Barbara.
CHESLEY: And this was in Spokane, hardworking guys, a little bit different, hardworking guys. And those guys, surprisingly enough, were hardworking, and they knew how to take instructions. I could give them instruction, “Hey, I need you to go do x.” There was never a problem, they’d go out and they do a great job. But these are outlaw bikers. They’d get together every year, a bunch of them would come in from Santa Barbara into Spokane, and they party up at each other’s houses.
Yeah, it is quite a deal. Yeah, we can get into employees all day long. I could tell you about a few of them almost killed online with electrocution and stuff like that.
SCHLEY: Oh, my gosh.
CHESLEY: And, yeah, we could talk about the time at Cox Cable in Santa Barbara that wound up transporting by helicopter a five-meter put-together satellite dish, SA dish up in there. And the tethers broke when they got up towards the top of the mountain, and the dish comes rolling down the mountain —
SCHLEY: Oh, my gosh.
CHESLEY: Yeah, little things like that, always a problem.
SCHLEY: This is how this industry got built.
CHESLEY: — hundreds of things, hundreds of things. We developed a point-to-point microwave system using Microwave Associates point-to-point gear that we used for local because it was portable, so we could take it anywhere in Spokane and use it for generating local origination from festivals and concerts and stuff like that. Yeah, it was a really exciting time.
SCHLEY: No kidding.
CHESLEY: A lot of that went away in the ’90s when we went to the big corporations. They controlled that stuff.
SCHLEY: Yeah, they take the fun out of everything, you know?
CHESLEY: Yeah, in a lot of ways they did. And today’s day and age is so complicated and involved that there’s got to be a lot of set rules and ways to do things and procedures, otherwise there would be chaos.
SCHLEY: An amazing conversation with an amazing individual who has truly seen it all and has a forward vision for where this industry and this category is going to go. Ted Chesley, for taking your time to recount with us your odyssey, greatly appreciate it, and for tuning in, to you, thank you very much. I’m Stewart Schley for Syndeo Institute at The Cable Center.
As a concluding note, we want to thank Gordon Rock for his generosity in sponsoring and making possible this episode of the Hauser Oral History series featuring Ted Chesley. Thank you Gordon.