Interview Date: Friday, November 22, 2019
Interview Location: Denver, CO USA
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Hauser Oral History Series
Stewart Schley: Welcome to this edition of the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Series. It’s a snowy day in Denver, November 22, 2019. We are going to heat things up a little bit for the next hour talking to one of a handful of individuals who sort of gave cable its voice—quite literally. David Harrison, currently vice-president of telephony for Charter Communications here in the suburban part of town, but has had a sort of everywhere career, helping to advance technologies and particularly the voice communications category for the cable industry. So thrilled to have you here to kind of recount how that all happened and what role you played in it.
David Harrison: Thank you. I’m pleased to be here.
Schley: I warned you in advance, but I love asking this question of when you were a kid: a) where did you live, and b) what did you want to be when you were a young boy growing up?
Harrison: It’s been a long time since somebody’s asked me that. So I grew up in rural Oxfordshire in England, and for a while, I wanted to be a fireman. I don’t know quite why because I’d never been involved in anything like that. I guess until Jim Clark caught my eye and then I wanted to be a racing driver.
Schley: Jim Clark, the race guy. That did not come to be, but you’ve done OK in the meantime. Where did you begin to intersect with this industry called cable? We called it cable television at the time, but talk to us about how that came about.
Harrison: Actually, cable became my third career, and I guess, certainly the very longest. And my background was in industrial electronics and medium and high frequency generators for massive metal treatment and/or smelting. And because I had RF [radio frequency] technology in my CV or resume, an agency picked up on me and said, “What do you know about cable TV?” Being an RF…
Schley: What did you know about cable TV?
Harrison: Nothing. So they said, “Doesn’t matter. Go along for the interview.” And I went to the interview with a company then called Windsor Cable Television. They were a startup company. They began in 1985, when the UK refranchised broadband. They were looking for anybody that could understand anything about RF.
Schley: No kidding.
Harrison: That’s where I started.
Schley: Paint this picture of what the market looked like then, because it’s very different from what we encountered in the States with regard to the relationship between terrestrial broadcasts, satellite TV, and this newly re-invigorated cable category. What was the world like?
Harrison: It was quite interesting. I think it remains somewhat challenging from a pay TV perspective. Because we had ubiquitous coverage of very high-quality terrestrial TV. So the traditional reasons for cable from the US didn’t really exist because everybody had—
Schley: Reception was very good, quality was good.
Harrison: Correct. But then there were new services so Sky Television had a re-launch as a satellite service in the UK at that point. And they were competing with some content, particularly in sports and movie genres. So I think there was an opportunity for cable, but I think in those early days, the drivers were quite different.
Schley: It was not for the faint of heart because you couldn’t immediately, like you just said, assume you’d get a quick 30% of truck chasers connecting to your network.
Schley: People did it. What was, did you say it was a smallish company?
Harrison: Yes. It was a small company and they had cable franchises for the city of Windsor. Then going west, Slough and Maidenhead, so going through the Thames Valley. They ultimately became part of what is now Virgin Media.
Schley: Right. The dominant operators. But you’d mentioned the country had been re-franchising cable. Can you explain what that was about?
Harrison: Yes, so there were a number of community cable companies that existed and Rediffusion was a large one. So back in the early 60s, Rediffusion was a company that was renting televisions. They also built twisted-pair HFC networks in urban areas to deliver TV to the televisions that they were renting to people.
Schley: That’s an interesting entry point.
Harrison: Anyway, the government, I think, looking to invigorate obviously industrial growth in the UK, but also access to content and communications, decided to re-franchise and actually franchise for broadband services. So previously they were really narrow band…
Schley: Because we were on the cusp of high-speed Internet. Or maybe the early—
Harrison: This was before high-speed Internet.
Schley: It was before. OK. But broadband was a driving force—
Harrison: Cable access enables other services, as we know.
Schley: Obviously you’ve spent your career since in cable, but did you like it?
Was it interesting or what were your initial impressions?
Harrison: Yes. I was quite excited to be part of something that was brand new. And we had obviously the new satellite TV providers that Sky brought in—sorry, British Satellite BSB started up, then eventually merging with Sky to create British Sky Broadcasting. So there was a lot of competition in the satellite space, in SMATV, as well as the new cable broadband networks.
Schley: You talk about having this RF experience underlying. What did you do, what was your original role?
Harrison: So my first job was to actually activate and sweep the reverse parts of the network because the government offered incentives to companies that were building switched-on networks. So actually the technology that we were deploying was a product called Cabletime. It was a switched video service, which very simply means it was broadband delivery of TV to a street cabinet or pedestal. In that pedestal there was a switch. And with line counts for every customer. We just delivered two channels to the house.
Schley: From that point forward.
Harrison: We were able to deliver across very long cable drops, because there were only two channels that we had in the very low part of the spectrum. The set-top box was relatively simple because the tuner and everything was back in the street cabinet.
Schley: You talked about sweeping for the reverse path. This is important, right, because we were starting to introduce two-way communications.
Harrison: Correct. So this was the first deployment of two-way cable networks in the UK. Because the requirement to be able to obviously control and get responses from the network elements. So the initial pilot area had been constructed and they built it as traditional one-way cable plant. With the engineer turning up the network carried a Data General luggable, I would call it, actual laptop. We’re talking—
Schley: Sort of a laptop.
Harrison: 1986, right? And they would configure the switch locally and it would run but if you had a service call, you had to run back out with the data general and plug it in anyway. So activating the return path let us then control everything from the headend.
Schley: I see. OK. And what was the product offering, David? Was it a video-centric proposition to the customer? Was it broadband?
Harrison: Completely video. Just video.
Schley: So the idea was you could make money, you could pay back your costs by selling television.
Harrison: I think that was the theory. As we know now, we needed the other product offerings to really—
Schley: To ramp up the RPUs and make it work economically. Take me then, if you will, to the next sort of pivot or segue was to a company called Telewest, which sort of has a storied place in the lore of the cable industry. People forget about Telewest, but what was Telewest?
Harrison: So Telewest was a joint venture in the UK between somewhat adversarial partners, if you think about it. “Tele” comes from Telecommunications, Inc., John Malone’s cable company.
Schley: The famous Telecommunications, Inc. [TCI]
Harrison: And the “west” comes from US West, the U.S. leg.
Schley: The regional telephone company in the United States.
Harrison: An RBOC [regional Bell operating] company at that time. And they formed a joint venture in the UK to expand and build out more cable networks in the UK for making some acquisitions, and ultimately we ended up managing or operating about 50% of the country. So with expansion and then consolidation, we ended up as two companies: Telewest and NTL. Ultimately they merged and now we have Virgin Media.
Schley: Right. And what was the relationship between them? What was the jump from Windsor to Telewest for you?
Harrison: So I was offered an opportunity to go work for Telewest as a part of the CTO organization.
Schley: So they didn’t acquire Windsor—?
Harrison: No, not at that time. It occurred later. It was for more opportunity for me.
Schley: Bigger company, bigger operation.
You had mentioned earlier about the need to apply additional revenue sources into the mix to make all the economics work out. And I really wanted to talk to you about the development of the cable telephony category. I’ll open it up. What happened? How did this come about?
Harrison: So the initial offerings that we had in the UK from cable companies for voice, were predominantly business service voice. We did a little bit when I was at Windsor Cable Television, but it was very much a complete overlay. It was not really cable telephony—
Schley: You’re sort of building a separate telephone…
Harrison: And when I was at Telewest, we wanted to launch phone service in the UK…
Schley: To residential?
Harrison: Yes. So US West was really driving this strategy and I think it was somewhat a bit of an experiment for them. Because here they were an RBOC over here, very dominant in the marketplace where they served, and what they saw in the UK was British Telecom, which was completely dominant in voice service. And were interested to see how a competitive product might work.
Schley: It’s interesting, because BT sort of played the role—we used to call AT&T “Ma Bell,” of course, because of its prominence everywhere. Did it work? Were you able to achieve some penetration?
Harrison: Yes. So interestingly—maybe we’ll come back to the technology piece in a moment, but from a buildout perspective, the initial deployments we provisioned for, 5% penetration. Their estimate was that we would get 2% penetration in a highly competitive marketplace, but we built to 5. Those networks we built ultimately were doubled in capacity three times.
Schley: Because the demand was so—
Harrison: The demand was so high.
Schley: Why was the demand so high?
Harrison: I think people were, they were somewhat fed up with the level of service and the pricing they were paying.
Schley: To a monopoly, what was a monopoly.
Harrison: To a monopoly company.
Schley: But I guess the problem that I see and you saw right away was you’re still investing to build an entirely separate network. This belies the cable strategy of parlaying, so how did that shift occur to where you were able to deliver voice over the cable plant?
Harrison: In the early part of the early 90s, there were a couple of solutions for voice over cable. One was from a company called First Pacific Networks.
Schley: Oh, my gosh, I remember the name.
Harrison: And the other came out of AT&T Bell Labs; Bob Stanzione at that time was still part of AT&T. And ultimately he left and went to ARRIS. The technology kind of went with him.
Schley: Followed him along.
Harrison: Yes. There was an AT&T product called the CLC, Cable Loop Carrier-500. So we did trials in South London where we built out a couple of residential areas with both those technologies. And we actually conducted—there was the publicity phone call.
Schley: I was going to ask about this.
Harrison: So Bob Stanzione was over in the UK on the end of our cable phone line and he called John Malone here in Colorado.
Schley: Were you there for the call?
Schley: It worked?
Harrison: Yes. Fundamentally, the technology, those technologies worked. They proved you could do—provide a quality of service over a cable network.
Schley: And, if I may, were we delivering the phone traffic, the voice, in IP FF?
Harrison: No. So this is TDM signaling [Time Division Multiplexing] over a modem.
Schley: But you were doing it over the cable, the same network that carried video?
Harrison: Yes. Ultimately, they were not truly scalable solutions. They both had some challenges. There was opportunity there. We continued to build out our overlay network in the UK…so pretty much across all of Telewest’s footprint, we built out a parallel network of twisted-pair to the home, and very deep electronics. So we were building primary multiplexes, multiplexes taking a 2 megabit E1 voice trunk and turning it into 32 individual voice channels. Those were being mounted in street cabinets, very close to the customers’ homes, and then twisted-pair through the same duct where the coax was…
Schley: OK. Was the environment very urban or a mix of rural communities and—it’s hard construction.
Harrison: Very hard. The construction in the UK is all subterranean; it’s all underground. We were building plant in London, we were building plant in Edinburgh, in Glasgow. Very historic locations.
Schley: Yes. You’re messing with history here. Cobblestone and everything.
Harrison: So you’re talk about cobblestones. The reinstatement methods in the UK, the requirements, so as we excavated, doing either a road crossing or just parallel construction work. As we went down through the surfaces, if we came across ancient cobblestone streets, which exist in a lot of the UK, we had to reinstate the same layers—
Schley: On top of that?
Harrison: So we would dig it out, lay the conduit, then you’d have to reinstate the cobblestone layer.
Harrison: You couldn’t just fill it, backfill it with dirt.
Schley: And how far under the surface were we talking here? When you might encounter that cobblestone?
Harrison: So cable was the new product. In the ground already you have Victorian sewage lines, you’ve got ancient water lines, you’ve got power. We were on top, so the requirement was to be 250 millimeters, about 10 inches, below the surface.
Schley: Here’s what I take away from that. It seems really daunting. It seems like the economics were tough, obviously the physical labor part of it was really hard. Did you have faith it was going to work? Like what was your sense about that? Why?
Harrison: People wanted our service. I think it was new, by the 90s we were now offering more content. And there was, I think, with the voice service, which was a big driver of penetration back then. It was exciting.
Schley: Where were we at this time? This is before you made another interesting jump. But where were we with high-speed Internet at this time then?
Harrison: There was really nothing at that point.
Schley: I just wanted to make sure I understand the parallels between this.
Harrison: Certainly in the early 90s.
Schley: Japan came into your world. Tell us about that. Or you came in to it’s world.
Harrison: So following the success of our voice service launch in the UK, there was a joint venture operating in Japan that was initiated for a video service, and it was again a joint venture with TCI/TCI International. And at that time, Sumitomo was the joint venture partner. And they formed a company called Jupiter Telecom operating as J:COM. And very quickly on the back of our success of our voice service in the UK, the business wanted to look at launching competitive voice.
Schley: Kind of doing the same play.
Harrison: Doing the same kind of thing. So I was asked if I would go over and set up the technical, you know, the buildout, and everything, to support all the voice service in Japan. The first time the company asked, we went and looked and we said, “Thank you very much, but not at this time.”
Schley: Didn’t like what you saw? Really? This is you—
Harrison: My wife and I. We had two young children at the time.
Schley: It’s a big move.
Harrison: But we continued to talk about the opportunity and we later subsequently did move to Tokyo.
Schley: And subsequently fell in love with Tokyo, right?
Harrison: Yes, we did.
Schley: That worked. I feel like I’m asking you the same questions in a different locale. But same kinds of issues: were you concerned about the costs of implementation, the take-up rates, the basic business fundamentals?
Harrison: Yes, and there were also regulatory challenges that we had to get through, which kind of slowed us down a little bit. We deployed our first areas. From a real expansion of the business, it took us another eighteen months or so to really work through with the Japanese regulator. Because this was new for them. It was a very dominant NTT controlled environment.
Schley: Was it mostly Tokyo? Was Jupiter working in the Tokyo area?
Harrison: Well, we ended up with about, I don’t know, 23 franchises, I think, across all of Japan. And today J:COM makes up 50% of the Japanese market.
Schley: In telephony?
Harrison: In cable.
Schley: I didn’t know that.
Harrison: And the other 50% is something like 350 operators. Very small rural operators.
Schley: I keep waiting for you to tell me when we started to do Voice over IP [VoIP]. When did we start to do Voice over IP?
Harrison: So we got one step before Voice over IP. So the deployment in Japan was by that time Northern Telecom, had worked with ARRIS, and with Stanzione’s influence, the folks from AT&T. And they’d really created a robust solution for delivering voice over coax. So we actually deployed what became ARRIS HDTs—host digital terminals—which were really like the front end of a Nortel DMS switch. The subscriber line card was replaced with an RF line card.
Schley: Still out deep into the network?
Harrison: These were now back in the central office. So now this was truly Voice over cable…and we deployed about a million and a half lines by the time I finished there at J:COM.
Schley: Why wasn’t a similar progression occurring at the same time in the United States? Or was there?
Harrison: Yes, so there was some. Notably we worked quite a lot with Cox Cable.
Schley: Ah, right. Early on to develop voice.
Harrison: Yes. So Mark David we worked with there. We were on a very similar track and so we were sharing war stories; we were a little bit on the bleeding edge of this new Voice over Cable technology.
Schley: Were the customers though pretty happy with the service? The standard was where you needed it to be?
Harrison: Yes, yes.
Schley: It’s a pretty vital service, right?
Harrison: It is. Yes, the reliability was good. This was obviously new technology so we had some challenges to overcome, but I think the folks now, I guess, at CommScope, the folks that were with ARRIS at the time. In Japan, we had a very rigorous set of requirements.
Schley: Sounds like it. You mean, regulatory requirements?
Harrison: Regulatory as well as from a quality perspective. The companies’ perspective around the quality—
Schley: Really high.
Harrison: Really high. So we spent a lot of time with them hardening and really improving the technology. It was pretty intense at times, but ultimately the product was improved as a result. So I think they—
Schley: Well, you did the good work. What was the relationship—maybe you can characterize this for people who are tuning in—between the operating community and in this case, J:COM and Jupiter and you talked about ARRIS being a signature provider of technology?
It wasn’t necessarily just a case of “you sell me something, I’ll buy something.” You had a collaborative partnership, right?
Harrison: Yes. Very much. And they really stepped up to supporting the Japanese market, invested in people locally. When you look at global businesses, in my experience, without having the right presence and the right attitude, it’s very difficult to get things done.
Schley: Like I said, it seems like the challenges were immense. Where did you take your career following the experience with Jupiter and J:COM?
Harrison: I was fortunate enough to be working with a great team, some from the UK that came out of Telewest, as well as some that came out of TCI here in the U.S.
Harrison: In Japan, yes. As we were pushing through that build in Japan, there was an opportunity presenting itself here in the U.S., in Colorado. As John Malone was in the process of negotiating with AT&T to acquire the TCI cable assets, some of my management team from Japan were back in the U.S. And one of the key strategies of Mr. Armstrong’s at AT&T was to launch cable telephony in the U.S.
Schley: Domestically in a big way, yes.
Harrison: So the management team reached out to me and said—
Schley: “We’ve got to know if there is somebody who can do this.”
Harrison: “Say, do you want to come over to Colorado and do this again?”
Schley: It’s so interesting, though, to consider that, as you said at the outset, you were involved in metal smelting at one point. Now look, you’re being tasked with a pretty big project in changing the firmament of the U.S. telecommunications system in a way. So you took that assignment?
Harrison: So we took the opportunity, we came here, the family and I, and there was actually a quote. I think Mr. Armstrong was interviewed by Forbes Magazine. And he actually referenced me, so I got quoted by him. I’ve still got a copy somewhere.
Schley: An article in Forbes?
Harrison: Something like “AT&T is like David Harrison building out voice services—”
Schley: And we were still doing it through a different architecture than the one that prevails today.
Harrison: Correct. This was the same as what we deployed in Japan. So it was over the cable plant, but it was still TDM basically over modems. Certainly by the mid-2000s, around 2003-2004, the first IP telephony solutions were coming out.
Schley: From companies like, who was sort of on the bleeding edge there?
Harrison: It was really down to the—from a switching perspective, there was the likes of Sonus and GENBAND and Nokia, Nortel—when they still existed. So they were all converting their switches to IP, and then the device manufacturers were creating EMTAs, which were supporting the customer edge for this.
Schley: But David, explain to us why this was exciting and why there was so much anticipation over being able to deliver a phone call over an IP account if you will.
Harrison: The overheads and the technology to support TDM voice were quite high. So the concept of being able to use newer signaling mechanisms such as SIP, Session Initiation Protocol. It’s a much more dynamic cultural mechanism so you don’t have continuous channels up in place which you would have in a TDM world. So it was more efficient from a bandwidth perspective and it was also more efficient from a technology perspective. We were able to leverage new switching solutions and new network delivery mechanisms, basically just riding straight over the coax.
Schley: Big efficiencies, is that right? Because you work in existing infrastructure in some respects.
You talked about the apocryphal phone call between Malone and his contemporary in—who was it that was on the other end?
Harrison: Bob Stanzione.
Schley: Was there a similar moment in the deployment of IP telephony that registers with you?
Harrison: Not that I can remember.
Schley: Not momentous. Maybe not as momentous, but did you believe this was going to work? Was there concern about quality, reliability, sustainability of IP phones?
Harrison: No, I didn’t have any concerns. I think the initial solutions were used in cable apps specification, packet cable, to deliver. And it was actually not using SIP at this point. It was using NCS [Network-Based Call Signaling] signaling. It was more efficient. We hadn’t made the leap to full SIP over IP. I think that was a concern for a lot us that had grown up through the traditional TDM ranks. But I was exposed to that when I subsequently moved to Europe in 2005 where Liberty Global, as it became, was on the verge of rolling out Voice over SIP…using SIP signaling across all the networks.
Schley: And SIP signaling was a big demarcation point, it sounds like. Again, that happened mid-2000s?
Schley: I remember—the time passes by quickly, as we were talking about, but there was a time when there was real reservation among the consumer populace about whether the cable industry could pull off telephony, right? The industry didn’t have a sterling record for service; there were complaints all the time. Today it seems like second nature. And it hasn’t been that long of a transition.
Were there early perception hurdles to overcome, would you say?
Harrison: Yes, I think we had some technology challenges. Obviously traditional POTS telephone service, the power is all provided by the central office.
Schley: Does POTS really stand for “Plain Old Telephone Service?”
Harrison: Plain Old Telephone Service.
Schley: I always wondered about that.
Harrison: So power was provided over the twisted pair that powered the phone set. So no we’re in a situation where we’ve got a device in the premise, whether it’s home or business. And there’s now powering the handset and providing the signaling termination from the headend. So the concept, you know, standby power in the network became crucial. Essentially battery backup in the house. So there were those kind of—some were regulatory requirements in some countries, and some were consumer barriers we had to break down.
Schley: Who in this odyssey were your sort of champions? You mentioned a couple of people who have had signature influence in your career? Malone was a name that came up. Bob Stanzione. Were there other people who you would say kind of really stood up to make this category happen?
Harrison: So there was a Telewest employee colleague of mine, Vern Chamberlain. He came out of US West, he was working in Scotland chiefly for Telewest. And he ultimately also came to Japan to help establish the phone business in Japan. He was very influential for me personally as well as in our ability to convince the regulator that this was a good thing to do, and to convince the product’s marketing people that people would actually buy a competitive phone service.
Schley: Well, you had some real data to back that up from other experiences. But it took people like Vern—
Harrison: Vern Chamberlain.
Schley: To keep the fire burning, right? I mean, to keep the momentum forward.
Harrison: Chuck Carroll is another name. He was also a US West guy. So he was CTO in Telewest. He gave me a good opportunity and was very aggressive in his approach to wanting to “let’s really go find a solution that we can go improve this business.”
Schley: It’s funny. It’s not all just technology and widgets and machinery. You really have to have a human impetus, like I said, to keep the ball rolling.
I’m following you around the globe as we talk about your career. You then with Liberty, you were back in Europe?
Harrison: So AT&T Broadband here in the U.S. and then the Liberty assets were spun back out of AT&T, which were the international properties.
Schley: That was not part of the TCI acquisition?
Harrison: It was originally. Yes. And then it spun back out. And that presented an opportunity to actually go to Germany with the same management team I’d worked with in Japan as we were closing the deal to acquire the Deutsche Telekom cable assets. This was in 2001-2002. Ultimately the regulator blocked that deal. So I was kind of left in Germany. My family was here.
Schley: Telephony limbo, right.
Harrison: Ultimately, we went back to Japan for another three years. And that time, my focus really switched so we launched a 30 megabit play-to-service using kind of pre-DOCSIS 2.0 technology.
Schley: Speedy for the day, though.
Harrison: So the Asian markets, I think, was where we saw really the speed drag race start off globally. So there was a lot of competition to get faster Internet service out.
Schley: I think it’s an interesting point because even across what we’ve talked about so far—maybe this is or isn’t a common perception—but the U.S. was really learning lessons from some of the deployments abroad, don’t you think? I mean, we’re taking away some realizations about deployment and take-up rates and all of that.
Harrison: I think obviously that was part of the interest in investing in foreign ventures like that. Also the markets were very different. It’s always been intriguing to me that the U.S. has really lagged the rest of the world—
Schley: I guess that’s what I was trying to articulate.
Harrison: My view fundamentally it’s because geographically the U.S. is so large.
Schley: So damn dispersed.
Harrison: The complexity and challenges of distribution are greater. So the competition is not as strong. The incumbents don’t have a very good service so you don’t need to try very hard to compete with them.
Schley: That’s a really interesting point; it’s a very different perspective from what you’ve encountered elsewhere.
Through it all, you went to work for Cisco shortly thereafter. But through this all, where did you do your contemplation and your thinking and sort of—sometimes you have to remove yourself from the day-to-day grind and minutiae to kind of figure out where you’re going. What was your trick for doing that? I mean, just in terms of managing your own path?
Harrison: So I got into cycling when we moved to Colorado in 1999, and I find that time out on the road is my time to reflect and—
Schley: Because you’re away, you’re sort of away from—but it’s still—I’ve actually done the same. What was the experience like to sort of flip and work for a very prominent technology supplier, this being Cisco?
Harrison: It was interesting.
Schley: Where were you at Cisco?
Harrison: It’s probably not very surprising. So we moved back to Colorado; this time, it was our own choice. Having been a soldier of fortune moving around all these joint ventures, we have family here. Our daughter settled here and has two children and we decided we would like to be closer to the grandchildren. So we moved back. I was consulting to a couple of companies mostly for marketing stuff. And an old industry colleague reached out to me and said, “You’re back in Denver.” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “We’re looking for somebody to help us with the relationship with Liberty Global in Colorado because most of the accounting for Cisco was all in Europe, which is the main hub of the operation. It was an easy fit for me because I knew Balan [Nair] and the team over there.
Schley: You had entrée, sort of, in some respects.
Harrison: It was a good opportunity for me to slip into something whilst I figured out what my next real career move would be.
Schley: We talk about the partnership that exists between suppliers and customers. Did you experience that but in a different way, working with Cisco? Were you, I don’t know, building these bridges between the two communities?
Harrison: Yes. I think it’s coming from the operations side and now working in the vendor space. Sometimes I would have to question some of the approaches that were being suggested.
Schley: Of course. I think that’s common in that world.
Harrison: I was trying to, you know, to suggest ways that, alternative paths that may be more free form—
Schley: You worked in and around and crossed paths with CableLabs, I’m sure, quite a bit. How do you describe the role and contribution of CableLabs as an organization to this world of bringing—as I said earlier—giving the cable industry its voice. They were instrumental with Packet Cable and with other projects.
Harrison: I think, and I’m sure others on here have talked about the enormous success of the industry achieved as a result of DOCSIS. So I think as we’ve evolved on top of
DOCSIS with other services, there have also been, like with the Packet Cable standards and things like that, things that have really helped to provide industry continuity and some solutions that we could all buy into and acquire.
Schley: Was it your sort of relationships with the Liberty crowd, the Malone ethos, instrumental? You’re working for Charter Communications and helping to run telephony there. Were your Liberty ties instrumental in getting into that world?
Harrison: Actually it was all AT&T Broadband at the time—
Schley: Of course it was.
Harrison: So I’d been watching what was happening with Charter and particularly with Liberty’s increasing investment into it. My heart is in operations and in cable business so I was thinking about, well, if I was going to go back in, I think Charter would be a good opportunity. There was an option too that came up and my good friend, old friend, Charlotte Field, had recently joined them. We met for lunch and she said, “You need to come over and work over here.” So I managed to get an interview and then go out to Stanford and meet the executive team.
Schley: What are you working on? I wanted to talk a little bit about where we’re going with this category that you’ve helped to spawn. What’s happening now with voice?
Harrison: What’s happening with voice? From a product perspective, evolution in the fixed space is around hosted voice for enterprise small and medium business. So those are things we have in flight right now.
Schley: Is hosted voice sort of transplanting the old PBX to an intelligent cloud? What is it exactly?
Harrison: Exactly. Exactly. So I think that’s exciting for us. Obviously, the residential service, with the proliferation of mobile devices, is pretty static. In some areas, it’s declining.
Schley: I see that because I look at all the regular quarterly financial things from the big guys, your company included. Does that mean—I don’t want that to be perceived as meaning that there’s no innovation occurring on residential telephony. Is there innovation occurring?
Harrison: So I think there will be some coming. And I saw some interesting demos at the SCTE that were combining home automation solutions and being able to use Alexa to initiate a phone call using your fixed line service.
Schley: I’m not suggesting that penetration will suddenly take off again because the wireless influence is obvious. But you do have a wireless service now.
Harrison: We do.
Schley: How does that interplay with the fixed telephony in residential setting?
Harrison: Today we’re an MVNO [mobile virtual network operator]. From an operational perspective, it’s really everything is riding on Verizon’s network.
Schley: That’s the source of the connectivity that you guys are working from.
Harrison: We have really no part to play in the delivery or support of that at this point.
Schley: Somebody else is doing it at this point.
Harrison: I think Mr. Rutledge in our earnings call a couple weeks ago was talking about how we will evolve our mobile service. So I think we are looking at opportunities to start offloading data eventually to help improve the economics. At some point down the road, I think there will be a blend of MVNO, maybe some owned network and some hybrid.
Schley: You do have some new spectrum sort of coming to the fore. Not specifically you, I mean the world does.
Harrison: Yes. So I expect to see the evolution of those services become blended with the fixed line service.
Schley: What else does your crystal ball tell you about what’s next for the cable industry? You’ve been part of this industry for a long time. You’ve seen a lot of change obviously. It’s kind of fun sometimes just to think about. Convergence seems like a big thing.
Harrison: You mean from a telephony perspective or from telephony in general?
Schley: Sort of how telephony fits into the bigger picture of how we’re all going to communicate and work and live and play.
Harrison: There is still a lot of runway on fixed phone services. Because I think people—your cell phone experience is somewhat inferior compared to a landline service.
Schley: It’s horrible. On the way over here, spam risks, spam risks, spam risks.
Harrison: So taking that one point, there is a big initiative this year that the FCC is strongly promoting. It’s not regulating it yet, but they’ve made it very clear that they expect us as the carrier community to lead this initiative—and it’s an initiative to reduce the illegal robocalling, spoofing, potentially nuisance spamming, giving the customer more control.
Schley: My favorite thing is my favorite acronym ever. I’ll let you explain.
Harrison: The STIR/SHAKEN?
Schley: Right out of 007’s world. It stands for something. [“Secure Telephony Identity Revisited” and “Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs”] It’s STIR/SHAKEN and that’s interesting. Do you think it will make an impact?
Harrison: STIR/SHAKEN is the underlying kind of technical solution. It enables to identify and match up call origination with a telephone number and known entity.
Schley: From the start of that phone call.
Harrison: Correct. So that we can attest that this is a good call, right? Then that will enable us, the carriers, to do things. So if they know this is a good call or if they know it is a bad call…
Schley: A suspect call. Information travels all along the path.
Schley: Does this apply to both your fixed phone category as well as what you’re doing in wireless or will it?
Harrison: Yes. So in mobile, there is a similar function entity that’s offered. You know, by a third party delay. But ultimately, STIR/SHAKEN will be adopted nationally. I was talking to some folks from my connective a couple of weeks ago. There is interest now from international operators because obviously they want to get their calls terminated into the U.S. So I think this initiative has some global legs.
Schley: Can’t happen fast enough, right?
What else did you see at the Cable-Tec Expo you mentioned in New Orleans was, I guess, a month, or month and a half ago? Anything else catch your eye that was of interest?
Harrison: I happened to go see the Spectrum Smart City suite—
Schley: It’s really cool.
Harrison: Which I thought was really cool, yes.
Schley: Big opportunities there.
Harrison: I think there are things yet to evolve we can enable across our existing networks as well as some enhancements potentially.
Schley: The world, a sensor-populated world, is really an interesting world, connected to your networks.
It’s an interesting chance to kind of look back over what you brought you to this table, but what has been besides the paycheck and the satisfaction of having kind of an influential career, what’s been fun about this ride? What would have been different if you were still smelting metal over nickel, doing stuff you used to do?
Harrison: Obviously, it created an opportunity for me to be able to travel globally, work in many countries and meet a lot of new, great people in this industry.
Schley: Sounds like it.
Harrison: When I was working at Cisco, part of what I did was I coordinated meetings between the Liberty Global Board and John Chambers. To be able to get one-on-one time with John Chambers, as well with Mike Fries and his team—
Schley: Dr. Malone and whoever was involved—that’s a big deal. I want one piece of advice for traveling the world and moving from place to place. Because you’ve done it.
Harrison: So from a travel perspective, I don’t do jet lag. You just have to get with it. Get on time zone and push through.
Schley: But can you refuse? I mean in some ways you don’t have a choice, but it does afflict some of us.
Harrison: It’s a mental thing. You have to really throw it out. You have to say, “Don’t do that to me.”
Schley: Do you still cycle?
Harrison: Not as much as I should. I had an injury last year which has kept me off the bike. But I’m back on the spinning bike at the moment.
Schley: Your friend and colleague Mike Fries talks about using his travel time to ride a stationary bike for hours at a time so that’s why I was curious there.
What haven’t we talked about that you just may care to throw out there in terms of thinking about where you’ve been and what you’ve accomplished?
Harrison: I don’t know. I think it was interesting when we were going back to Telewest days and construction. Obviously, we had two big joint venture partners, right? TCI and US West.
Schley: As you said, they weren’t always simpatico.
Harrison: There was a lot of influence being brought in from this side of the Atlantic to the UK. We had to spend some time balancing the expectation with the reality of congested streets and construction. We spent a lot of time analyzing our construction costs, and we were comparing the UK with California. Actually we did some analysis.
Schley: That’s pretty eye-opening.
Harrison: So we went and visited the Bay Area and looked at these massive construction crews with rock saws, laying hundreds and hundreds of feet a day. Compared to a lot of hand-digging with mechanized tools, but a lot of hand work. And the network we were building, we managed to create an architecture that we could build underground in the density that we had. And we were at cost parity with mechanized construction in California.
Harrison: It was our great design and good management, of course!
Schley: You probably had some good people working for you, too, though. I mean, literally at the technician level, the construction level. I think of all the anecdotes you’ve shared with us and thank you. There have been plenty. The tale about having to deal with the historic street material is amazing.
Harrison: There was another one in Edinburgh where this was a big problem. These old Georgian houses have coal cellars that project out under the pavement of the footpath. And they would have a coal chute, a manhole cover in the pavement in the footpath where the coal would be delivered straight down into the coal cellar. So we’re digging up this footpath to lay our cables. This is not tarmac or concrete; these are sandstone rocks.
Schley: These are pretty serious rocks.
Harrison: And of course the top surface of the sandstone was ground flat. The bottom was natural sandstone. So until we lifted each stone, we didn’t know what was going to be underneath.
Schley: These are pretty heavy stones.
Harrison: So the coal cellar is built out of brick underground, projecting out under the footpath. So you’d have times where you’d lift these stones and literally the brick of the coal cellar was directly under the stones.
Schley: So then what do you do? Go knock on the door—
Harrison: We had to go across the street, we had to find a way around.
Schley: You know, it’s funny, when people talk about capital expenditures for the cable industry—and they’re immense, like they have been forever. You always think about boxes in homes or maybe a node cabinet. But what really is going on is you’re paying a guy to spend his day trying to get through a coal cellar. That’s amazing.
So this has been terrific.
Harrison: I enjoyed it.
Schley: Thank you so much for sharing some recollections and best of luck going forward.
David Harrison, Charter Communications, and a whole parade of predecessor companies. Appreciate you being here with us. For the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Series, I thank you for tuning in. I’m Stewart Schley.
END OF INTERVIEW