Interview Date: Wednesday February 04, 1998
Interview Location: Denver, CO USA
Interviewer: Jim Keller
Program: Penn State Collection
Note: Audio Only
KELLER: This is the oral history of Mr. R. Brian James, professional engineer. Currently vice president of the TAC Test Center in Canada and a member of the technical advisory committee of the test center. We are conducting this interview on Wednesday, February 4, 1998, at the offices of The National Cable Television Center and Museum at 2200 South Josephine in Denver, Colorado.
First of all Brian, I am going to ask you to give us a little of your background, your schooling, and up till the date that you entered into the cable television industry.
JAMES: Okay. I was born in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, in 1950. I went through public school and high school there. Crestwood Secondary School, which at that time, and continues to, provide students with an opportunity to either study in technical, arts, or business areas. I had chosen the technical area and found that engineering–electrical type work–was of great interest to me. While at school, my electrical teacher was inspiring to me and he had gotten to be a professional engineer. He was someone that I looked up to and thought that perhaps going into electrical engineering would be a good profession for me.
At the same time, while at high school, I was a member of Air Cadets in Canada, which is a youth organization to build leadership skills and some aviation knowledge. It also had an amateur radio club which I became a member of. In that club I built a two-way HAM transmitter and receiver which sort of peaked my interest even more in the communications area to the point that while at high school I undertook a correspondence course on television repair. That gets me through high school and it is time to select a university.
There are a number of excellent universities in Canada. I was accepted to the University of Waterloo which was a fairly new university. I started it in 1970 and it was actually created in 1958 as a “cooperative plan” university in that you go to school for four months, then you go out into the work place, hopefully in jobs that are related to the areas you’re studying, for four months, and then back to school. So that at the end of your university career you get your bachelor degree and you also have the equivalent two years of industry experience, hopefully in the area that you’re studying and are interested in. It certainly gives students an opportunity to look at different aspects of what engineering is and different areas of concern and where they might find some interest.
I think I was fortunate on my third work term to be hired by a cable television operator, Mountain Cablevision in Hamilton, Ontario, and that got me into the cable television arena. I recall during the interview being asked some questions on cable television–how it worked, what it was, etc.–the correspondence course put me in good stead at that point and probably helped me get the job. At that same time I had been interviewed by one of the television broadcasters in the area–I didn’t get that job. I ended up in the cable television part of the industry rather than in the broadcast part.
I spent three work terms at that cable operator. Initially doing second outlets and installations, and a little bit of digging trenches and stuff. I moved up to installing equipment. Then I did maintenance practice a second work term. The third work term I was actually designing cable plant extensions, hiring contractors to do the installations and overseeing turn-on of new parts of the plant.
At the same time I had met one of the technical field technicians from Jerrold in Canada, and through discussions with him managed to get a position at Jerrold, Canada for my final work term. I was involved in redesigning some existing equipment. They were just starting to produce trunk amplifiers in Canada for the Starline 20. I got involved in production engineering, trying to find out why the units they were producing didn’t quite work. It was necessary to change their production, in the line up procedures, to make sure that the equipment worked when it was shipped out. So that got me through the engineering course.
KELLER: Let me interrupt just a minute. Please define work term.
JAMES: Work term is the period that you are out in the field from the university actually working. You have a school term where you’re at school and a work term where you are working.
KELLER: You graduated then from Waterloo in 1975?
JAMES: That’s correct.
KELLER: Do you recall at that point what was going on with the industry in Canada in 1975?
JAMES: Canadian industry differed from the U.S. in that in the U.S. smaller systems that are away from big cities were sort of the norm for the industry. They were built first because people wanted to get distance signals. In Canada, people wanted to get U.S. signals so systems there were built in the big cities at the same time as they were built in the smaller towns further away. At that point, systems were probably 12 channels and starting to think about how to expand beyond 12 channels, but for the most part I think the country was pretty well wired. I believe there was only one large city, Windsor Ontario, that did not have cable at that point. Probably part of the reason for no cable there is it was just across the river from Detroit, had excellent reception, and people thought it would be a difficult sell to get cable in there–similar to putting it in the big cities in the U.S.
KELLER: Most of the big towns, although they were not exactly on the border, were just far enough from the border where they had to enhance the signals to get the U.S. reception?
JAMES: That’s correct.
KELLER: At what time, period, year, were the operators in Canada prohibited from bringing in all of the U.S. signals that they wanted?
JAMES: I am not sure when they brought in that regulation. I think it was before that time.
KELLER: You were limited at that time?
JAMES: They were limited. If you could pick it up off air you could carry it. If you had to bring it in by microwave they took a dim of that and didn’t allow it.
So after I got out of the university I was hired at Switzer Engineering ran by Israel “Sruki” Switzer. It was the engineering arm of MacLean-Hunter Cable. They had systems that were part of the Toronto city, which was broken up into quite a few small systems. There wasn’t the advantage of having one large system. It had a couple parts of Toronto plus about 15 other small towns and cities in Ontario somewhat removed from the U.S. border and all of whom wanted to receive the U.S. signals. At that point, the general way of doing it was to put up great, big tropo-scatter receive antennas. These would be 50 to 100 feet high and maybe a couple hundred feet wide, a great big parabolic reflector. One would stand in front of it probing around with a small antenna trying to sniff out the signal you desired – usually one of the U.S. services.
The signal would then be put on the cable system and with luck, would fade in periodically and you could try and sell the service.
KELLER: Was this specifically in Toronto?
JAMES: This was in the outside areas. Toronto had good reception because it was close to the border, but the smaller systems didn’t because they were along Georgian Bay and further into Northern Ontario.
KELLER: How far north of Toronto would you say these systems were?
JAMES: Probably a 150 miles.
KELLER: So it was a considerable distance.
JAMES: It was a considerable distance.
KELLER: And at a 150 miles those signals travel a good distance.
JAMES: That’s correct.
KELLER: You were attempting to bring signals in from the U.S. without the help of microwave?
KELLER: At this point you were with MacLean-Hunter?
JAMES: That’s correct.
KELLER: Your primary job then was seeking out and developing new systems out in that area?
JAMES: I was in the engineering group and it was providing assistance to those systems that existed. Pretty well all the systems had been built at that point so we were getting ready to go through rebuilding.
At that period, systems had probably been built with tube amplifiers and then had been converted to single-ended transistor amplifiers. But they were all 12 channel systems and the number of channels available were starting to increase and there was some demand to increase channels on the systems. In the early 1970s that was starting.
You may recall Sruki Switzer coming up with his harmonically related carrier system. This was a way to use signal-ended equipment but arrange the carriers such that the second order distortion products fell on the carrier resulting in the viewer not being able to see that distortion when looking at the picture. So you were able to add midband channels on the system and continue to use the single-ended equipment
KELLER: Although the amplifiers were divided into single-ended amplifiers you still had the midband in which to work with?
JAMES: The amplifiers had become transistorized and broadband so they would carry both bands without splitting them–they got past the split-band type amps–and they would amplify from 50 Megahertz up to channel 13 at 216 MHZ.
KELLER: Part of it was tube and part of it was transistorized.
JAMES: At this point we were full transistor. But because they were so called single-ended, the second order distortion products are a problem.
The VHF channel allocation was set-up so that, for the most part, second order products do not fall in the channel. The second order products from channel 2 to 6 fall in the midband. Before you get up in frequency to 7. Some of the different products again fall between channel 6 and channel 7. There is a large amount of spectrum space there. You have FM channels in there, radio navigation for airplanes, communications, and some business band in there.
KELLER: This is the Starline 20 equipment?
JAMES: Starline 20 generally.
KELLER: That was the earliest involvement with a truly transistorized amplifier at that point?
JAMES: That’s right.
KELLER: You were then capable of carrying channels from 2 through 13 including the midband at that point?
JAMES: You could carry it but with normal channel allocations the second order beats that fell in the midband would cause you a problem. If you had a short system you might be able to slide one midband channel in without causing problems.
For the cable operator this is a problem because you would like to carry more channels and charge more money if you can add a couple of channels. People are starting to demand more channels. Perhaps if the equipment hadn’t written off, or if it had been written off, you’d still like to continue to use it.
KELLER: At what point was that problem solved?
JAMES: Around 1971-72 was when one solution came along being the HRC system.
KELLER: Define HRC, please.
JAMES: Harmonically related carriers. All the channels are phase locked to a six Megahertz comb signal. The result is that channels are all offset from normal frequencies. For instance, channel 2 visual carrier is 55.52 Megahertz. It would have to be moved down to 54 megahertz, a multiple of the six Megahertz comb. Channel 3, similarly, would move from 61.25 down to 60 MHZ.
This can be a problem if you have an existing system. For instance, one night you’d go to bed and your television is working perfectly–you get all the channels on the system. Well, you wake-up the next morning, after the conversion, and the channels wouldn’t always tune. This was back before you had really good automatic fine tuning.
KELLER: And before they had converters.
JAMES: Definitely before converters. Converters were available but, for the most part, people did not have one.
The MacLean-Hunter system in St. Catharine’s was one where they did the experiment on HRC. Overnight people ended up not being able to tune their television set. We ended up over the next two or three weeks doing about 100% service calls on all the subscribers with service technicians brought in from all the Ontario MacLean-Hunter systems to go around and re-tune televisions. Normally you would just try and do the fine tuning on the front of the set. This was back in the days with tuners where you might have to slide the cover off the front of the set and get in there with you’re alignment tools and re-tune the oscillators on each channel. In the worst case, televisions couldn’t be tuned that far so converters were provided to the people.
KELLER: You said there was experimentation going on with HRC. Was it St. Susan’s you said?
JAMES: St. Catharine’s.
KELLER: Is this in conjunction with, simultaneous with what was developing in the U.S. at that time?
JAMES: At a similar time I think they had one or two systems that were being built in the U.S. and they used HRC. I am not aware of any U.S. systems doing an overnight switch.
KELLER: Establish which of the Jerrold pieces of equipment had the HRC. Was that the Starline 2?
JAMES: Well, HRC’s a headend.
KELLER: Okay but were they still capable of carrying it in the full midband, is that right?
JAMES: Well, yes. The broadband type amplifiers could all carry the signals. So Starline 20, Starline 1 and many other manufacturers of amplifying equipment would be able to carry it.
KELLER: Can the headend be the Channel Commander?
JAMES: Channel Commander, or in the St. Catharine’s case, Phasecom. If you go back in history a little bit, especially in the Canadian operation – somewhat different than the U.S. – in Canada, the government required that if you carried a local Canadian station you had to carry it on a channel other than its off-air channel. This is to protect the quality of that service from deterioration due to direct pickup in the television set, where you could get a significant ghost depending on where you are relative to the headend.
In the U.S., for whatever reasons, broadcasters tended to demand that they be carried on channel. So in Canada you now have essentially unused channels that have a problem in that they have a ghost pickup but they could be used for perhaps less popular services.
KELLER: I think you explained the reason for that in one of you’re earlier statements when you said that in the U.S., at that time, most of the systems being built were remote from the origin of the signal. As opposed to Canada where they were built in the systems, where system signals were taken off the air right there.
JAMES: That’s part of it as well.
KELLER: Let’s look at two systems at this point–early to mid-70’s. Let’s take the system built in Toronto and St. Catharine’s that was developing the HRC concept, what would have been a typical channel line up in both of these systems?
JAMES: What did they carry on those channels?
JAMES: Probably in both of them, St. Catherine’s and Toronto, they would be carrying the Buffalo channels off air–three networks. In Canada they would be carrying the CBC and the CTV. Canada also required a local origination channel so that you had to provide equipment and create a local channel for community services as well. For the most part, those would be some sort of weather service where you have your camera looking at different gages or flipping cards with community service publications on them. That would probably pretty well fill up the dial. Maybe one or two independent types that we could pick up.
KELLER: You mentioned on a number of occasions that Canada required. What was the governing board in Canada at that point?
JAMES: At that point, it was the Canadian Radio and Television Commission. That got changed in the late 1970’s, and they added telecommunications into it. Originally, they dealt with broadcasters, radio, and television and as they refer to cable television – Broadcast Receiving Undertakings.
KELLER: It took sometime from the development of the industry in the U.S. till the FCC took jurisdiction over cable. Is it true that in Canada the governing board took jurisdiction from the beginning of the industry? What is the history there?
JAMES: That I am not sure of.
KELLER: At the time you came in they already had jurisdiction?
JAMES: It had very serious jurisdiction. If you wanted a rate increase you had to put in your request with all sorts of documentation to justify it and they would come back and say “No. You can’t have that 25¢ rate increase. You can have a 23¢ rate increase.”
KELLER: So what else could the board control?
JAMES: They controlled the channels that you carried and the location on the dial. How much you could charge the subscriber. They didn’t allow you to do any advertising. Essentially the whole operation.
KELLER: How about technical standards?
JAMES: That comes under the Department of Communications.
KELLER: Was that later on that they took that on or was it fabricated at that point?
JAMES: The Department of Communications always set the standards and the CRTC, as it’s called, set the regulations for who could operate.
KELLER: Is that still the case today?
JAMES: That’s still the case and it’s the same for broadcasters. You get the license from the CRTC and they decide who can be a broadcaster, who can be a cable operator. But the Department of Communications tells you how you will operate technically.
KELLER: It’s a dual control system then?
JAMES: Well, you have a similar situation in the U.S. in that the FCC sets the standards for the cable system and local jurisdiction awards the franchise and tells you how you will operate.
KELLER: To that extent I guess that is true.
JAMES: Perhaps it’s better in Canada where you have one government body deciding who throughout Canada that gets cable operations. In this case, you might be less susceptible to bribes than in the U.S. where local government groups decide who gets the cable franchise.
KELLER: So the local government/province or community would not have any say over who got the franchise or any control of that.
JAMES: That’s correct. They’re not involved in making decisions but they can certainly put in comments to the CRTC as to who they think should get it. Generally, if it’s been awarded and they’ve had problems and it comes up for renewal they can put in their thoughts on whether it should be renewed or not.
KELLER: If two operators were seeking permission to operate in the same area, did they both file applications and then the board make the decision as to whether they get it?
JAMES: That’s what happens. Normally – probably hasn’t happened recently – but before all the systems were built, if you were in a city or an extension to the city, and an existing operator had the franchise for the city and a new subdivision is being added, at some point the CRTC would say their accepting applications for that area.
KELLER: It wouldn’t be a matter of just an extension?
JAMES: Not necessarily just an extension. I know one case where they weren’t getting around to doing it and a large number of subdivisions had gone in and the cable operator got special permission to actually build that area on the understanding that when the CRTC got around to reviewing it they wouldn’t necessarily get that area, and in fact they didn’t.
KELLER: Did that cause any problems? The interfacing between the two systems?
JAMES: Not really.
KELLER: Would there be a requirement to interconnect?
JAMES: No. Normally they wouldn’t be interconnected. So in this case, where the trunk cable entered the new area, it essentially got cut and the new signals were fed in. And the new person at the new franchise essentially bought out the wiring and everything that was in there. Appropriate compensation was paid to the person who actually had done the wiring.
KELLER: This was developing as you were with MacLean-Hunter in the mid-’70s?
JAMES: That’s correct.
KELLER: Where did you go after that and what was happening at the time?
JAMES: I spent from 1975 till about 1981 at MacLean-Hunter. There I initially looked after the systems in Ontario. Then towards the end of the 1970’s . . .
KELLER: When you say “looking after” what do you mean by that?
JAMES: Provided technical guidance to them. Generally systems were small and did not have a lot of sophisticated test equipment – spectrum analyzers and that sort of thing were not available. Engineering people took care of that. We would go out and, if there was a problem, did some troubleshooting.
KELLER: Was this on a contract basis with the individual systems or with their own systems?
JAMES: For the most part, within their own systems. We also did contracting outside to other cable operators on a contract basis. Where we would perhaps design microwave paths, review their system design extensions.
KELLER: You mentioned microwave. When were you permitted to microwave U.S. signals up into Ontario?
JAMES: It started in the late 1970’s.
KELLER: In the time frame that we are currently talking about?
JAMES: That’s right. The operators north of Toronto got permission to microwave the signals. The rules came out three plus one – you could carry three networks plus one other.
KELLER: Three U.S. networks?
JAMES: Three U.S. networks plus one other independent or PBS.
KELLER: But you were required to carry also these CBC . . .
JAMES: You had to carry all the local channels. And then you were allowed to carry, if there was space on the system, additional channels.
KELLER: First of all you had to carry the local signals–Canadian signals–then you could add three U.S. and one educational.
JAMES: One other U.S. service which was either PBS . . .
KELLER: It could be either independent or educational or one of each?
JAMES: No. One more.
KELLER: One more and that was it?
JAMES: That was it.
KELLER: Is that still the case today? I mean up until the time of the satellite, is that still the case?
JAMES: That was still the case.
KELLER: Probably still the case today?
JAMES: To some extent. I think it’s now a two for one maybe three for one, but you have to carry one Canadian satellite service for every two or three U.S. services you carry. The government is really trying to push keeping it Canadian. There seems to be great concern about loosing Canadian identity. Not that that’s a real problem.
KELLER: That’s not only the case in television but in every part of Canadian life.
JAMES: That’s right.
KELLER: Right. Now we are in the late 1970’s and you’re still working at MacLean-Hunter, still doing developmental and testing work for Switzer and MacLean-Hunter, where did you go from there?
JAMES: From there I went to Cablesystems Engineering.
KELLER: Which was what?
JAMES: It was part of Canadian Cablesystems which had just been bought by Rogers Cable. It was the engineering group for what became Rogers Cable.
KELLER: What systems were they serving at that time?
JAMES: They had Toronto. A number of parts of Toronto–London Ontario–and smaller towns that came around Ontario. They also bought Premiere Systems of Vancouver area and Calgary.
KELLER: And Victoria?
JAMES: Victoria at that point was under it.
KELLER: It was Premiere at that time?
KELLER: So you went with this group and doing primarily the same thing you were doing at the Switzer group?
JAMES: Same sort of thing. I was hired as Director of Standards and Practices which entailed setting the technical standards for the systems and overseeing that they were met. Essentially, I oversaw a technical audit group who would drive around checking the equipment and do technical audits of the system. I’d ensure that they met the Canadian regulations. Also, at that point, Rogers had systems in the U.S. and we were responsible for those too.
KELLER: Which systems in the U.S.?
JAMES: They had Syracuse, Minneapolis was being built, a number in the California area–Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, etc.–and a system outside Erie.
Shortly after I joined they bought U.A. Columbia, so they had all the U.A. Columbia systems which were trying to be pulled into Rogers.
KELLER: Were you setting different technical standards for the U.S. as opposed to what you were setting in the Canadian systems?
JAMES: No. Generally they were the same. It’s easier to set a policy that way.
KELLER: Who was more stringent at that time? Say you develop systems in the U.S., would you bring them in to the same standards that you had existing in Canada.
JAMES: Generally, yes. The U.S. systems, because of the franchising wars that were going on, tended to be a lot higher channel capacity than the Canadian systems. Canadian systems had been built and they were just ticking away, creating money. People would like a few more channels and gradually you increased them. In the U.S., you bid for one franchise and whoever won it with whatever number of channels they had said they were going to build that was the baseline for the next city that got bid. You went from your 30 channel system to your 35, 40, 50, 60 and dual cable.
When I was still at Switzer we were looking for ways to increase channel capacity without going through a second cable because it’s very expensive. Switzer put a lot of pressure on manufactures to go beyond 300 MHz up to 400 MHz. I recall designing and writing part of the franchise proposal for Atlanta, which I think was the first one awarded at 400 MHz. And all the effort spent getting the Scientific-Atlanta, at that point, to say yes, we are local, and, yes, we will build 400 meg equipment.
KELLER: Which they did.
JAMES: Which they did.
KELLER: And then perfected it.
JAMES: And got it working. At that point, MacLean-Hunter was bidding a number of systems in the Detroit area. Suburbs around Detroit proposing 400 megs for those as well.
KELLER: With the Rogers operation in the U.S. that’s how you became equated within the U.S. Is that correct?
KELLER: U.S. systems and U.S. standards and policies and so on?
JAMES: Right. While I was at Rogers, it was about 1982 or 1983, the EIA (Electronic Industry’s Association) were looking into feasibility of having stereo television. They had done some preliminary testing on some proposed systems – a Zenith system, a Japanese system and one other. They were to the point of getting ready to vote when Zenith said, “You vote, we sue! We have improvements. We want those tested. If you don’t test it we are going to sue you and stop the whole process.” So they – the EIA – decided to go ahead with the second round of testing.
About that time, the cable industry woke up to the fact that stereo television was going to be a possibility and that, perhaps, people with cable subscriptions would want to receive this. Cable operators thought, maybe, they should look into seeing whether or not you can carry the stereo television on cable.
The NCTA then got active in it and were looking around for someone to assist in the testing. As Rogers had systems in the States they had membership in NCTA and it turned out that their engineering group was the only one interested in helping out. I got assigned the task of going to Chicago for the Summer of 1983 to test the proposed stereo systems. From that, I determined that the Zenith proposal would work adequately well on cable.
Part of the problem is that on cable you have to reduce the aural carrier level, otherwise you start seeing beats from it in the upper adjacent channel. This comes from the fact that, for the most part, television manufactures have ignored the existence of cable. Television broadcasters carry their aural carrier at a very high level and that’s not a problem because normally you don’t have adjacent channels. On cable you do have adjacent channels and if the lower adjacent aural carrier doesn’t get trapped adequately it interferes with the video. So you can reduce the level and still get good quality audio on your cable system.
But when you start adding the difference channel–for stereo you have a left channel and a right channel, you sum those two together and that is your primary channel that you transmit and you subtract the two; that’s call a difference channel–that’s carried at a lower level and on a different carrier.
KELLER: Without getting ahead of ourselves, was there ever a joint industry committee investigating these problems in the broadcasting industry and the cable industry at that point?
JAMES: Not very much with the broadcasting industry, no.
KELLER: Did it ever develop when there was a joint committee?
JAMES: No. It was broadcasters.
KELLER: To call it a solution to these problems we are talking about?
JAMES: Not those particular problems. Aural carrier problems, no.
KELLER: I just thought that was one of additional problems that didn’t get . . .
JAMES: Generally the cable industry has taken what’s been transmitted and found ways of working around both the broadcasters and the set manufacturers. There is perhaps some animosity between the three groups that continues.
KELLER: This then is how you got first introduced into the NCTA committees?
JAMES: That’s correct. I got selected to do this. I first met with Alex Best. At that point, he was still with Scientific Atlanta and then moved to Cox Cable. He chaired the NCTA multi-channel sound sub-committee and had developed some test plans as part of that committee for testing to take place. So I met him in Chicago at Matsushita Industries, which is where the testing actually took place, and discussed what had to be done. From that, I developed actual test procedures and undertook the tests. As part of that, I started attending the NCTA engineering committee meetings and giving updates on what was happening. That got me introduced to the engineers in the U.S. cable industry.
KELLER: Do you recall some of your associates at that time that you were working with?
JAMES: Alex Best was the main one. Bill Riker was director of engineering at NCTA and I met him initially in Chicago and then when I was in Washington at the engineering meetings. I was helping to write part of the responses to the FCC notices on multi-channel sound.
KELLER: At this point your work was primarily in the aural area?
JAMES: At that point, I was looking at how well the cable system could carry the multi-channel sound signal.
KELLER: And you did solve that problem.
JAMES: We determined that the Zenith system could work adequately on cable providing the compression system was used. That helps reduce the effect of lowering the aural carrier. When you lower the aural carrier it gets close to the noise floor—so the sound gets noisy. When you put the stereo signal on a long cable system you could put it into noise. It would be like a very noisy FM station when you’re far away from the transmitter and it’s cutting in and out and noisy. With the use of compression on the aural carrier you could overcome this noisy signal.
KELLER: At the same time, to your knowledge, were they trying to develop a more sophisticated type of set-top converter technically? I may be going on in a different area.
JAMES: That would be a different area. We had developed set-tops initially so that you could get around the direct pick-up problems on television sets. If your cable system is tight, which occasionally happens, you can get a signal from the headend to the subscriber without off-air signals getting into the cable system. You still have the problem with the fact that the television set was designed to pick-up off-air signals and still does a good job of doing that, even when it’s hooked to the cable system. So your local channels, which if they are carried on channel, would be visible with a ghost in the picture from the transmitter on the same channel.
Set-top converters were developed so that you could take the cable channels and convert them to some channel that was not a local off-air channel – these days it is normally channel three or channel four – so there isn’t any off-air signal to interfere with the cable signal. If the system is tight then you get good quality, ghost-free pictures to the subscriber. That is still used these days as a test. If someone is complaining about ghost on their television set we need to determine if it is a system problem or a set problem. (In lots of instances you don’t use converters because they have expanded the capacity of the television tuner.) So you put a converter ahead of the television and if the ghost disappears you say, “Sorry, that’s your set and we can’t do very much about it.” If the ghost is still there say, “This is our problem.” Then you go start looking for a signal, leak and ingress into your cable system.
KELLER: We’re talking about the mid-’80s. The franchising efforts in the U.S.–competition for franchises in the U.S.–was going on probably since the early ’70s and right through the ’70s and into the ’80s.
JAMES: It really heated up in the late ’70s.
KELLER: Yes. How did you view it at that point when they were bidding these thirty, forty, fifty, sixty channel systems—400 MHz, 500 MHz systems. How did you view that from an engineering standpoint?
JAMES: It’s quite exciting to see channel capacity being pushed. There was some question as to what you were going to put on those channels.
KELLER: But that wasn’t an engineering . . .
JAMES: It wasn’t engineering. It was just sort of “this is nice what they are going to do with the channels.” There was great concern that we had promised to build these systems, but where were you going to get people with some expertise to build and run them? At that point in time, if you had three months in the industry you were probably an old timer and could move on to bigger and better jobs with no problem.
A lot of people from Canada headed to the U.S. to get better jobs. And there, I think you had the advantage with Canadian large cities being built first you had people who were used to operating larger systems and they could quite easily find employment in the U.S. systems. As the builds continued, they could move from one system to another, to another, and keep moving up in the industry. Others who came in, same thing. If you had three or six months experience then the person next door was willing to give you more money to come and work for them. Maintaining systems, building initially. Building them so that they could somewhat follow the plans that they were suppose to be built to, and would actually deliver signals when the installers went to hook people up was a major challenge.
KELLER: We are now spanning the era of the early to mid-’80s in which all of this experimentation was going on with the manufacturers and with the NCTA, with the FCC and so, as to how you were going to do all these things.
KELLER: You were currently still with Rogers and then what happened after you left Rogers? How did you leave and why did you leave?
JAMES: I left in 1985. Bill Riker at NCTA had left late 1984 to join SCTE, to run SCTE, which was suffering a lack of direction. It had had a couple of presidents – one who had done a lot of good and then departed—but there wasn’t really anyone pushing SCTE at the corporate level and getting people involved at the corporate level, i.e. going out and selling it. Bill Riker decided that there was something that needed to be done and something that he could do so he offered his services and was accepted. He took on that job and has done an excellent job in building SCTE since then.
KELLER: And he is still with SCTE?
JAMES: He is still is with SCTE. It had gone from a couple thousand members to many thousands under his leadership. His departure left a void at NCTA and I was starting to think it was time to find something more challenging. I spoke to Wendell Bailey, vice president of engineering at NCTA, and indicated my interest in becoming a director of engineering. Over the next while it resulted in my being hired and moving to Washington.
END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A
BEGINNING OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
KELLER: I am speaking with Brian James, who at this point had just joined the NCTA as director of engineering.
JAMES: That’s correct.
KELLER: What was your commission as director of engineering with NCTA?
JAMES: I was there to assist the vice president, science and technology, in technical matters coming before mainly FCC and Congress. I provided the technical expertise necessary in dealing with technical matters at FCC.
At the time I joined we had just finished the multi-channel sound docket, I believe. The industry was starting to move into carrying multi-channel or stereo television. One of the first questions was “Should that be mandatory – should cable operators be required to go out and replace their equipment immediately or could they be given some timeframe to replace the processing at the headend and, in some cases, the converters in the field to make them capable of passing stereo.”
It’s interesting that at that time Zenith had come out with their scrambling system. As an extra feature it was able to provide volume control. A nice feature – people liked to sit back in their easy chairs and switch channels and control the volume. The downside was, while it was a Zenith stereo system that was selected, their set-top converters could not pass it.
KELLER: Z-tac system?
JAMES: A Z-tac system. You might think that perhaps one side of the house wasn’t talking to the other side. So there was a lot of concern. If the FCC were to say “The stereo signal is a technical part of the video and you have to carry it.” It would have required that a very large number of millions of dollars be spent upgrading plant and changing out converters. Fortunately, the FCC decided that the mono-aural part, the single channel sound, was the basic television signal and you didn’t have to convert all your system equipment to carry stereo even if the broadcasters started carrying it.
Generally, a cable operator would wait until stereo came to a broadcast station and then would upgrade their processing equipment to pass it. If they were using Z-tac converters, as they worked them through repairs they would upgrade them to pass stereo.
KELLER: Was there an attachment that could be put on to the processing unit at the headend . . . did you have to change out the entire processing unit?
JAMES: If it was what is called a heterodyne processor, which takes the off-air signal and feeds it or converts it to an IF frequency, filters it and then converts it back up to the cable frequency, that normally passed the stereo signal without problems. Where you got into trouble was taking a signal off-air, going down to baseband–where you have baseband video and baseband audio – and for whatever reason, decided to process the signal by doing some video processing and enhancement. When you went to remodulate the signal, the stereo signal was not there. The work-around for that was to not take the audio signal down to baseband but pass it through at IF and convert back up to the cable frequency and that would pass it. Second option would be to take the audio signal down to baseband and then put it through its own stereo encoder. A lot of people did that. Operators also started doing that for the satellite services. The satellite broadcasters before too long started to provide a stereo feed as well as a mono-aural feed. The people who bring you headend equipment, Scientific-Atlanta and Jerrold generally, started building stereo encoders so that you could take the satellite signal and stereo encode the audio that you got and provide that to your subscribers. Prior to that they had stereo available but normally it was carried in the FM band so you could watch the channel on the television. If you had your FM tuner hooked up to the cable system, and in the same room and no one else wanted to listen to the audio of another radio service, you could have stereo television. Now the cable industry had caught up with the consumer electronics and the broadcasting industry had caught up with the cable industry and provided the customers with stereo television. And it was now inband so that if you had the stereo television set you could receive it.
KELLER: This was one of the areas that we you were working on at the NCTA. What other areas were you involved in at that time?
JAMES: At the same time, actually the week I got there, was the beginning of a trip by a number of industry engineers around the country looking at scrambling systems for satellite.
HBO had announced they were going to use the Video Cipher System and it actually had been installed at the video uplink site and they were testing it. Showtime had not announced what they were going to use, but the industry was making a lot of noise about the need for scrambling satellite services. Prior to that they were unscrambled.
Generally, people didn’t have a big ten foot dish in the backyard to receive and so it wasn’t a problem, but now they were finding more people were getting it off the satellite and especially you could get it into commercial operations, i.e. bars or whatever using it. HBO wanted to protect their product and the other satellite users did as well.
So the industry’s now concerned about HBO using one scrambling system and Showtime using another. For a cable operator that isn’t a problem because for each channel you have to have a separate decoder anyway because you’re running them all at the same time.
There was some lobbying going on in Congress where satellite backyard dish users, generally rural people who have been getting the signal for free, were starting to lobby their congressional people. They were saying, “Skies are going to go dark and are not going to be able to receive these services that we can’t get anywhere else – there isn’t cable around here, please help us.”
Well, the industry was aware of this and there was concern that if you have a number of different scrambling systems then the backyard user would have to buy a number of different receivers and that could get quite expensive. So being quite careful about anti-trust implications, the NCTA had decided to go around and investigate various proposed satellite schemes and determine which one was the best and, by some method, would be able to suggest a single standard that could be used.
We went around and looked at half a dozen different locations and different proposals, i.e. General Instrument, Scientific-Atlanta, Oak, Video Cipher System, and a couple others that had come out of the woodwork and proceeded back into the woodwork.
KELLER: You finally settled on one?
JAMES: Well, what happened is while we were on tour Showtime announced that they were going with Video Cipher as well. That meant the two big boys, if you will, had decided on that and it was expected that the rest of the industry would follow along. So we ended up not having to make a recommendation and managed to stay out of jail. Perhaps that was fortunate although Video Cipher System was probably not the one that would have gotten selected by the industry panel. There were a couple others that appeared to have slightly better scrambling techniques.
KELLER: What engineers made that decision then to go with Video Cipher?
JAMES: It was the HBO and Showtime engineers.
KELLER: They were not working with your group at that point?
JAMES: No. They were not on the tour.
KELLER: That’s surprising.
JAMES: It was the operators who were on the tour.
KELLER: That’s very surprising that they wouldn’t be involved in selecting their own method of scrambling.
JAMES: My guess is that was part of the anti-trust requirements.
KELLER: But as an association the association should come out with a recommendation as to what is the best system.
JAMES: Not really. The anti-trust laws are quite restrictive in that area. You can’t, as a group, decide to boycott someone.
KELLER: It wasn’t a matter of boycotting, you can set a standard.
JAMES: You can set a standard and suggest it. Their lawyers were trying to be careful.
KELLER: What other problems were you working on and/or what other committees were you working with or had knowledge of working with the NCTA at that time?
JAMES: The other major effort was signal leakage, something that cable systems have probably done since the first system was created. There had been an open docket at the FCC for many years and it finally worked its way through the system. It was one in which the FCC came up with regulations on how much leakage a cable operator was allowed to produce and the maximum levels you could have on a system before you came under the leakage rules.
In the aeronautical band, where the leakage concern was greatest, there had actually been a couple of incidences where aircraft radio communications had been interfered with cable operators.
It’s interesting that based on two or three actual incidences of lost communications for a few seconds because of cable we have all these regulations. Everyday you have instances of stuck-in microphone switches, which causes lots of interference with aviation communications. But anyway, we came under these regulations. The industry now has to maintain records of leaks that they find in the system, when it was found, what level it was, and how quickly it was repaired. They have to do an audit every year and come up with essentially the summation of the total leaks they have and it’s called a cumulative leak index (CLI). It has to be below a certain number. That test can either be done on the ground, driving around with receivers that are receiving the signal and measuring leaks or you could do it as a fly over, which is probably a more realistic one. If you’re worried about interference to aviation then you were to fly over the system trying to receive a test signal and record the levels you receive.
KELLER: What other things were going on at this time? What other things were you investigating?
JAMES: In 1985-1986, towards the end of 1986, something that would take the next ten years or so to work its way through started to raise its head, which was high definition televisions.
KELLER: Before we get into that, and I do want to get into that, were you familiar with the FCC’s first order report and the second order report? And, were there any technical standards in there that had to be compiled with in either of those two reports?
JAMES: Which reports?
KELLER: The FCC’s first report order.
KELLER: On cable television. The first time they took regulation of the industry itself.
JAMES: I am not familiar with just what came out at those times.
KELLER: The first report order was primarily on the use of microwave. The second report order, I thought and I could be wrong, went more into the technical standards and their requirements.
JAMES: When I got involved here there were certainly technical standards that the systems had to comply with and had to do yearly test to show that they complied with them.
KELLER: That may have been after the second report of order.
JAMES: Those probably came out of it—here are the requirements you have to meet. It bounced around in the late 1980s between “Do we really need technical requirements for cable systems or have they gotten big enough that consumer aggravation will result in quality being maintained?” There was a while when there were no regulations, no technical requirements for cable. Then the decision was made to re-implement them. So the industry has gone from no regulations to here are some regulations, no regulations, then here they are again. And we are currently required to meet certain minimum requirements.
KELLER: You started to get into the area of high definition television, and it was known by another name wasn’t it?
JAMES: The FCC when they started working on it called it advanced television.
The background on it, where it came from, was the Japanese NHK-Japan broadcasting had been working on a higher definition system for many years and in its early 1980s had actually brought it over to the National Association of Broadcasters and showed people what it was like. It was experimental at that point.
KELLER: Did this have anything to do with the resolution in lines?
JAMES: Yes. High definition means higher definition . . .
KELLER: A 125 to our standard which is what 625?
JAMES: We are 525.
KELLER: In Europe I understand there is 1125.
JAMES: No. Europe was 625.
KELLER: I thought they had a higher definition at that time?
JAMES: It’s a little higher except that its refresh rate is a little slower and the transmission scheme is a little different so you get better quality video, probably, in Europe than you do within NTSC.
KELLER: When we are talking in terms of the U.S. right now we are talking about going from 525 to 1100+?
JAMES: Probably over 1125 lines.
KELLER: Explain lines of resolution would you please—to non-technical persons.
JAMES: The television picture is created by scanning the phosphor on the picture tube with an electron beam and illuminating it. When you do this scanning you are scanning one line at a time—a very thin line. When you put enough of these together you can get a picture. NTSC has 525 lines and about 480 of them are actually active because you have over scan at the top and bottom of the screen. You don’t want to start the picture right at where the picture tube starts, you have to start it above it so that everything has come into sync and is scanning properly when you start to light up the tube. That results in say watching perhaps a football game or hockey game or something like that where you can see the crowds and you can say “Yea, I think there are people there or the general shape of humans.” So we’ll say there are people in the crowd. But you couldn’t say there is actually some one unless you are doing a close-up of the crowd because you can’t make out their facial features.
High definition was defined as being similar to a 35mm theater presentation and normally twice the horizontal and vertical resolution that exists in televisions. So in that case, watching the same game, you should be able to pick out features of people in the crowd and, depending on the situation, might actually recognize them. It is much more impressive. In fact, on a good display unit it will give you an almost three-dimensional feeling.
KELLER: So this was starting to be talked about and developed—you say the Japanese had developed something along these lines.
JAMES: The Japanese had developed the system that in the early 1980’s was starting to show up. Starting in 1985 but culminating in 1986, the FCC had a docket out suggesting that in some areas of the UHF spectrum, in some towns, where a given channel isn’t in use you could perhaps allocate that to a land mobile operator i.e. business band, two-way radio operation. This caused television broadcasters a lot of concern. The allocation plan for television is set-up so that you can fit in a whole lot of stations and they won’t interfere with each other. So you perhaps use a channel forty in one city and you have to go a long way away before you find another channel forty. That is to minimize the effect of interference. The FCC was proposing not going quite as far and putting in a two-way radio operation. The broadcasters were quite concerned that this could degrade quality of their service so they were looking for ways of overcoming this proposal.
At that point the Japanese were getting to where they had a high definition system that would work on satellite. You could uplink a high definition picture, downlink it, and watch it. They were getting close to going into production with it. The people in the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Maximum Service Telecasters, a couple of lobby groups in the Washington area all got together and were looking for some way of saving their spectrum. They decided this high definition television would be a good thing to come out with and say to the FCC, “You can’t give away that spectrum because we need it to carry this high definition service.” At the time high definition was going to require two television channels so in order to carry high definition you need the additional spectrum to be able to carry the high definition service. So they told the FCC they couldn’t give away the additional spectrum to land mobile because you’d never get it back. This was a good thing and they decided to go with that.
They contacted the Japanese and brought the equipment over and set-up some demonstrations. One at the NAB headquarters. They took it to congress and set it up in the Senate chambers showed people there. Took it over to FCC showed them there. Generally it created a lot of publicity and it got some public interest behind it and started the FCC down the path of investigating a new television system. The FCC did a report on it and decided to halt the land mobile proceeding until they finished their report on high definition.
In 1987, the FCC appointed the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service. They had a two-year mandate to go forth and investigate advanced television services. Advanced, generally being anything better than the existing service.
KELLER: Were you a member of that committee?
JAMES: I was on a number of task forces of that committee.
KELLER: Had the Japanese adapted the system, adopted the system?
JAMES: They were getting ready to do some trial transmissions on it.
KELLER: Had they subsequently done that?
JAMES: They have gone into actual transmissions and had the service up and running—it’s still up and running. They made use of their system.
KELLER: What part did you play in the task force of this committee?
JAMES: I was involved in the cable portion of the committee. We had to determine what effects the proposed systems would have on cable. Would they interfere with existing services on cable? Would existing services on cable interfere with this advanced television service?
A number of us came up with list of tests that needed to be done and then a test plan for carrying out those things. Then that was submitted to the committee and adopted. We were getting ready to do some testing.
KELLER: Then what happened?
JAMES: Then the committee sent out essentially a request for proposals to anyone and everyone that they thought might be interested in providing some or all of the new high definition, or advanced television service.
We got back a number of responses and invited all of the respondees – I recall there was about 23 of them – to what we called our hell week. They had three hours to give a presentation and be subjected to questions on their presentation by a lot of engineers knowledgeable in the art of television and cable, i.e. What can be done? What is being developed? We determined that there were a number of them that certainly had potential and that could probably be built in a reasonable timeframe.
One of the requirements we decided on early was that any system that was recommended for adoption would have to exist. It couldn’t be a paper proposal. It couldn’t be a computer simulation. You had to take video and put it in one end and get pictures out the other end.
KELLER: Seems reasonable.
JAMES: We thought so. A few people thought it was absolutely ridiculous. A computer model should be able to demonstrate whatever you want the system to do and you just go build it afterwards. But most people were somewhat adamant that it must exist.
KELLER: There was a question of how the system could interact or fit in with the existing system at that time too. Is there not or still is?
JAMES: There was a question and it was answered – the question was compatibility. Do you take and build on the existing NTSC system or do you say, “Let’s cut our ties at that system and go to a new system that is completely incompatible?”
When black and white went to color they made a compatible system. If you had a black and white television you could still watch color. The FCC decided that it was not necessary for the advanced TV to be compatible, and in fact, it might be advantageous to not be compatible. That, perhaps, you had done as much as you could with the existing system and it was time to go another step and abandon it and start with something completely different.
The task force went through these proposals and decided that some were feasible and others required some changes to the laws of physics and suggested that perhaps people go back and try to get those implemented and then come back to us. But we didn’t think they were going to get very far and we weren’t going to spend a lot time on them.
So we came down with six proposed systems that looked like they had good potential and people would vote to go build them or test them. A deadline was setup, about May 1990. The whole process was set-up so that if something wonderful came along it wouldn’t be precluded from consideration just because it was two hours late in submission. All the way along there were deadlines – we would stick our heads up, look around and say, “Is there anything coming at us that just might be wonderful and should we consider it?” Again, there were deadlines for those various points.
In May, 1990, (you may recall the committee was set-up for two years in 1987) we were getting ready to tell which systems were going to be tested (we were into the second round of the mandate). General Instrument showed up and said, “We have a system we would like to submit, and by the way, it is digital transmission.” Up to that point people were all analog, based on existing transmission techniques. One of them was called enhanced television and it was built on the existing NTSC service. You look at NTSC and there are little holes in the spectrum and in time where we can stuff in little bits of information. Their theory was that you could stuff this in and existing television wouldn’t know the difference and if you had enhanced television receiver that could make use of this additional information it’d give you better quality picture.
KELLER: Compatible in other words?
JAMES: That was a compatible system. It wasn’t a good system. The picture quality was degraded on NTSC and not great on the enhanced system. When we finally got around to testing it, it actually went through testing, they asked that the report not be published.
KELLER: Now this was the FCC committee that was with you?
JAMES: This is the FCC Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service for the U.S.
KELLER: Which you were participating on one of the task forces as a representative of the NCTA of the cable industry?
JAMES: Right. In that timeframe from 1987 to 1990, it became obvious that testing would be required. The Committee had mandated that if the system was going to be adopted it was going to have to exist and it was going to have to prove itself. So some form of testing had to take place. Part of the work with the committees was to come up with the test plan and test procedures. Having done all that you probably need a place to actually do these test. Some consideration was given to going to the various proponents and doing testing there. That was quickly abandoned for various reasons. One being, how do you ensure that something strange isn’t going on when you are doing the testing. The other, how do you show that you have the same test conditions and same equipment that you are subjecting these things to.
Broadcasters fairly early on agreed to get together – PBS and a number of the broadcast associations and lobby groups in Washington. They were going to fund what was called the Advanced Television Test Center.
KELLER: Did that include NCTA?
JAMES: No. NCTA was invited and declined. Part of the reason was if you look at the makeup, you have seven or eight broadcasters, and NCTA. You might have NCTA saying “We think this should be done” and the broadcasters all agreeing it should not be done. We (cable industry) would totally loose control – we certainly had the potential to lose the control – we didn’t want that.
Around the same timeframe CableLabs had been formed, which was a consortium of cable television operators in Canada and the U.S. About 1990, they had a few people on staff and were looking for things that needed to be investigated and decided high definition television was definitely one of them. It was coming at us, let’s be ready for it. CableLabs indicated that they would pay for the cable portion of the tests. That was how the cable industry was going to fund these tests, through CableLabs. So the broadcasters were doing it through their associations, cable was doing it through one of their groups which was CableLabs.
I had been on committees coming up with test plans, and I got talking to the president of CableLabs, Dick Green, and indicated that I had some interest in running a test lab to actually run these tests. In early 1990, I got hired by CableLabs. They were just finalizing an agreement with the Advanced Television Test Center to have space at the test center and have access to the equipment and share test results. I was hired to setup the cable test lab and run it.
KELLER: Before we get into your work at CableLabs I want to go back and ask you about three things that I think were developing at roughly the same time.
KELLER: One, fiber optics as far as in cable. Two, the use of the vertical interval. That came to my mind when we were talking about lines of resolution. Three, the conversion from analog to digital. All of which, I think, were developing along parallel lines just about that time. There may have been another one. But those at least come to mind right now. Were these not also developing at the same time? Did they have any interaction on each other and the work you were doing?
JAMES: Certainly digital had some interaction. The fiber optic development spearheaded, I guess, at Time Warner.
KELLER: I know the other one it was signal compression.
JAMES: Fiber optics came out of Time Warner experimentation to see if it was possible to carry analog signals on fiber. Up to that point fiber was basically FM (frequency modulation) or a digital stream, and lasers there worked quite well for that application. You have a lot of distortion making them sort of problematic for use in cable with an analog type modulation.
If you think back a few years, probably mid-70’s, AML – amplitude modulation microwave links – came out. The advantage of those over a frequency modulated link was you had one transmitter and then receivers at various locations. If the system was FM, frequency modulation, at each of those receive sites you have to receive that FM signal, convert it down to video baseband signals and re-modulate however many channels you have. The advantage of the AML link was you essentially took the whole cable spectrum, block converted it up to a microwave frequency, transmitted over the air. At the other end block convert it back down with one piece of equipment. If you add a new channel it is a little more equipment at the transmit site but nothing required at the receive site. So a much more cost effective system and over the distances we were transmitting it worked quite well. Fiber had a similar situation. It worked nicely on long haul where you could digitize or frequency modulate signals, send them to a new hub site or new headend site, but there you had to re-modulate everything. The cheaper way is to take the AML type approach, amplitude modulate the laser and at the other end receive it and just block convert it back from light to RF cable frequencies.
KELLER: Are you saying that the use of cable signals on the fiber optics came as a direct result of the old AML microwave systems or the convergence such?
JAMES: It wasn’t the result of that so much as looking at that system and saying it takes cable signals and converts them to a higher radio frequency in one block and in one block down converts them back. Well, lets use the same principal, we’ll get an even higher radio frequency and we’ll call it light and rather than using a digital technique were going to amplitude modulate that laser. So it is brighter and dimmer, if you will. At the other end we put in a photo diode and out comes RF signals. Sounds wonderful. Lasers weren’t built to do that at the time and it took a lot of effort, prodding and poking and conniving and convincing manufacturers that maybe it was a product and that maybe the industry was big enough to make it worth doing some research.
KELLER: Wasn’t the telephone company looking at it also at that point?
JAMES: No. I don’t think they were working on analog.
KELLER: They were working on fiber though?
JAMES: Oh yes. They were putting in a lot of fiber but it was all digital. Fiber works very nicely with digital as a digital link. It did not work that great and was not considered for an analog link. So this then was the push – rather than having a digital link where at each node or receive point you had to re-modulate everything, cable wanted to get into being just your block conversion and that is where the amplitude link comes in.
KELLER: Is that one of the reasons why it is so difficult to tap the fiber optics as to going point to point?
JAMES: Well you can these days tap into fiber optics.
KELLER: I understand that you can now but at the time that was a very difficult problem.
JAMES: At the time it was very difficult and it was simply a point to point system. To get directional couplers, if you will, for the light, that was a nice thought. You could probably make a few in the lab but you couldn’t do it on a production basis. Since then they have found ways of doing it quite successfully.
KELLER: So you linked the fiber optics and the laser with the advent of the digital and maybe the reverse, but the fact is those two were definitely related in the applications of cable television.
JAMES: Yes. Digital links were there–expensive and not really used. We were looking at how could we get the price down and make it quite useable and that is where the amplitude links came in. The digital links are good for a long haul application. They are not cost effective for the short hauls and many hub sites the cable operators are now deploying.
KELLER: The other two parts of that question I asked you about the developing at the time was the use of vertical interval and the signal compression.
JAMES: Vertical interval use – if you have an older television set it may tend to roll the picture. When that happens, you’ll see above where the picture starts there is a dark bar. Initially that was restricted to test signal use. So a few lines in there could be used to put signals on so that broadcasters or cable operators could test their systems without taking down the system or putting a full field test signal. There were special wave form monitors that could look at that signal and you could analyze how well the link was operating.
But there were still a number of lines in there that had nothing on them and people were looking for ways to make use of them. When we got into scrambling signals and some of them going to baseband to descramble it became possible to put data on some of those lines and extract it in the descrambler and that could tell your descrambler how to operate. In a similar manner you could put other digital signals in there and have a broadcast or perhaps a narrow cast data service where people wanted to get information – it could be carried in that vertical interval.
Teletext was one thing that had been proposed. Some systems got up and running but it never really took off. Where text could be carried in there and the receiver could decode that and convert it into video that would sort of look like a television screen and give you text information. Signal compression . . .
KELLER: Excuse me. Before you get into that, is that where they are currently carrying the information for the hearing impaired in the vertical interval right now?
JAMES: Yes. The last line of the vertical interval has been reserved for that for many years.
KELLER: So that was one of the first uses of vertical interval other than testing?
JAMES: Other than testing that was probably it. There is a potential problem as you get into the earlier lines of a television signal. They are normally black because the television, when they are occurring, is normally retracing. The electron beam has swept from the top to the bottom of the screen creating all the lines and now it has to get back up to the top and you need to have the electron beam essentially turned off or it will light up the phosphor. If you have older television sets and they are getting a little tired, sometimes you’ll see a zigzag white line going up the screen and it seems to be there constantly. That is the retrace because it is not set-up properly. So if these lines are kept black that minimizes that potential. When you start putting data or other test signals on there then they can start illuminating those lines. If you have poorly set-up televisions you will see that data, it is going to look like a dotted line going across the screen.
With a lot of testing and feedback from field tests, they determined that some of these earlier lines could, in fact, be used without causing a lot of subscriber or viewer complaints. So FCC finally authorized their use for data. Television transmitters could then put data on those lines and sell Teletext services or other data services. In fact they are doing that these days. PBS has an operation for selling that service.
KELLER: What services are involved in that?
JAMES: If someone wants to send data to a number of people. Stock information is perhaps one. News information could go over that. You can have special receivers that tune to the local television channel and decode the vertical interval and give you the information on a LED display it doesn’t need to be on a television set. It’s an ancillary service. Then the television broadcaster can sell that service to other people. So any time you want the data from some source to a number of people who are mobile but in your area it is a way of doing it.
KELLER: And all cable systems can carry a vertical interval?
JAMES: Yes. That is an integral part of the signal. The data on it is a necessary part of the signal. It’s not primarily programming so the cable operators are not required to pass that signal through. Normally it’s going to take work to extract it and remove it. But if they’re providing scrambled service and that channel is scrambled and, depending on the scrambling scheme they are using, it may be necessary to remove that data and replace it with data telling the descrambler how to work.
KELLER: Now we get into the signal compression.
END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
BEGINNING OF TAPE 2, SIDE A
KELLER: We have just changed the tape to side three of the oral history interview with Brian James.
We have just come to a point where you had made the transition from NCTA to CableLabs in Northern Virginia. What were some of the projects you worked on in the early days of your association with that group?
JAMES: There was basically one project. To design a test lab for the high definition or advanced television services prototypes that, hopefully, would make their way to the system and get to the lab. As well as designing the test lab I continued to work on the committees to develop actual test procedures to test these systems.
The committees consisted of broadcasters, a few cable operators and a lot of consumer electronic manufacturers. Most of them having a great deal of interest in the broadcast area and knowing it in great detail and having no end of questions and queries about the broadcast portion of the test. And very few people having any interest or knowledge in the cable area. We would go to an all day meeting and I would spend five minutes explaining the test that I wanted to carry and they would be approved. We would then spend the rest of the day questioning every little bit of the broadcast portion of the test. It gave me a fair amount of freedom to decide just what test I wanted done and how I wanted to do them. Having developed test we now needed to come up with some way of doing the actual testing. We had decided what parameters were going to be tested and what certain impairments we might want to create and have a look at. We now had to build a lab to do it.
Normally when you’re testing cable systems and things for cable you would actually build a small cable system. You might get in a whole lot of cable and a number of amplifiers and build a cascade of ten or more amplifiers and cable and put some test signal on at one end and see what happen to it coming at the other end. I was more concerned on where individual impairments cause problems. For instance, noise on the cable system results in what is referred as snow in the picture. If it is bad enough you get some hissing in the aural part of the signal. Triple beat is another distortion product occurring on cable due to the sum and differences of all the channels that you carry on the system and it causes interference in the picture. There are other things—hum modulation from when power supply is not working quite right, which puts a bar in the picture that crawls up the screen. We needed to determine whether or not the proposed systems would be susceptible to these impairments and at what levels they were susceptible.
So I developed a test bed to create just the individual impairments. For instance, noise, I could use a noise generator, an off-the-shelf piece of test equipment, and through an attenuator, adjust the level of noise in the test signal. We could then put video through the system and have so called expert viewers looking at the picture and voting on when they thought they saw noise and when they thought it disappeared.
I did similar things with the other impairments—triple beat, cascaded a number of amplifiers (about five of them), and put in test signals. The tests were all done on channel 12. I created a small headend of about 32 channels. This was enough to create the distortion required but did not have a channel 12 signal in that headend. The output of the headend was passed through these amplifiers to create the distortion. And, of course, the distortion would be created on channel 12 as well as the others. Then filter the output so I only had channel 12 distortion. I then added it to the signal under-test at various levels and had people looking at the output picture quality, and again, voting on when they saw the impairment or when it disappeared.
I did similar things with the other normal impairments that you would see on a cable system – the hum modulation, a discrete carrier. For instance you might get that from a business band or CB operator getting into your system. Second order distortion that is prevalent these days on fiber optic systems and something that we looked at that hadn’t been a big problem on cable systems with NTSC was phase noise. That’s when very slight instability in the oscillators used to translate and convert frequencies cause very slight changes in frequency at the receive signal which on NTSC generally is not a problem but we were getting digital signals and they’re significantly more susceptible to these problems. So we had created a little device that could increase or decrease the amount of phase noise.
Another item that isn’t a big problem on NTSC is frequency modulation – small amounts of changes in frequency, more than phase noise, can cause a problem on a digital signal. A digital receiver can’t track it whereas a NTSC television set has no problem with it.
The outcome of the testing, especially in the digital signals, determined that they were significantly more robust for the normal distortions that we get on cable and the ones that we worry about. Triple beat is sort of the high output level from an amplifier limiting distortion and noise is the low input level limiting distortion. The digital signal could tolerate significantly larger amounts of these distortions and not display any problems.
Phase noise and residual FM, which do not cause any significant problems on NTSC signals, tended to be limiting distortions on the digital signal. So we are going to, now that we have adopted one of them, enter an area where we are less concerned about our traditional distortions and are going to have to start looking at nontraditional distortions.
KELLER: Caused by the use of the digital signal?
JAMES: Caused by the fact that we have gone from an analog transmission system to a digital type format. They’re two different transmissions systems susceptible to two different distortions.
KELLER: In non-technical language could you describe the difference between a digital and an analog system?
JAMES: I can try. An analog signal is perhaps, like talking, where your voice goes up and down in amplitude as you’re talking and the person that you’re talking to hears it. Distortion that you can get is perhaps other people talking. If you’re in a crowded room and you are trying to listen to one person and other people are talking so that the “noise” they are causing tends to drown out the person you’re trying to listen to. You’re able to listen to them up to a certain point. It gets more difficult to hear as the people in the room start talking louder and louder and eventually you get to some point where you’re not really able to hear them. It has been a gradual degradation. For instance, you went in the restaurant knowing you could talk quietly or normal levels, no problem. A few people join the tables around you and start talking and now there is more background noise and it is more difficult to hear but you can still hear. As more people come in it gets more and more difficult to hear.
With digital service it is a “work” or it “doesn’t work” type of service. You send out the signals, perhaps you are talking, and it’s continuing to work. The background noise is coming up but for some reason, say you’re back at this restaurant, except all the noise is essentially behind the door and is not causing you any interference. The digital part of it has essentially filtered that noise out for you its like the door was closed.
KELLER: Does it have to do with the frequency that is being used?
JAMES: Not necessarily. It’s due to the fact that the digital signal samples the signal. And, at a certain point in time it takes that signal and says “Okay its this level,” and through the way it works it sends that one level and says “I am going to represent that level by either one or zero,” in the string of one.
KELLER: Synthesizes the signal itself?
JAMES: It’s quantizing of the single actually.
JAMES: It takes a signal and if you’re loud its going to represent that by a binary number, ones and zeros. So here is a signal that is one, one, zero, one and that’s represented when you transmit it by a large signal and no signal. When you are receiving it the receiver looks at it and says “Is this a large signal or is this no signal?” It can do that quite accurately. If you add noise to that signal or some other distortion, it looks at it and says, “Is that large? No, I can’t really tell. But its more than half way towards large so I will call it large. Or its less than half way and I am going to call it zero.” At such a point in time if it either says “Yes, that’s large it’s a one. Or yes, its small it’s a zero.” You can put a lot of noise into that signal and as long as you don’t cause receive signals to have an error to say that’s pretty close to the half way point and I am going to call it large when in reality it was small. After you finish sampling at the end you can get back that one, one, zero, one again. Then you can use that to recreate the original signal.
KELLER: Which results in a much purer signal.
JAMES: It comes out much purer because you essentially recreated the whole signal. If there is noise that gets added to it now gets taken away. You shut the door in the restaurant. If the noise gets beyond a certain point it is like you opened that door and you can’t hear anything.
So with digital, for example, you’re either sitting in your nice quite restaurant with noon around hearing everything perfectly or the doors are open and you can’t hear anything.
KELLER: Digital acts, as a filter too then, is that correct?
JAMES: Essentially. You filter the noise and the other distortions out of the signal when you have processed it. You can push it even further by doing what is called some forward ever correcting. That is say your signal you wanted was 1101 and you can add those up and add a couple more numbers at the end (a couple more ones and zeros), that when you get to the end you can actually look at it and say “That was wrong. I read 1011,” and I can make a correction.
KELLER: And the current broadcast signal is still analog, right?
JAMES: The current broadcast signal is analog. That is why as you get further from the transmitter or as you get further into the cable system it goes from a very nice, clean signal to a noisier signal, a lot more snow on the picture. Until finally you get to the point that your not sure whether there is a picture there or not.
KELLER: So in the early days of cable television we were going after distant signals . . .
JAMES: Had to.
KELLER: . . . had they all been digital we would have less problem of receiving at that point.
JAMES: True. Except that the subscriber would have had less problem too. One of the features of digital, its good and its bad, is right up until you get to the point that you don’t receive it you receive a perfect signal.
JAMES: And my comment is broadcasters are going to try to explain the housewives find the television on the left side of the room works perfectly and you move it to the right side and that gets just beyond that threshold point and you don’t have a picture.
KELLER: You were saying that fiber optics handles digital signal far better than an analog signal.
JAMES: Yes. It was originally designed with digital signals in mind.
KELLER: At the speed of light.
JAMES: Yes. Digital signals is just one zero. Is the light on or is the off. It works very nicely. The detector at the end says “Yea, there is light there,” and it lights up or “Nope, there is no light,” and the output is a nice string of ones and zeros. With analog the question is how bright is that light. That is where the problem comes in is trying to modulate or change the level of that light nicely on a laser and it was a problem. A lot of the work has gone into overcoming that problem.
The first challenge was to convince manufacturers that there might be an application for analog lasers. The telephone companies didn’t see any need for it they were digital. So phone companies don’t need it why would anyone else.
KELLER: How long have the phone companies been digital? Has that been from day one?
JAMES: Any other fiber networks have been digital.
KELLER: We have digressed a long way from our history. We are still back at the days of your participation at the DC office of CableLabs.
KELLER: We were talking about some of the things you were involved in. Is there anything that we have not covered at this point of your years with CableLabs?
JAMES: No. My job primarily there was to work on the high definition. For the most part that is what I did.
KELLER: Is there general agreement now how it can be done?
KELLER: High definition?
KELLER: Do you feel that you were a part of getting that standard established?
JAMES: Yes. It progressed quite nicely. It is interesting the way it finally turned out. We mentioned earlier there were six systems that came in. Originally five of them were analog and then General Instrument showed up as the sixth system right at the final cutoff point saying “We’re digital and we think that’s the way to go.” That resulted in three of the other proponents saying “Maybe there is something to this. We would like to go back and look at this.” So there was a short delay while they did that. Then they came back and said, “Yes. This is the way we want to go,” resulting in a longer delay. I think about 1992 is when the testing actually started.
KELLER: When do you think it will finally be inaugurated?
JAMES: Well, there are some systems or broadcasters on the air with it at the moment. They’re just doing testing.
KELLER: It is a compatible system is it not?
JAMES: No. It is non-compatible.
KELLER: Non-compatible. So you have to change your television set in order to get it.
JAMES: Yes. Everyone now has the opportunity to go out and spend many thousands of dollars on a new television and a new VCR or compact disc or something and the consumer electronic people are just ecstatic.
We did testing of the system over the air in Charlotte, North Carolina, in mid-1995, during that summer. We put the signal . . .
We should move back. We had these six systems and two were analog and four were digital. One of the analog—the advanced compatible television (ACTV)—that produced marginal quality NTSC pictures, not great enhanced pictures but drew after testing, and the report that was prepared never got published. There are two copies. I got one and the Test Center has one. The NHK system that was the original . . .
KELLER: That’s the Japanese system?
JAMES: That’s the Japanese. They continued to be analog. Their original system occupied 12 MHz or two channels. They managed to stuff it into one six MHz channel but in doing so had problems. Their original system had been demonstrated in Washington in 1988-89 using two channels and it produced beautiful pictures. That system they brought into test did not and had other transmission system problems. So it got removed from consideration after the first round of testing.
KELLER: Does signal compression have anything to do with the use of either one of these high-resolution systems?
JAMES: They all use compression of some sort. The current scheme uses digital compression using what is called discrete cosign transformation. I won’t get into how that works but by magic it can take your 30 MHz signal and stuff it into a six MHz channel giving you room for audio and some other information.
KELLER: Thirty MHz being the high resolution signals?
JAMES: The high-resolution baseband signal.
KELLER: You said you were able to accomplish it in 12 MHz.
JAMES: Well, the original Japanese system could put it in 12. The final digital systems can transmit it in six.
KELLER: But they were both compressing?
JAMES: Oh yes.
KELLER: So the original system was 30 MHz and one of them reduced it to 12 and the present system is reducing it to six, correct?
KELLER: Now how does this fit in with the present attempt at compressing the six MHz channel then for use on cable systems?
JAMES: It’s a fall-out or actually it’s a built-out of the high definition service. The General Instrument Video Cipher people were working on a digital compression system for cable and satellite—initially just satellite. Transponders are expensive how can we get this signal on satellite? And, looking at what they were producing decided “If we just increase the computer capability. Maybe put three or four of them together we can handle a lot more data. And rather than compressing an NTSC signal we can compress a high definition signal.” That is what they came to the Advisory Committee with. So they had been starting to look at compressing NTSC and applied that to digital high definition.
Now that we’ve completed digital high definition work you can go back and say “Well, if it works fine on high definition it works great on NTSC.” The NTSC signal can be compressed. Where you start off with basically a four MHz signal—video baseband is about four MHz plus a little bit of audio–you can compress that depending on what quality you want down to two megabits per second. You digitize it and you have a data stream and every second two megabits of data goes through. That gets you sort of a rough looking pictures. You might say its VHS video tape quality and you might say its not. If you send more data, somewhere between four to five megabits, will give you a studio quality picture. Better than you normally see on your television. The channel capacity, the data capacity, on cable television systems is determined by how much noise and corruption there is in the signal and the levels that you carry the signal on the system.
Currently, operators are looking at carrying what is called a 64 qam quadrature amplitude modulation or 256 quam. Sixty-four are a little more robust so if you’re worried about distortion, noise, and other problems on your system you might carry that. If you think you have a good system a 256 quam will work very well. Sixty-four carries about 27 megabits of information. And 256 carries about 37 megabits of information. So at 27 if you carry say a five-megabit signal, do compression down to five megabit then you get studio quality. That would allow in six MHz the operator to carry five channels. If you go for half of that, two and a half megabits, now you can carry ten channels.
KELLER: What bearing, if any, does this have on the future capability of cable systems to carry video, data and telephony simultaneously?
JAMES: Significant bearing. You’ve gone digital so the information begin carried is just bits and bits don’t care whether they represent video or audio or telephony or data, they’re bits. The transmission system doesn’t really care. You throw some bits at it and it sends it down the system.
The first advantage we have is say we do this five to one compression. You could take five existing channels on your system and carry them on one leaving you four channels free. Then those four channels you could perhaps another five television services in one of them. You could use one of them to carry a whole lot of data, 27 or 37 megabits a second of data is a massive amount to data to move around. If you think of your modem on your computer talking at 28 kilobytes you have a significant increase in the norm.
Telephone services don’t take very much data at all. You can compress that into just about nothing. So you can carry in large quantities of telephones in there and in fact you can just try and stuff them, as there is space available. Keep in mind that someone trying to carry on a conversation doesn’t want to wait seconds for each word to come along. With proper protocol you could stuff that phone service either into a channel of its own carrying a whole lot of services for a lot or people, or intermix it with some digital video services.
KELLER: These were at things you were not working on in the late 1980’s at CableLabs but you were at least cognitive of these things coming to power. That is one of the reasons you’re working with digital. Is that correct?
JAMES: Yes. A lot of digital things opened up with the advent of “Let’s carry high definition digitally.” That then awakened the idea that if you can carry television digitally and it works well why not digitize voice and carry that. Computer data is all digits – put that on. So it has all fallen out of that, I believe.
KELLER: I can recall back in the mid-1970’s talking about this advanced cable system that was going to be able to do all of these things and yet we weren’t even considering digital at that point.
JAMES: That’s true. Looking at “How do we do this analog?” The advantage in digital is the fact that you can send a signal down a fairly crummy system and get to the end and do enough correction so that you are back to the original signal. Once you digitize things then you can get into some fancy encryption’s making sure someone else doesn’t get access to it.
So many things got opened up when we went digital.
KELLER: You said you was primarily involved in the high definition television while you were at CableLabs in the Arlington, DC area. Did this continue through your stay there?
KELLER: I think we beat this one to death right now.
JAMES: I stayed there through all of the testing. We did two rounds of testing on high definition. I recall part way through I was having a conversation with some people at a convention after a talk I had given on it and suggesting that it would be necessary to do a second round of testing. Subsequently, their apparently was a reporter standing by and the next thing I know the conversation on testing shows up in one of the high definition newsletters. Well, I got a call from the committee chairman asking what the heck I was doing and he was not really pleased with me. He made it clear that there was no consideration of doing a second round and that we’re going to do the first and that is the end of it.
KELLER: You did beta testing on it, is that right?
JAMES: The end result was we did the second round of testing. To take something and essentially invent it and produce one prototype and from that say this is going to be the transmission system and television system for the next fifty years I thought was a little ridiculous. And, looking at the results, everybody that came in for testing had problems. There was a committee that discussed this and they all had the solutions. So after we had four systems a “Special Panel” was called to review all the data and make recommendations. Its recommendation was the two analog systems be withdrawn and not considered and the four digital systems go back and rework their systems and correct the deficiencies that had been found, which everyone said they could, and then bring them back to the lab for a second round of testing. The downside of that was that the systems were all pretty good and it was sort of questionable whether we would found one that was truly superior. So the Chairman of the Advisory Committee suggested at that point that the proponents should try and work together to come up with one system and agree to all work together.
KELLER: Were the broadcasters cooperating at this point or were they a part of your group investigating?
JAMES: Well, the broadcasters were part of the group looking through a broadcast point of view.
KELLER: But it was a joint effort through the CableLabs?
JAMES: No. It was through the Advisory Committee.
KELLER: Of the FCC?
KELLER: Of which the CableLabs was only a part.
JAMES: Yes. CableLabs agreed to fund the cable portion of the testing and support that.
KELLER: You were the liaison with the committee?
JAMES: Right. There were a lot of committees and there were various CableLabs people working on these committees. I was mainly involved in the testing part of it.
KELLER: Where did you go after you decided that you didn’t want to stay around DC anymore?
JAMES: When we finished the high definition work and the Advisory Committee submitted its report; I stayed around for some time as Committee work sort of transition from the Advisory Committee to the Advanced Television Systems Committee. Which was another organization setup by various industry groups. They were the ones who actually put together the description and standard for the high definition system. They took what the various proponents, who were called the Grand Alliance group when they came together, took their documentation and put it together as a standard. But, of course, once you set the standard and you try and implement it you find it is deficient in some areas and they are still working on finalizing a complete system. So I spent time doing that and reviewing whether or not it was necessary to continue the office in Washington or what to do. CableLabs decided they didn’t see a great need to continuing to have a Washington office. So I was looking for something to do. It was either move to Colorado’s main office or something else.
When CableLabs was setup one of the suggestions for its being was to look at equipment that’s in production and being purchased by cable operators but not being tested. Generally, cable operators don’t have evaluation labs, certainly smaller ones don’t, and there is a need to periodically evaluate things and keep an eye on what manufacturers are doing to you and provide that service. That had been requested when they set it up but had never been implemented. After discussions with Dick Green and others it was decided that it was worth setting up an evaluation lab and we needed to do it somewhere. As I was in Washington and not really wanting to move I suggested we should do it there. I wanted to do it with one of the larger operators and talked to the ones in the area and no one was really interested in doing it.
Another option that was suggested was to set it up in Toronto. At one point there had been suggestions that they should setup a Canadian office for CableLabs because there are a lot of Canadian members. For various reasons decided not to do that. One was some of the operators didn’t see the benefit of going through the process, the legal cost, of setting up a subsidiary of something. But “Ted” Rogers had offered to provide some of the overhead type work, the facility, payroll services, accounting, that sort of thing to CableLabs. The end result was a contract with CableLabs to setup the test center who gets it guidance from the CableLabs Technical Advisory Committee. We evaluate equipment that is state-of-the-art, that finally got into production, and was of great interest to cable operators. Something they can go out and buy but would want information on how well it works.
KELLER: You just said the same thing that initially CableLabs was setup to do just that and never really go into it . . .
JAMES: There was a lot of things that went around. The question was “If we setup a lab what should it do?” It had a long list of things it should do. One of the things on that list was equipment evaluation.
KELLER: Which they had never done until you had setup this lab in Toronto.
JAMES: Right. It can be a problem setting evaluations in that if you test something that doesn’t look very good manufactures aren’t overly happy with the results. You need a lot of integrity in that evaluation lab and running it and seeing that they are not going to corrupt the results. That their not going to favor one manufacture over another.
JAMES: They decided that if I was running I was seen in the industry to be fairly objective and I could set it up and do it. So we did.
KELLER: Your funding then comes from both CableLabs and from Rogers at this present time?
JAMES: Funding actually comes from CableLabs. Rogers does a little bit of in-kind contribution – some of the overhead doesn’t get charged back—that sort of thing. For the most part there is a contract with CableLabs to provide that service.
KELLER: CableLabs is funded then by whom? The operators and the manufacturers?
JAMES: No. Just the operators.
KELLER: The manufacturers send then their equipment to the operators to evaluate?
JAMES: Well I contact manufacturers and say I am going to be looking at signal level meters and are you interested in having it evaluated? If so, I arrange to get samples to look at.
KELLER: I have as a note here to question you concerning the evolution of the test equipment. But if we are not at a point to do this right now we can do it at some other point. Were still talking about CableLabs being established in Toronto.
JAMES: That got established in May 1996. Was up and running and evaluating equipment and producing reports.
KELLER: That is presently what you are still doing?
JAMES: That’s right.
KELLER: Lets get into this then as long as were going and you brought it up. Tell me about the evolution of test equipment in the industry since you’ve been in it. It was very minimal I would think in 1972 when you first came in.
JAMES: Generally, depending on the cable operator, but normally you probably has a field strength meter and sort of sweep equipment.
KELLER: TDR’s or something?
JAMES: You have a TDR of some sort.
KELLER: I don’t like to use those terms either. Why don’t we explain what TDR stands for?
JAMES: Time delay reflectometer. It’s a device that sends a signal down the cable and waits and displays any signal that bounces back. A feature of cable transmission line is if there are any changes to it, if its crushed or cut, the signal propagating down the cable will have some portion of it reflected back. So if you transmit a pulse and then wait, something will come back normally. You can detect that and display it on scope. Signals propagate down cable not quite as quickly a the speed of light somewhere around 85% to 90% the speed of light. But that is a known quantity. You can with the device, TDR, get it to display distance. The pulse that comes back has taken a certain amount of time to get to where it reflected from and come back. You know how fast it travels through there and it has gone twice the distance. So you can time how long it took to go up and come back and divide that in half and then determine, because you know the speed, how far it went before it reflected.
KELLER: So this is one of the pieces of equipment that has been around for quite some time.
JAMES: It has been around for a long period of time.
KELLER: Even before . . . the telephone company used it didn’t they for that . . .
JAMES: Same idea, yes. The telephone company has a twisted pair that goes many miles and the person at the other end is called and said my phone doesn’t work—how do you figure it? One way is to drive out and knock on their door and say I am here to test your phone and “Yea, you’re right it doesn’t work.” Somewhere between their central office and that house there is a problem. How do you figure how far it is? TDR does it. Cable has the same thing.
KELLER: What other major pieces of test equipment evolved during this time, from the day you got in to present?
JAMES: Spectrum analyzers have evolved significantly since I got in. About the time I was getting in Avantek had developed a sweep system-summation sweep system—which is used to determine the frequency response of the cable system. You put a signal in at the headend normally and you looked at various points in the system and see if there is any degradation to the frequency response. Normally, the levels should remain constant with frequency or at least decrease at a regular rate. If there is a problem you have typically what are called suck-outs where you look at the frequency response and rather than being a nice line there is a little dip in it or big dip in it. What that means is someone trying to watch those channels that might be in that dip don’t have any signal because for some reason there is a problem in the line.
So that was one type of sweep gear. That Avantek had that feature but it also had the beginnings of a spectrum analyzer. It could display a frequency versus amplitude response. So you could tune it and you could see, let’s say, channel two and look at it and find the visual carrier and the aural carrier what was the color carrier. It would give you a display of what was there. It had the added feature that if there happen to be a beat in the picture, say some local oscillator in the headend causing a problem, it would show up in this display. Then using that you could track back to the cable headend or wherever the source was, find it and cure it. Previous to that you probably were looking at the television picture and saying, “Yea, it looks like there is a beat going around in there”—just using the picture to determine the source of that beat. Spectrum analyzers, Hewlett Packard and Tektronix, were around at that time and tended to be big and tended to be expensive. So you didn’t have the average maintenance technician carrying it. You may have had an engineering group that has one of them for a number of systems.
KELLER: Was there a piece of test equipment that injects a signal into the headend and is there a constant region that monitored the amplifiers along the line right now? Sub monitoring amplifiers?
JAMES: The summation sweep equipment is what does that. That’s normally manually used. The technician goes out and connects at various points in the system and looks at the response and does correction that is necessary.
END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A
BEGINNING OF TAPE 2, SIDE B
KELLER: This is the beginning of tape number four and were talking general terms about the evolution of the test equipment. We have gone through the TDR, the spectrum analyzer, and your basic field strength meter. What other major test pieces of test equipment has been developed for the industry?
JAMES: Talking about the summation sweep equipment where rather than having to turn channels off at night and putting a sweep signal on you were able to transmit the signal during the day. There were two types of systems. One, a high level system which sent signals above the visual carrier, swept across the total spectrum the system and would be displayed on a receiver scope at various test points and show you the response of the system. Whether it was flat, whether there was a suck-out, loss of frequencies, or some other problems. Two, a low-level system that was the Avantek, sent out a lower level signal. It was down into the video level and the receiver tracked a sweep signal created at the headend but below channel two so it could display the response of the system without actually causing interference. Since that time they have improved high level sweeps and are probably moving away from them and moving into other sweep systems that send out pulses of carriers at lower levels that receivers can receive. These do not cause interference to the television service and allow the operator to maintain the system during the day without causing interference to subscribers, without turning the signals off. So that has greatly improved the quality of maintenance that the operators able to provide.
KELLER: Do you see a need for any additional pieces of test equipment in the industry or in the individual systems?
JAMES: We need to come up with low cost, high quality monitoring systems.
KELLER: Each and every amplifier in the system?
JAMES: Of each and every, or certainly the ends of all the lines. Every amplifier would be better.
KELLER: We have talked about this for a lot of years, have we not?
JAMES: I saw my first one the first week I was in the industry in 1972. It didn’t work very well. I am not sure that the current ones work a whole lot better. Actually there are some that work reasonably well these days as far as determining if the amplifier housing is open, the power supplies producing incorrect voltage, and give you some indication of levels.
I think as we are now moving into the digital area where we are going to be digitizing a lot of these signals that gives us another chance to work in the monitoring equipment. We are also moving into two-way. Part of the reason monitoring systems weren’t the best is you needed to get that information back to the cable headend, and while for many years we’ve said systems were designed for two-way and are two-way compatible we never had a good reason to make them work. To go and explain to management that you want to spend thousands of dollars and hire a couple more maintenance people so you can get the return going so the monitoring equipment works, probably didn’t sell very well.
KELLER: These were monitoring on the T channels, is that it?
JAMES: Normally the return information would come on the T channel.
KELLER: On the analog system?
JAMES: Yes. On any system it is coming to come back on the turn channel. So you would monitor this signal and then you would send your information back in the return path.
KELLER: In an existing system here in February 1998, can it be made to operate on a two-way basis?
JAMES: Certainly. And operators are putting a lot of effort into doing that because they now have come up with a reasons to do it–make your system two-way and you can increase your cash flow, sell more services and pay on demand.
We’re moving into digital services. The Internet has been a big driver behind us. Two years ago most people hadn’t heard of the Internet. These days most people probably have and lots of them have gone out and bought computers and their getting information on the Internet and getting frustrated that if they order information that has a lot of data in it or pictures it takes a long time to download. Cable has the capability of downloading, transmitting the data at a lot higher rates and people are taking advantage of that. The problem that the industry faces then is, “How do you get the request from the cable subscriber back to the headend and to the server that would provide that data?” One way is telephone and the other way is return cable. Some people have put in telephone return where the high-speed data goes from wherever the source is to the subscriber’s computer, over the cable system. So if you have a big file with pictures and stuff in it, it shows up very quickly. Normally when you request information your just sending a few bits of information—please send me this. Then you download many Megs of information. So you don’t need a lot of bandwidth to send that “Hey, send me signal.”
KELLER: But you have to have a return channel on the cable because that’s where it has to be returned, isn’t it?
JAMES: Or you can go on telephone.
KELLER: Yes, but you can’t receive or send anything any faster than the slowest component of whatever system you’re using.
JAMES: True, but you have a great big file sitting somewhere and you want it, so you say, “Send it.” It doesn’t take very much data and gets there almost immediately. Now you have this huge file to download and you can either send it very slowly over the phone system or send it very quickly over the cable system. So the two-way return is what’s called asymmetric system it cannot send a lot of data fast from the cable subscriber to the server but can send large quantities of data quickly from the server to the cable subscriber. You then have the problem that the cable subscriber has to have a second phone line which they may not want. In which case, if they’re using the service their main phone service is tied up and who wants to be supporting the phone company. Its something the cable system can, with proper maintenance, do on its own. So most cable operators these days, especially bigger cities, are rebuilding or upgrading as necessary to get the return plant working.
KELLER: Hypothetically, I am completely rebuilding my existing system here in Denver, would I be able to build a system today that is in February 1998, to incorporate the capability of doing all of this today?
JAMES: Yes. Systems are doing it.
KELLER: Including fiber optics and everything being digitized and so on, is that correct?
JAMES: Yes. The Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) Headend In The Sky (HITS) system will provide you with digital television services. So you can get those off satellite and put them on your cable as a digital service. There are modems available that will take digital services off the Internet, if you will.
KELLER: Cable compatible?
JAMES: Cable compatible.
KELLER: Available today?
JAMES: Yes. They have been around for a few years. A number of experiments have gone on and people have moved from the experimental stage to the business stage.
KELLER: Are these the kinds of evaluations that you are currently doing at your shop?
JAMES: I am not doing those particular ones in my shop. CableLabs in conjunction with some of the larger operators have come up with specifications for high-speed data modems on cable. Now you can buy modems and put them on your system and they don’t specifically meet the specification. So CableLabs is working with the manufacturers getting prototypes ready and even have a test bed in the Louisville lab where you can bring these modems in and simulate a system with a lot of subscribers on it and a lot of modems and see how well it works.
Because those are prototype systems, prototype modems, we’ve sort of split the work. The equipment that is in production, in the catalog if you will, gets evaluated at the Test Center. Equipment that is being designed and we have prototypes of and manufacturers are wondering just how well they would work in the cable environment would get tested in Louisville.
KELLER: The TAC test facility is your shop?
JAMES: That’s right.
KELLER: The TAC means what?
JAMES: Technical Advisory Committee.
KELLER: You work then in conjunction with but in separate areas with CableLabs?
JAMES: That’s right.
KELLER: You told us the significance of why it was in Canada – it was just the place that you wanted to be and just as good a place as any.
JAMES: I wanted to get home and had some desire there. There was a desire to have Canadian presence of CableLabs in Canada because there are a lot of members there – help serve them. It was a dual purpose. It seemed to work out.
KELLER: We touched a lot of things including potential use of the systems for future services. What is your opinion of when we will be able to combine telephony on the cable system?
JAMES: Cox is doing it in San Diego right now.
KELLER: Omaha they’ve had experiment there too.
JAMES: There as well. It can be done now. Were going to move towards standards for that and using most likely what is called Internet Protocol – protocol that is used on the Internet for data transfer. It looks like cable operators could use that protocol quite nicely to carry phone service on their cable service.
It is my thought that cable operators who want to enter that business probably shouldn’t enter it taking on residential safety of life primary phone lines. It gets expensive in order to make sure your cable system is operating at the level required to be a safety of life type service. If they have systems set-up to carry data into the home and provide data for modems, two-way operation, for a few extra bits it could carry a phone service. So you can provide subscribers with a second line presumably a lot cheaper than the phone company.
KELLER: But a secondary line.
JAMES: Yes. You do not sell it as a primary line. Here is a second line. It’s cheap. Were not trying to sell it as an all feature, safety of life, guaranteed to be up all the time. If it is there you can use it. On those occasions when the system is down you can’t use it.
KELLER: So the phone on one end and the telephone instrument itself on one end. The headend or central office in telephony terms on the other end, you have to have a switching capability at the one end, do you have to have some kind of interfacing modem at the telephone instrument side?
KELLER: And what would that be?
JAMES: I would expect to see that were going to get to some sort of network interface device in the home either outside where the cable would plug or just the inside where there is a little better environment.
KELLER: How are they doing it in England now or how is Cox doing it Omaha and San Diego?
JAMES: I haven’t seen their set-up. I assume they have a box that would do it. What you need is to bring the cable signal into the home and then you spit it two or three different ways. One service, one leg, would go and feed all the television sets. The other leg than can go into your interface device. Normally these days they are running a separate leg close to the computer and you hook a modem right there that interfaces with the computer and takes the signal off the cable and sends the signal back up the cable. You would have the same sort of device for the telephone.
KELLER: Would you have computer switching at this point? It would be digital switching at this point?
JAMES: Yes. It is all digital.
KELLER: As opposed to the old mechanical or even analog switches that they use to have.
JAMES: Yes. You’re going to have a device where you take the phone off the hook and punch in numbers normally, but right at your home it is going to digitize that signal and put it into a packet and send it off.
At some point you are going to have to interface with the phone company most likely. You may own your own switch and interface or you may rent switch capabilities. The server in the headend may be able to look at those signals and say this is a long distance call, it’s not local. I have my own long distance service where I am tied in and I can bypass that local service so I just hand it over to the long distance provider who takes it wherever it is going at the other end. And at some point hands it over to another cable operator where the other person has a cable phone, so totally bypass the phone company. Or if the other person does not have cable, a cable phone, then you’re going to have to pass off to the local telephone provider.
KELLER: But it is entirely feasible at this point? Is it economically feasible? I know that is not within your department but I would like to have your opinion on it anyhow.
JAMES: If it is not economically feasible right now it will be before very long.
KELLER: That is the first time I have ever heard somebody advance the theory of the secondary line, which I find very interesting personally.
JAMES: I have a problem taking on the phone company on their subsidized residential service. How can you undercut their subsidized service? If I want to get into it I would go as a bypass service and go into businesses.
KELLER: As most of the alternative local phone companies is doing now.
JAMES: Sure, because that is where all the cream is. Don’t take them on their basic.
KELLER: Do you foresee in the near future, within your lifetime, any additional services that may be carried on the cable system?
JAMES: I am sure new services are going to come along. I don’t know any.
KELLER: You don’t envision any at this point other than those we’ve discussed?
JAMES: The ones we’ve discussed are ones that are almost here. What we do with the Internet and interfacing with computers is what I expect is going to expand. Other services are going to come along from that.
KELLER: Once we have the modem its data.
JAMES: What data do you want and what data do you want to send and what can you do with it.
KELLER: At lunch, you mentioned that you thought it may be very difficult to get someone to combine the computer and the television set. You had a theory on that.
JAMES: Well, I think televisions are entertainment for the family. It is something you sit across the room from and get entertained by. Computer tends to be a one on one interface. Normally you sit very close to it and your work with it. You call up things, you send messages, get information, work on it. The entertainment area with television normally its just sort of pouring information at you and you are not doing anything.
KELLER: In my case, I have one large television set and I have another smaller one, why could not that smaller one be used as the screen for the computer system?
JAMES: It’s possible.
KELLER: Most homes have more than one television set now anyhow.
JAMES: I look at the television being used as a television as an entertainment device, more or less one-way. It’s pouring stuff at you. When you decide you are going to use it as a computer the other people in the room probably don’t want to be there while your calling up information.
KELLER: Even with the advent of the CD Rom?
JAMES: Yes. So I think the television is there primarily entertaining you. As a sideline you may use it to bring up some computer source information. The computer you’re going to be sitting close to it and primarily working on it. But, yes, you could bring up a movie and sit back and relax and watch the news or something on the computer rather than going into the other room.
KELLER: But with a computer I can printout something that comes across and if I could do that from the television information . . .
JAMES: Well you could do that from the full feature network that Time Warner had in their equipment there was allowing you to printout stuff that came from the television.
KELLER: Were getting down to the final portions of this interview. I want to end if on three areas. Number one, is there anything of importance that you would like to bring out that we have omitted in the past hours that we have been discussing. I am sure there is a lot.
JAMES: I am sure there is a lot I just don’t know what.
KELLER: Secondly, I would like to talk about some of the people that you have been involved with and some that you feel were instrumental in bringing you along. Perhaps your tutors and mentors along the line. Third, I am going to ask you about the recent award you were given—the Vanguard Award—by the National Cable Television Association (NCTA). So start with a wrap up on the things we may hit on but didn’t.
JAMES: There has been so many changes. I think just summarizing what has occurred from my brief period we’ve gone from single advent, twelve channel systems to hundreds of channels. Initially, coming up with push-pull type amplifiers so you could use the midbands and finding ways of not having to go push-pull. And, expanding bandwidth from 300 to 330, 400 MHZ and beyond. Commonly passives these days are capable of one gigahertz. Most manufactures say their amplifier housings are good for a gigahertz and they have amplifiers that are good for 750 or more megahertz.
KELLER: These are major testing right now.
JAMES: Yes. That area of the industry has really moved. It went from long amplifier cascades—60+ amps—you had signals at the end, mainly noise probably but we were able to sell it. When AML came along we were able to reduce those. Then fiber optics with amplitude modulated fiber optics we were able to even further reduce those cascades. You can go to nodes that feed five hundred homes. That results in very little amplification being required—cuts down the distortion. So the quality of service in signals that we delivered has greatly increased.
KELLER: If over your years you’ve been in the industry, and I know this is almost impossible to ask, what do you feel was the signal biggest technical advance in the industry?
JAMES: I don’t know what would be the biggest. We had a number of big ones.
KELLER: The most beneficial.
JAMES: The most beneficial was probably going on satellites.
KELLER: We didn’t even touch that.
JAMES: We didn’t touch it. It was the difference between small channel systems . . .
KELLER: It wasn’t a major technical advancement was it though in the industry itself?
KELLER: Other than to be able to receive the signal.
JAMES: To be able to receive it. To be able to send a signal from one source and bounce it off satellite and have it received across the whole continent certainly that technology made it significantly cheaper to transport those signals around. If you had to do it by land and microwave we probably would have never gone anywhere. Bicycling tapes around the country did not provide the quality and reliability that was necessary. I think that really kick-started the franchising wars.
KELLER: It also kick-started the ability for states to at least serve major metropolitan areas without getting multiple numbers of signals off the air.
JAMES: That’s right. We now had a reason to build in a big city because you could give them something else. From that the industry has just blossomed. The other things that have come along have made improvements in the quality of the signal we deliver but we may not ever have got to the point of having to deliver that if we didn’t get these large numbers of programs delivered to the headend.
KELLER: I can remember when a ten-meter dish cost $100,000 to put it in the headend and now they almost go for virtually nothing.
JAMES: That’ right.
KELLER: I think you’re absolutely right. I was thinking in more in terms of perhaps the digitization of the electronics as being the number one advancement but I had forgotten about the satellite aspect of it.
JAMES: I think digitization is going to be perhaps the next major changes in the industry. A change from a small town industry serving certainly under 50% in ’85 when I joined NCTA, well over 60% now probably pushing 70, and it was the fact that we now had a lot of signals to deliver. Next step is were going to have even more signals, better quality, and the data area is going to take off—has taken off.
KELLER: So I think without question we can say that the advent of satellite signals and the immanent use of digitization are probably the two major factors in the cable television industry from the time you have gotten in until today.
JAMES: I think so.
KELLER: As were getting down to getting towards the end, give me your recollection of people who were truly your mentors and had great respect for.
JAMES: Certainly Sruki Switzer who I worked with right after graduation for a number of years and still see on a regular basis. A very bright person – a real gentleman.
KELLER: He’s an icon in the industry.
JAMES: I have a great deal of respect for him. More recently with Rogers and Nick Hamilton-Piercy, another engineer. He led the high definition committee in NCTA and CableLabs—a very bright person and I enjoy working with him.
We had NCTA with Wendell Bailey. He was a good, politically astute person who could look at technical areas and things coming up in there and determine the political ramifications. I think he has done a lot for the industry and the political-technical arena.
Alex Best at Cox who I got to know working on the multichannel sound system. A real gentleman and very bright engineer.
KELLER: Now tell us about the Vanguard. You were just recently awarded it, which is the highest engineering or technical award made by the NCTA. Was the award for 1997 or 1998?
JAMES: For 1997; 1998 is coming up.
KELLER: On what basis were you awarded the Vanguard Award?
JAMES: I think it was a combination of the work I had done at NCTA representing the industry and work on high definition television.
KELLER: It is a great tribute and obviously well deserved.
KELLER: Who were the other recipients of the award over the years? Do you remember any of them?
JAMES: There were quite a few. Walt Ciciora who is now a consultant and was with ATC Time Warner. Jim Farmer who got it just before I did. Veto Brugliara at Zenith had done a lot of work sort of straddling the consumer electronics-cable television side. He was at committee meetings trying to find the center voting for the two groups. Joe Vanlon, David Large. Of course, two other Canadians the only two I am aware of are Nick Hamilton-Piercy and Sruki Switzer. Nick, I think, received it sometime in the 1990’s, Sruki won before that. These are the ones that come to mind.
KELLER: This I think, from my standpoint, ends up the essence of the interviews that we have been going through for the past three to four hours. One other thing that keeps coming into my mind and I want to ask you about before we end—you said you had a degree in engineering, how does your degree compare to a bachelors/masters or Ph.D. in engineering here in the United States?
JAMES: It would be equivalent to a bachelor of engineering in the U.S.
KELLER: Just a bachelors?
KELLER: It seems your depth of engineering knowledge is far beyond anyone that I would know of who has a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
JAMES: I think just the people I’ve been working with and the work I have been doing supplemented the basic degrees.
KELLER: Ph.D.’s in the school of hard knocks, huh. At this point Brian I am going to end the interview on this our fourth tape (second tape, side B). It has been a pleasure speaking with you and it was extremely informative to me and I hope it will be informative for people years to come.
JAMES: I certainly enjoyed doing it, Jim.
KELLER: Thank you very much.
JAMES: Thank you.