Interview Date: Thursday October 06, 2005
Interview Location: Denver, CO USA
Interviewer: Kristin Van Ormer
Program: Share Your History
Note: Audio Only
JOKERST: Hi, I’m Tom Jokerst, chief technology officer of Broadbus Technologies. Broadbus Technologies is based in Boxboro, Massachusetts, although I am currently housed in St. Louis, Missouri, which is my home, and actually commute frequently, rather frequently, courtesy of American Airlines, to Boston and to the Broadbus office. There I’m chief technology officer and responsible for their architecture and product direction and building the world’s largest, most scalable video server. So the application is directed at video-on-demand opportunities leading to television-on-demand through the use of the architecture that Broadbus has developed. It’s an extremely scalable, solid-state, memory-based video server, and so it’s purpose built specifically for that application with carrier class qualities.
So prior to Broadbus, maybe I can just go back and talk about the cable industry, how I got into the industry, it’s a long time ago, 1971. I had finished a program at Southern Illinois University in electronics technology, and prior to that I’d completed a program at Rankin Technical Institute in St. Louis in communications, electronics, and computer technology, and still hadn’t found exactly what I was looking for so I went back to school for more education, and interestingly enough, I was talking with the university placement service about career opportunities, and they actually had two, one of which was this thing called cable TV, and I really didn’t know much about it or really what it was; and another opportunity with a company called General Telephone Electronics, GTE. The one opportunity with GTE was microwave transmission engineering, and this other thing, cable, they were looking for a video engineer to help them in their local channel, what they called local origination, which I had no idea of what the was at the time, and strangely enough, to be honest, and this really is the truth, I flipped a coin. I flipped a coin and it was heads cable, tails telco, and so it came up heads – because they were both good opportunities. I didn’t really know which direction I should take and it seemed like the only appropriate thing to do. So I joined a company called, locally it was called Carbondale Cablevision. This was Carbondale, Illinois, and the cable system was actually just being built at that time. It was under construction and it was being built there in Carbondale, as well as a nearby town, Marion, Illinois, and these were RCA turnkey jobs. So RCA Corporation was responsible for all of the outside plant construction and engineering, and they were kind of the main contractor. I was brought in to help develop the local channel, the local origination. So I was essentially the video engineer for that operation, and we were kind of ahead of CNN in our time. We were actually out with half-inch, black and white at the time, but half-inch portable video cameras doing local news and community events, and we would get those. High school events, things like that. We even created our own rock-and-roll revival show, Carbondale being a college town, it was very popular at one of the bars to have a rock-and-roll revival, and the owner of the bar and the head of this particular show pulled up on the stage on a motorcycle and gave his MTV like opening. And in fact, one of the people that was involved in this later went on to found the MTV networks.
VAN ORMER: Who was that? Do you remember his name?
JOKERST: Yeah, it was Nile Henson, a good friend, and Nile did a lot with Gus Hauser, interestingly enough, and with Warner Qube in Columbus, and later MTV Networks. So this was Nile’s brainchild. So we had a lot of fun. We did things that hadn’t been done before in the local community there, and I continued doing the video engineering, but at the same time because I was probably the only one in the operation that had a formalized background in electronics technology I was getting tapped to help with system related problems, trouble-shooting, fixing problems that the other folks couldn’t fix. So I found myself being pulled from the video engineering over into what I would call the core cable side of things, so the headends, the outside plant. The next thing I knew I was appointed the chief tech for that system, and then shortly after that the chief tech for the other system, and this was an area that I would call I was learning from the end of a fire hose. There was a lot going on, a lot of technical challenges with building this particular system and some of the peculiarities it had, particularly direct interference, without the benefit of a classic set top converter. So I learned a lot about how to mitigate interference and TV receivers, TV design. So I had a lot of good practical experience; I learned a lot of things because I had to, and there wasn’t anyone else there on staff that I actually had to draw from a resource standpoint, so I was kind of the person that was providing technical direction. That was a great experience, and it was great learning. It was required, it wasn’t optional.
VAN ORMER: Was all the equipment you needed to fix some of those problems readily available?
JOKERST: You know, strangely enough, particularly back on the video side, something that we needed in those days that wasn’t available was something called a time-based corrector. Because we were using a half-inch video, the time-based stability of the video was not equivalent to broadcast standards at those times. So that’s something that we actually created a work-around to, and we actually scan converted the video, so we essentially shot a picture of it with a high resolution camera with a high resolution screen and kind of circumvented that issue. So we worked around it. Today, even 20 years later, the problems… that was a kind of a, oh, yeah, we knew about that, we developed this, we fixed that, and moved on, but at the time we had to come up with a creative way to do it, and the electronics, I would guess you’d say the actual microprocessor and miniaturization hadn’t developed to a point where that was a practical solution at that time. But my constant being pulled from kind of the video engineering role to outside plant and headend issues increased, and I found myself going from that location to other system locations that this small MSO owned. This MSO was a New York based company called Cable Information Services. They had systems in Illinois, but also in Oakridge, Tennessee; Fort Rucker, Alabama; Winchester, Kentucky; Hobbs, New Mexico; Logan, West Virginia. So I found about this time regulation hit the industry, particularly from the standpoint of technical regulation. So I found myself going around, running FCC proof of performance tests, helping systems pass those tests, doing headend realignments – pretty much a field engineer type role. Again, a great opportunity to learn things, see how different cable systems have been built, and what not to do, in many cases, going forward. So I learned a tremendous amount about how to build systems by seeing how they were built and how you wouldn’t do it again if you had a chance to do this over. So I was with that company for five years, and kind of the last few years I was in a location in Winchester, Kentucky, which were, from a personal standpoint, two of the happiest years in my cable life just because it was a great location, beautiful part of the country, very, very nice people, and you could do a lot and your efforts showed. So that was two of my favorite years in the industry. Shortly after that I finished up there and actually had the opportunity to come back to Carbondale and learned a valuable lesson there, and that is you don’t go back because I actually did come back to the role that I had left, saw how things had changed, lots of things you had set in place weren’t maintained, and core values that you helped establish were diffused and diverted and changed. So I kind of… not long after I was there an opportunity came along to join Continental Cablevision. This would have been about 1976, and starting out in Quincy, Illinois I was director of engineering for a gentleman named Jim Wand, who was a great guy, and we had a number of systems that were existing locations, lots of microwave interconnectivity, CARS-band microwave, some of the very early deployments in the cable industry with CARS microwave technology. So part of my responsibilities was the engineering and management of those networks as well as kind of the chief technology guru and troubleshooter. So we had a group of systems from central to northern Illinois that I took care of, and we did that successfully, built a couple of new systems for them in Pekin and Morton, Illinois, and started about that time – this was 1979 – and satellite technology had hit the industry in a major way. We had had several good years of introducing a pay-per-view service, pay channel, actually, called CineView. It was Continental’s own program, and they had made their own arrangements for rights and movies, and it was a tape-based system. I kind of had the reputation in the company at that time for actually having the deployments that had the best picture quality, and it was because, again, my background was video engineering, I knew some tricks and techniques to apply to ¾ inch video cassettes at the time. So we were able to share that… Continental at the time didn’t have much of a corporate staff at all, it was a very decentralized organization. In fact, it was decentralized before decentralization became cool. So that was a lot of fun, and again, learned a lot. Great, great people, a very strong culture, which was work hard, work smart, play hard, and kind of the core elements were taking care of the customer, taking care of the employees, taking care of the business, so those things were instilled in a strong way from the top down. So it was centrally managed from a financial standpoint, but beyond that it was very decentralized. So about 1979 we started understanding that franchising in the major metropolitan areas was happening, and Quincy, Illinois is about two hours from St. Louis, and so we started making trips to St. Louis, Missouri, looking around and seeing what opportunities were there for franchising. Late in ’79, I actually relocated to St. Louis along with Mr. Wand and his marquis staff from the regional office in Quincy, and we franchised a significant portion of the St. Louis market. There was something like over 92 different communities that were either separately or in conjunction with other consortiums going to award cable franchises, so it was a feeding frenzy, and we were in there doing everything that we could do. One of our chief competitors was Warner Qube and the Qube system, and they got a sizable portion of St. Louis along with Sammons at the time, Storer, United Video, and then later, much later, TCI got the city of St. Louis. So from ’79 through I’d say ’85, thereabouts, we were busy franchising and then building those metropolitan markets. Probably did that really through the decades of the ’80s to the ’90s, and around 1990… and during this time I had been active in the SCTE and active in NCTA and CableLabs. I tended to be the kind of de facto representative for Continental on the NCTA engineering committee and CableLabs technical committees, and through some of my work at CableLabs, I was invited to participate in and executive on loan program that they were facilitating where key personnel from an MSO would spend two years at CableLabs on loan and then go back to their company. And so the timing was good; we had largely finished the St. Louis market, there wasn’t anything else to franchise. Not that I was looking for things to do, but the timing was good, and so my boss was approached by Dick Green from CableLabs to see if I would be willing to be loaned out from Continental to CableLabs for two years. So I maintained my residence in St. Louis, but I basically packed my bags and moved to Boulder for two years, from 1991 through ’93, two of the other great years in my cable life, particularly from a learning opportunity, also great people. I fell in love with Colorado, which that’s good and bad because it’s good when I’m back here, but it’s bad when I’m thinking about how humid it is in St. Louis and it’s not in Colorado. So at CableLabs I was vice-president of the Office of Science and Technology, and in that role I actually was kind of the cable guy for CableLabs, someone who could bring practical, relevant information to the labs and say these are the kinds of things we need to be working on, these are important, these aren’t quite so important, and do that kind of on behalf of Continental and on behalf of the industry. And I think I was… I really don’t recall now whether it was before or after that time, I actually think it was after that time that I served as chairman for the NCTA engineering committee, but those actual roles actually complemented one another, and one of the things that when I was at CableLabs that I got involved in that I really enjoyed, and I think it was important for the industry, was evaluation of various digital video compression algorithms and transmission technologies to really see where the industry can take and apply digital video compression technology for advanced services and to increase its service offerings to its customers. So a significant part of my job was involved in doing just that, so that was a lot of fun. I interfaced a lot with the consumer electronics industry out of Japan, made a number of trips to Japan, and also had an opportunity to visit China on behalf of the Labs and lecture to cable engineers in China, so that was quite fun. The other experience that I had at CableLabs, and one thing I’m happy about and proud of, is that I helped bring to commercial deployment an impulse noise reduction system that was used by headend operators, cable operators, in lots and lots of places to do what you would think is not possible, which is eliminate interference out of a picture without actually eliminating the interference. So we could actually take little sparklies and dots, remove it from the video, and substitute it with video that was right next to where it was without, largely, people being able to tell the difference. So you could take a customer who was very unhappy about a picture because the operator was receiving it over the air with electrical interference, which was caused by a power line somewhere, which they had no control over, and you could actually insert this box, remove it, and deliver a clear picture. So that was something I did kind of as a skunk work project at the Labs, and we surveyed a number of different technologies and actually found a little garage shop in Pennsylvania that did something that was just unbelievable. I spent time at the Sarnoff Research Institute looking at impulse noise reduction technologies using neural networks, which was an approach that they’d pioneered. This guy came in with his weekend’s worth of work and completely blew away their simulation. So we knew which horse to ride, kind of pointed him in the right direction, and the product became a commercial success and solved some problems for the industry. So lots of things like that at CableLabs, so those were two great years. At the end of ’93, I moved back to St. Louis, and the opportunity to join Charter Communications presented itself. So in the early part of, actually late ’93, early ’94 I joined Charter Communications. I was the 12th employee. We had no customers at that time, but had a dream and a vision, and the dream was to build the company up to a couple hundred thousand subscribers.
VAN ORMER: And you accomplished that!
JOKERST: We accomplished that, on to a million, on to a couple of million, and somewhere along the line, a gentleman named Paul Allen decided he wanted to acquire Charter, and he’d previously acquired the Marcus Communications properties, so we mixed Charter and the Marcus companies together through Paul’s acquisition, and up until that time I had been Director of Engineering, or Senior VP of Engineering and Operations at Charter, and this afforded me to take on a new role, which was Senior VP of Advanced Technology. So looking again at advanced applications, new services, so things like delivering internet via the television platform, not to mention high-speed data, video-on-demand, all those kinds of things, advance set top boxes, looking at hard drives in set tops, all of the things the industry’s pretty much doing now we were pressing on back in the ’97-’98 timeframe. So that was a lot of fun. During that time, Charter became public, and that was an interesting experience, and it changed the dynamics of the company. You started managing more quarter by quarter and year by year, as opposed to really looking out. It just simply is different as a public company. So I had a lot of great years at Charter. We did a lot of good things, and I had an opportunity to transition from Charter, and I did that. So I actually became a senior technical advisor to them for a period of a year, or it was actually between a year and two years. During that time I met a gentleman named Jeff Binder, who had this idea about a video server, and I had actually led the team that evaluated the various video-on-demand deployment options that we had a Charter, and so I was very tuned up on what requirements are and what was missing from the video server architecture, and when I met Jeff, and this was actually at CableLabs Silicon Valley Summit that CableLabs and Tony Warner had actually sponsored, Jeff gave his vision for this video server platform, and it was spot on in terms of what the industry needed, what the other architectures were lacking, and I got excited. Over the years I’d had lots of ideas for products and lots of companies approach me for things, but I got very engaged with Jeff and the people, Bob Scheffler, at Broadbus, and at that point I didn’t realize that these guys were start-ups and hadn’t got funding and basically had a great idea and some intellectually property but really weren’t ready to deliver a product yet. I needed to buy a product. So I kept holding off making a second vendor decision thinking that this Broadbus thing was just around the corner, and that didn’t happen and didn’t happen, and so we finally had to make a decision at Charter to go with a second vendor, which that happened and it took care of itself in time. But this guy named Jeff Binder kept calling me and saying, “Why don’t you come help us bring this thing to reality?” It was actually the first one of many of those kinds of calls that I had that I actually seriously considered. The plan was to locate the company in Colorado, which appealed to me because it was a great chance to get back and spend time in Colorado, and it was an area that I believed in, and a technology and an architecture that I knew made a lot of sense, so that was appealing. Jeff was a fun guy, and a fellow guitar player, so we had something in common there. So he ultimately talked me into it. My requirement was that I still wanted to maintain my primary residence in St. Louis, but I really didn’t care how much I traveled, so that was kind of ideal, and so I joined the company, helped them actually get funded. So we got funding through two world class venture capital firms, Battery Ventures and Charles River Ventures, both Boston based, and they had the foresight and wisdom to say, “We think you guys should locate in Boston instead of Colorado,” and while we weren’t thrilled with that, it ultimately became clear as to why that was a good idea, and we did, and we’ve been successful to date, and things are going well. We’re delivering a product that’s working as promised and that our customers to date are thrilled with. That all is very positive, and that’s kind of the story. Certainly not as dramatic as I’m sure a lot of the folks that you’ve talked to, but that’s kind of a synopsis of how I got to where I am, and it’s been fun and I continue to have fun. So it is a business that gets in your blood and that you want to stick around. Certainly the social and people aspect of it, it’s got great characters and great people that are fun to be associated with, a lot of good organizations.
VAN ORMER: What do you think cable’s primary strength is that’s going to carry it forward through this time of transition and change?
JOKERST: Well, I think one of the key ones is that we’ve been successful in bringing the market to this point, and with customers and we’ve actually created the programming that built this industry, and we did it on our own capital with our own resources, and fairly or unfairly is a separate debate, but we were forced to give up that property which we developed to other competitors. So that makes life a little difficult from the standpoint of creating competition. We’ve certainly done that, and we’ve enabled competition by letting our competitors have the programming that we actually funded and worked hard to develop and bring to market. We’re not going to go back and change that. Going forward I think we need to keep doing the same kinds of things. We need to keep developing services that consumers want to buy. We’ve clearly done that with high-speed data. Clearly it’s being done today with voice-over-IP. Having the real time two-way capability on the video platform is a huge advantage. That’s one that we’re just now really starting to tap with services like video-on-demand, but really leading the industry to television on-demand, to where people can… and the vision I’m going to give you right now is a little down the road, but basically if there’s a program episode of a program that you would like to see, you go in, you find it on the navigator, and you click on it, and either instantly or within a few seconds you’re watching it. I think that’s a service that satellite cannot easily offer for quite some time, if ever. It’s clearly something we’ve got the technology to do now. We’ve really got all the piece parts we need; it’s a matter of putting those piece parts together and getting willing program providers to work with us to do that.
VAN ORMER: Great. Well, Tom, we need to wrap up, but thank you so much for coming in and sharing your experience.
JOKERST: Kristin, it was my pleasure. Thanks so much for the invitation.