Interview Date: December 11, 2017
Interview Location: Denver, CO USA
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Stewart Schley: Greetings and welcome to the Cable Center’s Oral History Series. I am Stewart Schley. Today from Denver I have the pleasure of interviewing and conversing with a gentleman who’s really one of the preeminent engineers of the modern era of cable in building cable systems everywhere for a long time. In a large part, John Kurpinski’s career tracks that of the development of cable itself since the 1970s. So, John, a pleasure to have you with us today and thanks for taking the time.
Your career spans so many places and so many moments that there’s a lot to talk about, but there’s nothing wrong with starting at the start. So how did you find you way into the business in the first place?
John Kurpinski: Actually it’s 1963 I started in cable. I had gone to Temple University for two years to take a course in electrical engineering right after I graduated high school, in the evenings. And I was working at a company, and one of my fellow students happened to work for Jerrold Electronics. And I was not working for an electronics company, but I was going to school for electronics. I wanted to get into a company that manufactured something where I could apply what I was learning in school. Consequently, I got a job at Jerrold Electronics in the microwave division as a mechanical assembler. I switched from Temple to Philco Technical Institute, which was an accredited school run by Philco, who was a manufacturer, basically, of consumer electronics.
Schley: I remember.
Kurpinski: They also were one of the first mainframe computer manufacturers. They were competing against IBM, UNIVAC and Raytheon. The first year of the two-year course, which was four nights a week, three hours a night for two years. Hopefully, you wind up with an associate’s degree with a combination with what I had done at Temple, which was computer maintenance. The first half was more electronics, but with an RF background, radio frequency. Then you had to make a decision as to whether you wanted to go on radio/television or into computers. So I thought hard about it, and I decided I would try the computer course. And I did graduate. I think it was 211 students started and 13 of us graduated. Computers were very new and the first computer I worked on was vacuum tubes. But I was still working for Jerrold at the time and I had progressed through different levels of technician and engineering, so I decided that my career would be cable instead of computers. Which today seems kind of strange, but it’s not, because if you look at cable television today, it’s actually a hybrid of different technologies. One of them happens to be Internet and computers. So, I did have a background in that, but even though I didn’t fully fulfill that, I took the RF path and just basically graduated to different levels of engineering within Jerrold and had the opportunity to go into sales engineering. New York State and Long Island were my sales territory.
Schley: John, where was cable at this point? This is mid-late 60s…?
Kurpinski: This is 60s, correct. 60s or early 70s.
Schley: The industry is 12-channel systems and such?
Kurpinski: Less than 12.
Schley: Less than 12.
Kurpinski: Don’t forget, it’s still debatable where cable started. It was either in Colorado or Pennsylvania, and because I’m from Philadelphia, I kind of say it started in Pennsylvania. But I believe the NCTA gave credit to a simultaneous start in 1948 between Bob Tarlton in Latrobe-Ligonier, Pennsylvania, and I believe it was Bill Daniels here in Colorado. But it was off-air, three channels, maybe four if you could get it. There were no Home Box Office, Showtimes, ESPNs, MTV. None of those networks were in existence yet. So, cable TV, if you remember the acronym “CATV”—Community Antenna Television. Cable was started mainly to deliver signals to rural areas. For instance, in Pennsylvania, probably as it was in Colorado, which I’m not that familiar of. Most of the TV stations were in Pittsburgh, three networks. And I don’t even think there was a PBS back then. But basically, three networks out of Pittsburgh. If you lived on the other side of the mountain from where the TV pictures, television, was being transmitted, you could not see anything. So, let’s take for instance, you own a TV and appliance store in some little town like Latrobe-Ligonier, Pennsylvania. You went to a convention and you saw this wonderful thing called television. Little type of screen. You said, “This is great. This can boost my appliance business.” So, you go and buy some TVs, along with your radios, and you put them in a store, and lo and behold, you turn them on, and the customers come in and they hear about this wonderful thing called television and they can’t see it.
Kurpinski: So, they got the bright idea that, gee, the antennas are on the mountain, so if we run a line down from the mountain, right to the TV store, and now we can see pictures. And lo and behold, that’s what happened.
Kurpinski: And now you could see it in a television store, an appliance store. Or you bought the TV and you took it home and you turned it on, and there was no picture. So now you had to figure a way of splitting the signal. And basically, that’s how cable television started.
Schley: Your employer’s role, Jerrold, was what?
Kurpinski: Instrumental—you can see on this meter the name Jerrold? Milton Jerrold Shapp. Milton Shapp was the two-term governor of Pennsylvania, founder of Jerrold Electronics. He was manufacturing amplifying and splitting devices for antennas that you put on top of your house. And one thing led to another, which lent itself very nicely—because what he was doing with the antennas could actually be put out to split signals, like I mentioned from the appliance store to the community.
Schley: It sounds sort of inbred today, but it was really an entrepreneurial, really a risky endeavor at the time, because it wasn’t a proven mass scale business yet, what he was doing.
Kurpinski: It was—you know, getting television pictures to homes sort of drove the business of developing more advanced electronics to deliver those pictures to further and further distances. So now you have the appliance store on Main Street, of course, you had the main cable running down Main Street, and you split it off, and everybody beyond Main Street, you needed amplification, you needed different types of cables. The cable industry, since I’ve been in it, in 1963 and since it started in 1948, to this day, the technology has driven the marketing. And then the marketing has driven the technology. So, it’s been one driving the other.
Schley: What happened then to you career-wise around this time? You started out in microwave assembly, I think you said, component assembly, and then where did you go from here?
Kurpinski: I started out in the microwave division, then I was co-plant manager of the factory parts and service department, and the Eastern Region sales manager, Walt McCleary, asked my immediate supervisor if he could ask me to be in sales, sales engineering. They had an opening in New York State. So, I left the factory, so to speak, and I went into the field as a sales engineer. Most Jerrold salespeople were sales engineers because the way you sold was to explain the technology to a customer and basically add a three-piece suit and a station wagon, and one of these [pointing to Jerrold 704 meter on table]
Schley: A customer being an individual who ran a, who owned a cable system?
Kurpinski: Owned a cable system, correct. Mainly the smaller individuals.
Schley: It was a road job, right…?
Kurpinski: When I moved to Upstate New York, there were, I think, 240 independent cable systems in the state of New York. And none of the big cities were franchised, except Utica. None of the Island was franchised. New York City was not franchised. That’s another story for the franchising wars of the 80s.
Schley: I did a double-take because now there’s been, of course, so much tremendous industry consolidation that you don’t hear those numbers anymore. But these were all independently owned businesses.
Kurpinski: Mainly, like I said, television and appliance stores.
Schley: I wanted to talk—you’ve been instrumental on the association side of the business. But before I get into that, tell me then what was the career progression for you post-Jerrold? What did you do after that gig?
Kurpinski: I left Jerrold in 1977 for various reasons. Mainly because my job position would have changed and that wasn’t a career path I wanted to take within the company. So, I had that opportunity with Cable Services. Mr. John Roskowski, who owned Cable Services. And they were basically an unofficial Jerrold distributor, so I would be selling and servicing what I was doing before I went with Cable Services. He also had a full-service construction company.
Schley: That’s what I thought.
Kurpinski: So, we did total turnkeys. So, all you needed was a franchise and money. You gave it to us and we would turn it over as a fully operational cable system, ready to hook up customers.
Schley: I wanted to kind of drill into that. So, if I had the good fortune to gain a cable franchise from a small municipality, but I don’t know a thing about the business, or I’m a novice, I sort of turn it over to you…
Kurpinski: Yes, you would. Because we would handle everything.
Schley: What were you building in the late 70s? Again, 12-channel systems?
Kurpinski: 12-channels because it had progressed from vacuum tubes to the first transistorized amplifiers. And basically, they were strip amplifiers, nothing modularized yet. Then the modularization came into being along with the bandwidth increase.
Schley: What sort of metrics can you provide to build a cable system? I mean, did you build a mile of plant a day? Or what were the sort of hurdle points?
Kurpinski: There’s a lot of different facets to go, to have to come together in order to build a cable system. The first—just because you got the franchise doesn’t mean you can go start the build. There was such a thing called pole attachments and—
Schley: Somebody else owns the pole.
Kurpinski: Mainly the power company owns the pole. And telephone companies own the pole. Now depending upon the size of the pole, cable TV was the lowest on the pole.
Schley: Physically the lowest?
Kurpinski: Physically the lowest because it was the lowest voltage.
Schley: You told me earlier the highest voltage got—
Kurpinski: The highest voltage was—
Schley: The top position…
Kurpinski: Right. But there had to be a certain amount of spacing in between each of the cables. Now if the pole was not large enough to accommodate it, what you would have to do is re-arrange the pole. Either raise the power or raise the telephone so you could put the cable. Now once you did that, if you violated the rule for ground clearance between the ground and the lowest cable, and you could not go up anywhere, you had to pay to change the pole out.
Schley: You’d literally put a new pole up.
Kurpinski: You would have to pay the power or telephone company to put a new pole up.
Schley: So, when you had to re-arrange those various tenants on the pole, was Cable Services or was the cable company allowed to touch the power company’s lines? Or did you have three different contractors coming in?
Kurpinski: Three different contractors.
Schley: Just the complexity of it is really kind of enormous.
Kurpinski: Well, most people don’t understand that. I digress slightly. Back then, one of the biggest issues facing the cable industry was pole attachment rights. Because the telephone company and the power company did not want you on their poles. And if they did let you on their poles, there were exorbitant, sometimes as much as $4, $5, $6, $7 per pole per year.
Schley: That’s a huge battle. Wow.
Kurpinski: Now, when you figure there’s an average of 50 poles per mile, it comes out to a lot of money.
Schley: No kidding.
Kurpinski: Plus, an average back then of $1500 to re-arrange a pole. So, the upfront cost, before you even had one customer, or you even built any cable, was pretty substantial. Along with whatever it cost you to obtain the franchise.
Schley: Sure. That’s why I asked—to get a sense of just the physical labor required to build. These are mostly aerial—probably all aerial systems.
Kurpinski: Underground is a different story.
Schley: Different story. OK. Was it around this time that you began to have a role in the formation of SCTE, then Society of Cable Television Engineers?
Kurpinski: Correct. My first involvement with SCTE was in 1974 when I was in Upstate New York. I was still with Jerrold. It was an informal meeting group. That’s when I first got involved, in 1974.
Schley: What was the impetus, or what did you guys have in mind?
Kurpinski: Well, it was training. As I mentioned to you on our call the other day, to this day—anyone can correct me if I’m wrong—but because cable is such a hybrid technology of voice, video and data right now—I don’t know if there is a college where you can walk out of high school, walk into a college and walk out with a four-year degree in cable television engineering. I don’t know that. I know a lot of universities have different courses, like University of Wisconsin is pretty big. I lectured at Syracuse University, Newhouse School of Broadcasting back in 1973, on the future of cable television.
Schley: This new thing: cable television.
Kurpinski: It was kind of strange for a 24-year old sales engineer to be at the bottom of a lecture hall with all these faces looking at you. It’s like, OK, I’m the expert.
Schley: Well, you were, sort of. I was going to ask: where did companies like Cable Services hire their technicians? Where did they find them?
Kurpinski: Train them yourself. Len Ecker, who was my first mentor and superior in the microwave division at Jerrold. Len Ecker was also a design engineer. He designed another piece of equipment called the 601 Sweep Generator. But he was plant manager of the microwave division. And Len was the one that basically put me into management. He did training courses. The Jerrold Technical Seminar was probably then one of the only and the premier course for training. It was a five-day course. And there were anywhere between 100 and 200 technicians learning cable television, all aspects.
Schley: This concern for broadening the training availability regimen was what sort of instigated SCTE to an extent?
Kurpinski: That was totally divorced from SCTE. This was done by Jerrold. That was a company initiative.
Schley: But what did you see that provoked the need for SCTE as a training organization? Early on?
Kurpinski: Like I mentioned, I was a sales engineer and I used to call on all the different customers all over New York State and then afterwards, were other companies in many, many states and the Caribbean. And I would go in and some of the questions that the technicians would ask me were things that if you’re a technician, no matter what level, you should know. So, I said, “Wait a minute. Where did you learn this?” “Well, I just learned it from him.” It’s like learning to drive from your buddy. You learn all his bad habits. You don’t go to a professional driver. Well, there was no place you could go to and learn cable television.
Schley: In an organized way…
Kurpinski: Len Ecker’s course was one of them. And then some of the other manufacturers, like Magnavox and Scientific Atlanta, they would also start their own, C-COR started their own. But for years and years and years the premier course was Len Ecker’s course. Customers that had other manufacturers of equipment would send their technicians to Len Ecker’s course.
It was supposed to be a generic course. But just by your announcement, Len Ecker from Jerrold. And, of course, you’re talking about your own equipment. Theory is theory, no matter whose equipment it is. I foresaw the need along with SCTE to start to develop courses. In fact, I was involved in writing the first certification courses for the seven categories of SCTE certification, which has evolved beyond what we started.
Schley: Scope and breadth are amazing today. Who was involved with you in setting up these original meetings or this idea to create a training organization?
Kurpinski: It wasn’t my idea for the organization. The SCTE started in 1969.
Schley: So, it existed.
Kurpinski: It existed. It’s just that there weren’t any official chapters. I had moved back from Upstate New York and was living in Pennsylvania again. And I said, “We need a chapter here.” And someone said, “Well, go start one.” So, I said, “OK.”
Schley: Because the organization has depended on its chapters, and they’ve flourished over time, this is like one of the first iterations of that.
Kurpinski: Myself, along with my wife, Mr. Jim Bailey, Mr. Tom Gimble, Mr. Bruce Furman. I got them together and I said, “Look. Someone tasked me with the obligation of starting a chapter. So, you help me.” They said, “Sure. How do we do it?” I said, “Well, I guess we are going to have to figure that out. The first thing we need is money. And we need to set up a meeting.” So, we solicited some of the cable operators in the area to give us some seed money, and we got a room at a big restaurant nearby. Then we—we didn’t have email back then so we kind of like sent letters and talked up, “We’re having a course at this particular location.” Fortunately, it was only two miles from where Jerrold was located. So I had some of the premier engineers from Jerrold as our speakers, talking about design, system design. And that was the first meeting. It was 1982. So, we developed a guide to chapter development. Before Mark Dzuban and Bill Riker, there was a lady who was the executive director of the Society by the name of Judy Baer. Judy said, “This is great. You guys started a chapter, had a few meetings, we want to expand this. So, could you write a guide to chapter development?” And I said, “Well, sure.” She said, “We’re having a reliability engineering conference next week in San Francisco. Could you have it ready by then?”
Schley: Ah, yes. And?
Kurpinski: So, I sort of procrastinated a little bit and I wrote it on the plane on the way to San Francisco. In fact, the original document—
Schley: You probably wrote it longhand, right?
Kurpinski: I did. But then I got to my location and rented an IBM Selectric typewriter. And that document I’m giving to the Cable Center today.
Schley: So that sort of spawned—
Kurpinski: That spawned the chapters.
Schley: The chapter system.
Kurpinski: Of course, you can see from what it was then to what it is today.
Schley: Our audience, I’m sure, is dying to know what this beast is here. [Tapping 704 meter to his right] So let’s talk about it. There’s a lot of history around this—well, first of all, can you explain what this is?
Kurpinski: This is a Jerrold 704 Field Strength Meter. Or a signal level meter, as some people might want to call it. There was a need to measure signal levels in a cable system. And in the 40s and the early 50s, middle 50s, there really wasn’t an instrument where you could plug in to a cable system like a tap and look at how much signal was coming into the TV set. So, this was designed by Ken Simons, one of the engineers at Jerrold to measure those signal levels. And it was powered by 120 volts, no batteries.
Schley: No battery within this.
Kurpinski: Usually it came with a strap, so the technician could put it over his shoulder.
Schley: This is a heavy, 20, 30 pounds, right?
Schley: 19 pounds.
Kurpinski: That’s one of the trivia questions we have at our meeting.
Schley: But you’re hauling this thing up the pole.
Kurpinski: The technician had to haul it up to the pole with a long extension cord into his truck which had an inverter. Which took DC and converted it into 120 volts AC to power this. And then he would plug that into the input of an amplifier and see what the signal level was, and adjust it to the proper input and then plug it into the output of the amplifier to see what the proper signal level was. Then he would close it up and—he didn’t have a bucket truck. He’d climb down on spikes and that was it. That was one of the first meters that was developed to measure cable signals.
Schley: This signal meter, the 704, has spawned an interesting, should I call it a professional organization or a semi-professional organization? Talk about “The Loyal Order of the 704.”
Kurpinski: Something near and dear to my heart. The Loyal Order of the 704 is sort of an engineer’s “Loyal Order of the Raccoon,” by Jackie Gleason and Ed Norton. Only we didn’t have the hat that we could wear. Rex Porter and Ted Hartson were someplace at one point in time, and through conversation decided that everyone was receiving awards and accolades in the industry, but the engineers. So, we decided—excuse me, not me, because I was not a charter member initially in 1994. I came in 1998. But they decided we should have some sort of an organization with no rules, or very few rules, that would honor engineering talent in the cable industry. So, the requirements were, back then, you had to be in the engineering portion of the cable operation, technician or engineer. Had to actually use the 704 or tell a good lie about one. Then you answered questions that were proposed by either Rex Porter or Ted Hartson. Then some questions from the audience. And of course, like I said, it was like a Dean Martin-type roast, and just a good time. The first and second meeting went basically like that, but then Rex and Ted decided they needed a mascot. That’s how Pinky the Pink Flamingo came into being.
Schley: Who I will point out is out in the hallway.
Kurpinski: The original Pinky is retired. He was 21 two years ago. Now we use Pinky Jr. at our meetings, so when you are finally inducted, you have to kiss Pinky.
Schley: Of course you do.
Kurpinski: Now it’s not mandatory you kiss him in any particular part of his body, so that has created a very amorous Pinky Jr. And we’ve also raised the bar to 30 years instead of 20.
Schley: So, the restrictions have tightened, basically.
Kurpinski: I think most people that have been 30 years probably have not used one of these. They might have used it as a doorstop, which is a sacrilege and blasphemy. It’s just a fun time. We had our last meeting here. We had, I think I counted almost 100 people attending. We have an auction of cable memorabilia.
Schley: Do you know why it was called the 704? What was the nomenclature system at Jerrold?
Kurpinski: That’s one of the questions that I ask.
Schley: Can you divulge?
Kurpinski: I don’t know.
Schley: You don’t know.
Kurpinski: No one knows. Now you can theorize it was introduced on July 4th. There’s 7-04.
Schley: I’m with you. OK.
Kurpinski: Or the final design was in July of what—195-? Nobody knows. Ken Simmons, unfortunately, has passed on, and no one ever asked him the question. Or no one ever asked anyone at Jerrold the question. So that’s—for folks out there that might see this, that might be something they can pursue.
Schley: Unanswerable question. Talking about SCTE and your role in writing the charter plan originally, you’ve continued to be very closely associated with SCTE. Can you talk about your role there over the years?
Kurpinski: After developing a chapter, which became the official first chapter of SCTE and consequently I believe now there are approximately 71 or 72 official chapters. My involvement was with the very first Expo—Cable-Tec Expo in Dallas, the next one in Nashville. So, I was involved in quite a bit of the initial expos, the Expo planning, which grew as the industry grew. I also served on the board of the SCTE board of directors as Director-at-Large and Eastern Region Vice-President. Subsequently I was Member of the Year  and Emeritus Member, and now, Hall of Fame, Circle of Eagles, Senior Member—I think I did the trifecta in SCTE.
Schley: I was mentioning at the outset that your career in building cable systems parallels or tracks with the cable industry’s, obviously its own development into a multi-product, multi-platform delivery vehicle. Where do you see the industry going? What’s exciting about the future for cable from the vantage point of someone who’s actually been up on the poles, helping build these distribution networks?
Kurpinski: Obviously it’s getting more and more away from RF because if you look at the electronic design of a cable system– Verizon FIOS touted Fiber-to-the-Home. And cable basically can deliver the same quality picture with what they call a node plus one, a node plus two, which means fiber to electronic device, and then it’s converted back to RF.
Schley: Coax takes it from here.
Kurpinski: Coax takes it from there into the home. As the cable industry segments further and further, they’re getting to the point where they are just about Fiber-to-the-Home now. They’re into live systems now, and passive coax, which means the only time they convert from the fiber is at the tap back into their home. They’re almost there, a lot of cable systems. And of course, the bandwidth wars I think are over. Because a lot of systems now are 1 Gig or 1.1 Gigs. Myself, I probably have 300 channels and watch 14. But Internet speeds have gone up, Voice Over IP, telephone. You have triple play services, voice, video, data. Now I believe Comcast Xfinity has just launched their own cellular service. So, cable is going to be a quad play service instead of triple play, but it’s going to be more and more heavily dependent on data. I just saw the advertisement right in the hotel last night. Comcast is advertising 1 Gig business service.
Schley: Saw it.
Kurpinski: It’s 1 Gig business service now, it’s going to be approaching 1 Gig residential service and will probably jump to 10 Gigs for business. It’s all data-driven, and I think the next portion of the upgrades and rebuilds in some of the traditional cable systems, some of the ones that still have RF amplifiers, will be to increase the bandwidth on a return path.
Schley: Because we do more two-way—
Kurpinski: As we do more and more two-way—
Schley: Data transmission.
Kurpinski: The future is definitely going to be data.
Schley: As someone who has been involved in helping train a generation of technicians, installers and builders, how does the conversion to a digital template affect the requirements of training? What do you have to know if you’re a young person today?
Kurpinski: Probably the people coming out of school right now have the advantage because if you’re IT, if you have anything to do with computers or IT, you plug right in. As far as maintaining the plant, those people can’t do it. I’ve spoken to a number of individuals and pointedly asked them how does the Internet and data get from where you send it to the customer? What’s the method? And the first thing they say is, “Wireless or fiber.” OK, well, how’s the fiber get delivered? They don’t learn that. But there’s a certain group that do know it and as long as we have them, we’re OK.
Schley: I sort of always hesitate to ask this because I don’t want to pin you down or invite you to exclude anyone, but can you name a couple of people who have been really instrumental or influential in your odyssey in cable?
Kurpinski: There’s too many to mention but my first mentor, as I mentioned before, was Len Ecker from Jerrold, John Roskowski from Cable Services. Walt McCleary, who was my regional manager that brought me into sales engineering, initially from Eastern region sales. They’re probably the big three. And there have been a number of other individuals along the line because if you looked at my profile, you saw I’ve been with a lot of companies. But the reason is because, remember back when I started, and everyone else started, Jerrold and the other manufacturers were the training ground for the industry, for the technology. And this is where you learn. Competitors were starting to come into being, and where were they going to get talent? From one of the established companies.
Schley: So, it’s almost like a feeding ground…for the industry.
Kurpinski: It was a feeding ground and that’s why a lot of my peers and some of my associates every four or five years, they would be with a different company because you gain knowledge with every company you went with. Plus, you also gain a large Rolodex.
Schley: What has been fun? When you look back on your career in cable—it’s a broad one—but beyond the paycheck, what sort of—?
Kurpinski: The people. Your customers were your friends. A lot of my customers in the smaller systems, they were just so grateful to see you because you were their knowledge base. You would travel from system to system and this system would be doing something and you would go to another operator. “What’s so-and-so doing?” “Ah, he just bought this latest state-of-the-art amplifier. You might want to buy some of them.” So, you were basically training your own customers. And you became their friends. And back then there were all-state associations. State associations had their own little meetings. With little displays. And there were hundreds and hundreds of cable operators who would go to these little association meetings. I was very well involved in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, New York State. They were the main ones I was involved with, but I would go to some customers and, “Where are you staying tonight? No, you’re not, you’re staying here.” I’d stay in their house, I’d have breakfast with their families and see them off to school. I mean, that’s the relationships. And they were extremely loyal. The customer base of Jerrold—I’ve never been with a company that had a loyal customer base like that.
Schley: I think, John, where would some of these small guys have been without Jerrold, right? Like you said, it was not just a provider of equipment, but a provider of knowledge.
Kurpinski: Oh, it was.
Kurpinski: There were other companies. Scientific Atlanta, Magnavox, VIKOA. There were a number of them. And there was a number of them that tried to get into the industry and failed.
Schley: Your story is so interesting about the camaraderie because sometimes those of us who have been in and around the industry for a long time take this for granted, I think. But the unique economic nature of cable where you didn’t have competitors necessarily in every market, made for a degree of collegiality that I think a lot of industries don’t have.
Kurpinski: That’s one thing. Franchise. Your franchising, that’s your particular area. That’s your usual domain. And your next-door neighbor, he could be in another little hamlet and now that’s his domain. So, you didn’t cross that line and he didn’t cross that line. But you’re buddies and you could talk. And eventually one wound up buying out the other and consolidation started and here we are today.
Schley: How would your life/career been different if you had pursued the computer arena? Do you ever think about that?
Kurpinski: I do think about it sometimes. But I—
Schley: It’s all conjecture.
Kurpinski: Actually, the cable industry progressed at a faster rate in a certain period of time than the computer industry.
Schley: Fair point. Particularly through the 60s, 70s…
Kurpinski: The computer industry really took off with obviously Microsoft and the PC and Steven Jobs. I worked on mainframe computers that were much larger than this room we’re in right now.
Kurpinski: Then the first solid-state devices I worked on, the Philco computers. But the IBM 36 was the big mainframe computer of IBM.
Schley: What, John, haven’t we talked about that’s meaningful or resonant in terms of you, sort of maybe the impact you have had, or what you have sort of taken from your time in cable?
Kurpinski: In all my years with SCTE and chapter development and training, that’s hopefully what I’ll be remembered for. Also, at one point in my career, I got designated the Southeast and the Caribbean as my sales engineering territory.
Schley: I’m sorry.
Kurpinski: It was tough. [laughter] My wife would have said the same thing. She had to meet me at some of these islands because I was working hard.
Schley: What was that about? What were you doing?
Kurpinski: We were building cable systems. Puerto Rico and some of the other islands. Cable Bahamas, Aruba.
Schley: And you would decamp and stay there for a period of time?
Kurpinski: For a while. A little segue: the last twenty years of my career before I retired, I would up working for Silicon Valley startups. In optics.
Schley: I saw the list.
Kurpinski: I knew a little bit about optics, but not what I learned while working the past twenty years for a long-haul transport. Metro Ethernet. I mean, just a lot of different things. I worked for a company, Alloptic, and you know what FFTH is, right?
Kurpinski: We did FFTS. “Fiber-to-the-Slip.” We built fiber cable in the marina of the Atlantis Hotel and Casino. The reason they wanted to put fiber in is because it’s impervious to corrosion. So, we wired up every slip back into the yacht master’s headquarters with EPON.
Schley: It’s a pretty rocking network for these guys.
Kurpinski: Right underneath the piers we ran the conduit and then it had a pedestal, which was pressurized by nitrogen. So, when you pulled in with your yacht, there were three different sources of power you plugged in. You plugged in water, sewer, and you plugged in your triple play service. And when you left with your yacht, you got an itemized bill. But ironically, over the past probably fifteen or twenty years, the Caribbean—everyone thinks of the Caribbean as third-world countries—they were actually further ahead in fiber deployment than we were in the United States.
Schley: And in the network architectures and—
Kurpinski: One of the reasons, actually two reasons; the main reason was theft of service, piracy. And digital. They wanted to adapt digital because of theft of service. It was not as easy to steal digital service as it was to steal analog service.
Schley: With analog, you could physically tap into the communicator network…
Kurpinski: Tap into the coax and run a line from your neighbor. But digital converters and fiber were, I think, more advanced in the Caribbean than in some systems in the United States.
Schley: Were you rebuilding systems down there?
Kurpinski: Yes. They were rebuilding from traditional coax. I know Aruba is almost all fiber-to-the-home. I mean, some of the services they have here are just unbelievable. Cable Bahamas is huge into that. Puerto Rico unfortunately was getting there, but we all know what happened with the hurricane.
Schley: Well, if nothing else, we’ve learned a new acronym: FTTS (Fiber-to-the-Slip). But it’s just kind of one inflection point in what’s been from my outside perspective, a pretty grand career.
Kurpinski: It has—and Cathy Wilson, the publisher, I met Cathy probably in the late 70s. She won’t admit it. But when I was with the SCTE board of directors, we were interviewing for the official magazine of SCTE. And at the time, there was another magazine coming along called Communications Technology, CT, Paul Levine. And Cathy was working for CED at the time. So, we interviewed Paul and then we interviewed Cathy and we had to decide which was going to be the official publication, and unfortunately, she lost out.
Schley: It all worked out in the end.
Kurpinski: It all worked out in the end. Because over the past 20, 21 years, she has been, Broadband Library, the official magazine of SCTE.
Schley: We get to talk to Ms. Wilson later and hopefully you will tune into that interview as well.
Kurpinski: I certainly will. I want to see what she has to say.
Schley: But this has been great, John. Thank you for spending time with us and making the trip.
Kurpinski: Thank you.
Schley: John Kurpinski. And for the Cable Center’s Oral History Series. I’m Stewart Schley.
END OF INTERVIEW