Interview Date: August 17, 2015
Interview Location: Denver, CO USA
Interviewer: Leslie Ellis
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Ellis: I’m Leslie Ellis. It is August the 17th in the year 2015. I’m here at The Cable Center in Denver, Colorado to conduct the oral history of the venerable Louis Williamson. Hello, Louis.
Williamson: Hi, Leslie. How are you?
Ellis: I’m well. How are you?
Williamson: Doing great.
Ellis: Let’s — this is all about you, so let’s start at the beginning, which for you is in Norfolk, Virginia. You were that kid growing up who took things apart, like radios — I think there was a washing machine.
Williamson: There were several things in my childhood.
Ellis: Tell us about that part, like did your family know from the beginning, that kid’s going to end up building stuff?
Williamson: I don’t know if they would have said that at the time. They probably thought I was more of a destroyer —
Ellis: Because there were parts left over?
Williamson: — than a rebuilder. I never put most of those things back together but yes, I was a really creative kid. I — loved to take things apart just to see what was in them and —
Ellis: Wasn’t there a washing machine?
Williamson: Yes, there was a washing machine that my neighbors had that kind of sat out in the back for a while. I thought it was abandoned so I grabbed a handy screwdriver and pliers and you start taking it apart to see what was in it. It was a nice timer in there I thought would be useful for something later on in my life. But yes, I loved taking things apart. I love science. I grew up on a river, and I had a microscope, so I would go out and collect samples, play around with stuff like that. Yes, I was that kind of a kid. It was fun times.
Ellis: So that’s where — you told me earlier that it was either engineer or oceanographer, so that’s where the oceanographer leanings came from.
Williamson: Yes. I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau, Jr. That was my first career choice. Just growing up around the water and I was just really interested in it up until about the time I got in high school and I was talking to my guidance counselor about what I should do with my life, as you have those conversations. And I told her I wanted to be an oceanographer and she looked in the book and came back, “Well, you need to learn French and study marine biology.” I was thinking, I don’t like any of that stuff. I told her, “Well, I like to take stuff apart, too. Electronics.” She was like, “Oh, you can be an electrical engineer.” I was like, OK, that was close.
Ellis: And were you a math and science person always? Strong in that?
Williamson: Oh yes. I was pretty great in math and science. I was an honor student through high school, and mostly based on math and sciences. My English part of it was, you know, I got by. And I really wasn’t into history at that point, but I loved math and science and those types of things.
Ellis: So then — where did you go to school? Where did you go to college?
Williamson: I went to Virginia Tech.
Ellis: That’s right.
Williamson: So after high school, I went to Virginia Tech and really studied at that point.
Ellis: Electrical engineering?
Williamson: Electrical engineering. That was my chosen major and I really loved it at that point. I specialized in communications. That was my major.
Ellis: Communications engineering?
Williamson: Communications engineering, that’s correct, yes. You know, radios, just how to do you move information around from here to there. Those were the things that I really found interesting as I was building my curricular through college.
Ellis: And then what year did you get out of college?
Williamson: I graduated in 1980, and moved here.
Ellis: All right, so for most of —
Ellis: Most of us people in cable — in fact, I have yet to meet one person in cable who says that they woke up one day and said, “I know. I want to be in the cable industry.” So, connect the dots from getting out of Virginia Tech and you came out here from Martin Marietta?
Ellis: And then something — connect those dots.
Williamson: Well out of school I was recruited out here by Martin Marietta Aerospace, so I worked in aerospace for about three years.
Ellis: You worked on like war stuff, right?
Williamson: I did electronic warfare.
Ellis: What does that mean? Are you not allowed to talk about it?
Williamson: Some of it I’m not allowed to talk about, but it was a long time ago. Electronic warfare and the things I did were like electronic countermeasures, when you’re trying to jam other people with electronic — a countermeasure is when you’re trying to jam the people who are jamming you. So I did stuff like that. In warfare, people are trying to communicate and I worked on things to try to keep communication going for us and to make it not work for other people.
Ellis: Was that fun?
Williamson: It was fun. I enjoyed my time in aerospace. And I kind of fell into cable — a little bit by accident. During that time in the defense industry, or maybe it was just Martin Marietta, when you weren’t working on a project charging to some real project, you pretty much got terminated because you were overhead. And I was running out of projects. I was young and needed a paycheck, so it made me start thinking about what’s the next thing, because again, I was young at that point. You never think you’re going to be at one place more than a few years. So I was feeling that edge. A guy I knew at Martin Marietta that actually came over to American Television and Communications —
Williamson: ATC, yes. He told me about an opportunity there and I applied and was hired.
Ellis: What was it? What was the opportunity?
Williamson: I became a member of the technical staff. That was my first opportunity. At the time, the cable industry — or at least ATC — was trying to build an off-premise converter. The industry had started putting converters in the homes and they were losing them, so they had this brilliant idea of putting converters out on the pole and just a little small, cheap control box in the house, and that was going to be the solution to it. So I was recruited to work on that project. And probably more specifically what got me interested in it was I was building the control modem that talked to that device that controlled it. It was a 256k QPSK modem.
Ellis: Which was at the time super-fast.
Williamson: It was super-fast.
Williamson: As I really started learning about the opportunity, I was like cable? Cable was pretty young at that point, especially in the cities. I had never had cable, so didn’t know a lot about it.
Ellis: This is like eighty-something?
Williamson: It was ’83.
Ellis: So what was the bandwidth?
Williamson: They were just beginning to build around 450 MHz cable systems. And when you go look at it, and I’m a ommunication guy. It’s like, these guys have 450 MHz passing every home and they’re going to put this 256k modem to these houses, and at that point people were —
Ellis: 56k, not 256?
Ellis: Oh, 256.
Williamson: Yes, 256 kilobit control modem. 256k to the home and 56k return. —
Ellis: So you saw that as huge.
Williamson: Yes, it was a big — I thought it was going to be really great to do that. I later found out that it was shared among like ten to twenty thousand homes pass, so it wasn’t quite as big as I originally thought. But it did start — I really was intrigued about the possibilities of cable, even back then. You know, thinking about that kind of capacity and what was possible, and at the time we were pretty much just doing television; we weren’t doing any of the other things. And the cities were getting built. I mean, I lived in Denver at the time and Denver was just starting to get built, so cable was still very fresh to me. So I decided I’d try it out.
Ellis: And you still are.
Williamson: And 32 years later I just finished trying it out.
Ellis: Right. So that kind of leads into the next — really you have so many big parts of your career, but the really big one was when fiber came in. So at that time, everything was all coax, tree and branch, lots and lots of amplifiers.
Williamson: That’s correct.
Ellis: What prompted the idea of — I want to start the fiber discussion, what was the state of the state of fiber at the time? It was just a telco thing for long-haul, right?
Williamson: Pretty much fiber at the time was. It wasn’t new, but it was really like you said. It was used for long-haul communications.
Ellis: Small stuff.
Williamson: Almost exclusively digital modulation on it. And as we started looking at expanding our plants, because if you can take a little step back, at the time we were building 450 MHz systems. And at the time everybody wanted to go to 550 MHz or beyond. But the cable system area also expanded. So it was not uncommon for you to have a cascade of 40 amplifiers.
Ellis: Which makes the picture at the end kind of —
Williamson: Just makes it really bad. After 40 amplifiers, the noise gets worse, distortions get worse.
Ellis: The signal gets boosted as does the noise.
Williamson: Right, but there are also lots of other problems with it, too. If you were the last person at the end of the cascade, any one of those amplifiers are failure points, your signal was always out. And as we tried to expand capacity, it was just tougher and tougher to get good signals and maintain them. So, everybody started thinking about how do you break these systems apart. It was just unaffordable. You couldn’t afford to build lots of hubs. There was microwave — amplitude modulated microwave links, things like that, that people tried to break these cascades apart as we built these systems out, but all of those again, they were unreliable. Microwave —
Williamson: When you get a rain storm, you lose signals. So we started looking for other ways. We knew telcos were using fiber. We were trying to figure out how could we use it, but we couldn’t afford to do digital modulation and then have to convert all of it back to analog at each one of these locations. So a couple of guys, Don Gall and Dave Pangrac, who were at Kansas City, started inquiring about fiber. Dave Pangrac had recently moved to corporate and was looking for ways to try to start building our next plants. And the question of the fiber optics came up and whether could we use it and I was the —
Ellis: The lab rat?
Williamson: Well, more importantly, I was the guy who had studied communications at Virginia Tech. I had taken a couple of classes on fiber optics, so as people started talking about it I knew enough buzz words to sound like an expert (laughter), so they gave me the task of going out and looking at what would it take, is it possible to put our signals over fiber, and how could we use it. So that’s what led up to all of the experimentation on fiber and lasers.
Ellis: So you started talking to the laser guys, right? At Ortel? Was it Ortel?
Williamson: That’s right. I’ve talked to a lot of people. Some of the current guys at Catel and Synchronous were building fiber equipment. They were building FM links that we used from hub to hub, but those were pretty expensive and couldn’t affordably do the job. But those guys knew a little bit about lasers. And AT&T, we started talking to the folks at Bell Labs and Ortel, who became one of our big laser vendors, about the possibility, and at first people were pretty skeptical of the idea.
Ellis: Very skeptical. I remember this.
Williamson: They also —
Williamson: They were curious because, lasers are pretty linear. It’s just, could you take all of those channels we were carrying and put them on a laser.
Ellis: Which was how many at the time? Like 40?
Williamson: At 450 MHz it was like 60 channels, but we were trying to get up to about 80 channels at the time. So it was like, is this possible? Can you get a good enough laser to do it? And if you just go grab generic lasers off the shelf and go do it, yes, most of them don’t work very well. You would get pictures but they were worse than the ones we were carrying, so that didn’t work.
Ellis: Did you have — I just want to like paint a picture of your bench. You’ve told me before and it’s one of my many favorite Louis stories. How did you do it? You just kept turning it up and turning it up!
Williamson: I did kind of turn up the power. (laughter)
Ellis: But tell — what was the lay of it? What did it look like?
Williamson: The lay of the land was, we were still trying to figure it out. So I had the luxury of being the guy to try different things to go figure it out. Because when you first start playing with lasers, you say OK, this is really not that good even if you crank the power up. I also started figuring things out like, part of the problem is reflections, which is a microwave phenomenal too. So, if I fused the fiber link with a fusion splicer. After fusing the whole link together, it actually got quieter. So I started experimenting with fusion splicers to keep the reflections down, which led to, hey, if we get optical isolators, that helps too. And as we would get different lasers from different people, we did find some that worked better than others. As I would turn the power up on them, it made me also start playing with the thermoelectric cooler to cool them down. And I found as you turn the temperature of the laser — at those time the Fabry-Perots — they actually change frequencies, or wavelengths.
Ellis: When they got hot?
Ellis: When they got hot they changed wavelengths?
Williamson: As you changed temperature on them they actually changed their wavelengths. But as you did that, I would find these sweet spots and some of the lasers, it made them work better. But long story short, all of this led to where I could do 60 channels over a 10 km link, and as we started bringing the laser vendors in and the people who really built lasers, they became intrigued because they started seeing it is possible, how could they take what I was doing and go back to their laboratories and build better lasers and customize them for things that we wanted to do.
Ellis: Was there a moment in time you went, oh, this is it; 60 channels or whatever it was, 13-10, or was it like that?
Williamson: It was 13-10, yes. Thirteen-ten nanometers wavelength lasers. But yes, there was — I found a few lasers where I was able to go demonstrate 60 channels over 10 km links. About six miles or more.
Ellis: Did you actually blow up lasers?
Williamson: I have a few dead ones in my collection.
Ellis: Do they make a sound? Do they make a smell when you blow them up?
Williamson: They don’t blow up like that. They’re not like capacitors. They —
Ellis: They just stop working.
Williamson: — just pretty much stop working if you —
Ellis: How many did you blow up before you found the right — before you found —
Williamson: I didn’t blow up many, by the way. I went through lots of them that weren’t that good, but most of them, I didn’t blow up. They don’t work very well and you just move on. But through that experimentation and proving that we could do it, we got the industry — the optical industry interested in it. Then you’ve got the smart people like Ortel who just built real high, linear lasers. Folks like that started looking at it and what would it take, and they really started delivering on the products. But even then, people at that point would say they had to hand pick them. They would just test them to see which ones worked. It wasn’t like every laser worked at the time. It was a few years before those things really stabilized and the industry was taking off.
Ellis: I think that’s the time frame right around when I met you. There was the team of people at Time Warner Cable — it was ATC then.
Williamson: It was ATC.
Ellis: That were working on video over fiber. And Jim Chiddix — I don’t want to say this in an unkind way, but did people think, oh that was Jim Chiddix, but it was actually Louis that did a lot of the work. So during that period, you two both hit the road and you did all this public speaking about your work, and they found out later it was because you kind of had to do that for patent purposes, right?
Williamson: Yes, we were doing it for a couple of reasons. The primary reason was we were trying to evangelize it, to get more and more people interested in it.
Ellis: So more people would buy it so the cost would come down.
Williamson: That’s right. And as other manufacturers heard about it it got them interested. So that was the primary reason. But also at that time we didn’t do patents. We didn’t have the patent office, no we just didn’t have a patent attorney. There was a patent office. (laughs)
Ellis: I was going to say.
Williamson: But we published, it’s what we were trying to do, because if you put it out in public domain and you still establish that it’s out there.
Ellis: A record of it.
Williamson: So that was our philosophy back at the time; instead of patenting we did a lot of publishing. But the primary reason was to evangelize it and get more and more people interested in it because at that time, by then we actually believed, and we were trying to get more people interested to drive the cost down because initially they were still expensive. We just didn’t start off and start doing HFC, the first way we used it was what we call fiber backbone.
Ellis: Right. We still call it that.
Williamson: Yes. People still call it that. Fiber backbone was the first commercial application we actually put in. I was actually down in Orlando testing one of my lasers that worked pretty well between two hubs that were AM microwaved at the time. But they also had fiber through it for some commercial reasons so it was a good place to go test. So I took the link down and —
Ellis: How long was the link?
Williamson: Actually I don’t remember how long it was.
Ellis: It didn’t matter?
Williamson: Probably 10 miles or so would be my guess, but I don’t remember the exact length. But I took it down and I did tests over a series of days, and at the end I was getting ready to pack it up and bring it home and the guy I was working with, a technician down there named Cary Fouts, he wouldn’t let me take it out because his boss, John Walsh, who was the VP of engineering, told him it was working so much better than the microwave, they were like, you can’t take this out.
Ellis: Leave your gear.
Williamson: You have to leave it here. I was like, well, it’s not my gear. I borrowed it from a vendor. So that was the first commercial deployment.
Ellis: Did you leave it?
Williamson: I had no choice. They wouldn’t let me in the hub to get it out. (laughter) And it stayed there for years. Eventually they changed it because, like I said, it was a lab rig; it wasn’t really packaged or anything else. As a matter of fact, the detector — a diode receiver, was actually powered by a nine-volt battery just for low noise. That’s was just how it worked.
Ellis: Simpler times.
Williamson: It was kind of a set-up. It wasn’t meant to be left there, but it worked so much better than the microwave, and more importantly, when the rainstorms come every afternoon in Florida, it didn’t fade. So it stayed there and finally they put a good receiver on it and stuff, but that link was the first commercial deployment. And that’s how we use it; we use it for getting rid of AML links, microwave links, and pretty quickly all those links went down because fiber was so much better. You could find enough lasers to do that. Then the long cascades with fiber backbones started falling in place, and as we started looking more and more at how we were going to grow bandwidth. And we were buying more products, so the price started coming down, and then the concept of fiber deeper, went through all these permutations —
Ellis: Somewhere in there you moved from Fabry-Perot to DFB.
Williamson: Yeah, to DFB lasers. Distributed Feedback lasers were a little bit more expensive, but they were a lot more stable and worked better.
Ellis: And my favorite term; the erbium-doped fiber amplifier.
Williamson: Fiber amplifiers came out, erbium-doped, all those things — 1550 nanometer lasers started coming out. So in the industry, there was a lot of buzz about that.
Ellis: There was. It was a huge chapter.
Williamson: And at the time, we were buying more fiber cable than anybody in the world. I mean, that’s how big we were growing because we were in that big phase of upgrades. Everybody was going from these 330 MHz, 450 MHz plants, to 550 or 750, ultimately by the time the big push came. Everybody was building those types of plants. And you really needed fiber optics and we were buying a lot of cable, we were buying a lot of lasers, and it just kept driving the cost down where you could put them into shorter and shorter cascades, and it evolved over from these fiber backbone kind of applications into what everybody now calls hybrid fiber coax; HFC.
Ellis: Right. So you were — well, in today’s common language when you’re talking about HFC, there’s the concept of the 500 home node. And you were the one who told me, do you know why it’s a 500 home node? Can you tell that story? With common house spacing, if you look in the middle of a circle it’s — you can say it better than I’m trying to.
Williamson: Ours became around this mythical 500 home pass, for a variety of reasons. (laughs) But primarily what we were trying to do is, we were trying to find the sweet spot of where you should be to —
Ellis: Far enough but not too far.
Williamson: Yeah. You didn’t want to do fiber to deep. Actually, you wanted to do fiber to the home, but you couldn’t afford to. So we ended up around three or four ampfliers in a cascade, and if you go try to do three or four amplifiers cascade in the kind of densities of urban markets we had, you end up with about a 500 homes pass area, but it really depends on density. Some of them were 300, some of them are 1,000 homes passed. There’s no really magic, it was how do you build a three or four-amp cascade where we thought it was a good place for the optical contribution of the link combined with the amplifier contribution. And more importantly, or sometimes we forget about it, is we were starting to do two-way stuff. With longer cascades, all that noise would funnel back and make upstream communication difficult. When you build these shorter cascades, you actually got two-way performance that was much better. So all these things kind of came together, but it wasn’t a one day, here is the tablet from the mountain about all of the rules about HFC. It was an evolution that got us there and to where we really started building most of our plants.
Ellis: And you ultimately won — not you alone, but you and your team — won — was that the first Emmy?
Williamson: The first Emmy was HFC.
Ellis: Was that your first Emmy, Louis?
Ellis: It was a technology Emmy. What year was that? I forget.
Williamson: Ninety-four — ’93 or ’94.
Ellis: So what was that like?
Williamson: It was a great.
Ellis: Did you have to buy a tux or did you already have one?
Williamson: I had to buy a tux. (laughter)
Ellis: Was it exciting? I mean, we’re going to get to the section about all your awards.
Williamson: It was really exciting, but actually I had to buy a tux because at that time I was in Orlando working on a Full Service Network and I couldn’t rent one for the length of time. I didn’t want to rent one for a week, so I ended up buying one. (laughs) But it was a great accomplishment to be recognized by not only the cable industry, because I had the recognition at that point in the cable industry, but to be recognized by the rest of the television industry, which is what the Emmy was, what they are. It was just tremendous that they thought of us that way.
Ellis: Do you still have it? Did you keep that one?
Williamson: I didn’t get to keep that one, no. They’re all in our New York corporate office. I was only able to get a copy of one. At the time, for some reason, they wouldn’t let you get a copy of an Emmy.
Ellis: We’re going to get to all of your Emmys, but let’s go back to — so the next chapter for you was the Full Service Network, and you were — you developed the RFP for that, right?
Williamson: I did.
Ellis: What was the point of that? I want to know about how many RFPs you’ve done in your lifetime, and how you write an RFP for stuff that doesn’t yet exist, and use the FSN as an example, please.
Williamson: Well, these things just don’t happen as quickly as they seem.
Ellis: They do in hindsight, yeah.
Williamson: Yeah, because there were steps. The next step after we built and upgraded all our plants was to find ways to use the capacity we got. –So, my next job was actually convertors. I worked on advanced analog convertors, the first guide convertors where we put program guides in them.
Ellis: Where Mike Hayashi actually would say, that’s when our lives started going to hell because software became a big part of it.
Williamson: Software became a bigger part of it there. So we built these greater capacity cable systems. Now we had to go get new convertors because we had to be able to use the extra capacity.
Ellis: Fill it up.
Williamson: And we had to pay for all of these upgrades we did. So we started deploying enhanced analog convertors. The other thing happening at that point in time was impulse pay-per-view, because two-way was working better. So we did impulse pay-per-view and we started making money that way. And we spent some time in Queens, we built a 1 GHz plant, and we called it Quantum, another one of our code names.
Ellis: I think I still have my little statue of it.
Williamson: Quantum was a 1 Ghz plant and what we did in Queens was near pay-per-view where we just ran the same movie —
Ellis: Every 15 minutes.
Williamson: — with 10 or 15 minute start times, and we started figuring out people bought more of that stuff. If you made it more convenient, people bought more of it. And the convenience of it made them buy more because they could just buy it using impulse pay-per-view. So those things led us to start thinking, what if people could just get the movie whenever they wanted to? Could we do Video On Demand, which was a concept that we started thinking about. And that’s what started leading us to the thoughts around the Full Service Network, was, hey, if we could really do Video On Demand, maybe we could do some interactive applications and all these other things, how would that work? But at the time, we were still analog, so we had to move to this new technology that was coming around, MPEG and digital video.
Williamson: And compression, because even with all of the bandwidth we had, you couldn’t give everybody their own movies that way. So Full Service Network was an request for proposal (RFP) that went out and said, we would like to move to digital video. We want to do Video On Demand. We want to do interactive applications. So I wrote a pretty small RFP at the time and —
Ellis: What does that mean, it was only 50 pages?
Williamson: Oh no, it was much shorter than that.
Ellis: Ten pages?
Williamson: Because I wrote it. (laughs)
Ellis: But you wanted to leave it open ended.
Williamson: And as I said earlier, in school I wasn’t good at English. (laughter) It was short. It might have been 20, 25 pages. It was pretty short. But it was written to draw attention to us and get people who were smarter and knew how these things could work, to come and start helping us work on that.
Ellis: And all of a sudden Silicon Valley showed up?
Williamson: And all of a sudden Silicon Valley showed up.
Ellis: Probably for the first time.
Williamson: Because, they had the servers. They knew how to —
Ellis: Was it Silicon Graphics? Was that what —
Williamson: We worked with Silicon Graphics, Scientific Atlanta, but we talked to Microsoft and Sun, everybody at the time. It was overwhelming how many people showed up to the event, because we held a little event —
Ellis: I remember.
Williamson: — where we invited the companies to come in and we got up and talked about the plant and how it would work and our concepts of the Full Service Network.
Ellis: That was my first press conference where the mainstream media showed up. Where like CNN was there. Remember that? The cameras when you unveiled it? So that whole effort really led to what we now call today VOD ultimately.
Williamson: It led to VOD, that’s right. And it was right at the time before we had done digital because we didn’t have MPEG to —
Williamson: — to transport it. We had compression and it was MPEG, but it was actually MPEG stills. That’s how we did the first movie that we did on the VOD. And we only did it for VOD. The video, the linear video, was still through our set-top. It was an enhanced analog set-top on top of this other big box that did all of the software for Video On Demand and the interactive applications and all the things we wanted to try. It was really this test bed to see what it took to deliver those services, and to get the industry and the rest of the world interested in investing and building products for cable.
Ellis: And then after that, was that when Pegasus — that was your digital set-top effort?
Williamson: That was the next phase after Full Service Network. So after we did the Full Service Network, we took all the things we learned and we wrote another RFP; Pegasus.
Ellis: Right. And what I remember about that one was you came out —
Williamson: That was much thicker. (laughs)
Ellis: That one was much thicker and you came out later to market frankly, than TCI or some of the others.
Williamson: We did, yes.
Ellis: I don’t care about why you were late, but what were you looking for that was different than what was available?
Williamson: Well …I have my own version of why we were different. First we were better, but that’s OK. We had learned a lot between Quantum and Full Service Network. And, the things that we thought were more important than what was existing at the time which was the Motorola DigiCipher product, was, we were very big believers in two-way and trying to get the Video On Demand and interactivity and these other things, and what the digital products at the time were more for — in my opinion — they were more about bandwidth expansion, getting more channels only. They didn’t really have all of the —
Williamson: — capabilities of the two-way network and the memory in them that we wanted so we could download applications. All those things. Those were the things that we thought were more important. So that’s why we did our own version of Pegasus in our RFP. It really emphasized that we wanted a platform that we could start building off of for the future, not just another set-top to give us more channels.
Ellis: Gotcha. And so that was digital, the baseline?
Ellis: And then from there, you worked on so many different things that were like milestones along the path of digital, and you worked on — you have a unique perspective because you worked on them from the architecture perspective, what you needed in the back office, what you needed for care, what the actual products were. You just worked soup to nuts, to use that expression. So let’s go through some of them. Mystro TV and Network DVR. Which was — was that before or after the San Diego broadband TV trial?
Williamson: That was —
Ellis: Around the same time? See, it all happened so fast.
Williamson: It was actually after San Diego, yes.
Ellis: Let’s talk San Diego first.
Williamson: San Diego was —
Ellis: That was — now the IP side had happened and cable modems had happened and you were trying to say —
Williamson: That’s correct. Those things had started to occur, because when we were doing Full Service Network, it was right about the time the technology staff at — and it was Time Warner Cable at the time because we had already been through the Warner merger. We kind of split up and there was a couple of people who went off and started doing what became DOCSIS. Because before we were all part of one team. Myself and others went off and did what became pretty much our digital video side of the house. But after Full Service Network and our digital set-top box, we started looking at how could we deliver our products to another device, the PC, because we had the cable modem there, and it was a screen. If we could get our products there, it was one less box that we had to put in the house. So we, worked with a couple of companies, mostly it was Real Video.
Ellis: Real Networks?
Williamson: Real Networks, yeah. We got some encryption and some IP video and put it over some cable modems and pretty much delivered it to PCs.
Ellis: Was it employee homes or subscriber homes?
Williamson: It was both but it was a small area.
Ellis: What did you find out? Yes. I never really — I don’t remember if I ever knew what happened, but you did not proceed with that. What happened?
Williamson: Well, what usually happens in some of these things; programmers weren’t too happy with us. (laughs)
Ellis: Oh, there’s that. It always comes back to copyright.
Williamson: We had a lot of discussions with programmers. But we also learned other things. We learned about digital rights management and how to put the traffic over IP. The other thing we figured out is, because we just did the broadcast channels in San Diego. We didn’t do any of our other activity or any of our other pay programs on it. And at the time, we were still with DOCSIS I and II modems, so there was really a single channel modem in the house. So we knew we couldn’t scale it up to be every subscriber at that point. We just didn’t have enough bandwidth.
Ellis: IP bandwidth.
Williamson: IP bandwidth. We needed to get to DOCSIS 3.0 and all these other things, get more and more channels of capacity. So after we ran it for a while and got the learning and tried to understand the traffic and what would happen, it was pretty obvious we couldn’t take it much further. Let’s go solve some of these other problems and then we’ll revisit it later. All these things don’t make it right from architecture to on the shelf.
Ellis: But that’s why you test.
Williamson: Sometimes you have to put it back on the shelf and wait a while for things to get better.
Ellis: So then — some of the other things — you did a lot with switched digital video.
Ellis: And at the time the options were you could build to gigahertz, you could do switched digital video, or you could reclaim your analog spectrum and use it for digital purposes.
Williamson: That’s correct.
Ellis: And you went hard on SDV? Not you personally —
Williamson: That’s the story.
Ellis: Would you do that again today?
Williamson: Yeah, I would still do it again today.
Ellis: Would you?
Williamson: To be clear, what I said at the time to my company — and this is still true today — was, here are the options and we’d debated them ad nauseam.
Ellis: I know, because one cost a bunch gets you a lot, SDV costs you not so much, gets you less —
Williamson: That’s right.
Ellis: It’s timing and cost.
Williamson: We’re pretty conservative. We didn’t want to go punch everybody in the face with DTAs on all of their devices —
Ellis: Digital to analog.
Williamson: Digital to analog adapters. Even though I thought that was actually the better option myself, I just didn’t think our company would do it first.
Ellis: It’s heavy on the operations.
Williamson: It’s heavy on the operations —
Ellis: Heavy on the air.
Williamson: — switched digital is too. But the other thing that I finally was able to convince the company is that you need all of these technologies. It’s just a matter of timing. It’s just the order you deploy them. At the time, even when we did the HD TV math, we would have run out of capacity eventually even with getting rid of all of the analog with the digital terminal adapters. At some point —
Ellis: I remember going to conferences and people saying, we might need to carry 25 channels of HD.
Williamson: We knew better than that. Most of us who looked out further said everything would be HD, and there would be Video On Demand HD and all these things. So you do the math, the digital terminals didn’t get you there; you needed switched. And again, if you’ve looked back to our mythical 500 home paths node, you analyze that and anybody who has a little bit of statistical background recognizes that not all of those channels are being watched. Just deliver the ones you want in those neighborhoods and that works. So yeah, we ended up doing switched first. We eventually did digital terminal adapters. And the other thing I always remind people is, I’ve always felt we were going to do another upgrade. The thing with upgrades is you want to push it off as long as you can before you make that investment.
Williamson: The last one was an upgrade, most of that cable has been out there a long time. We need to revisit it at some point, and at some point we may need more upstream capacity. All of these things are going to happen at some point the upgrade will come. I think everybody wants it to come when we can do fiber to the home and not another HFC type of a step.
Ellis: So without going into the history of Time-Warner Cable and your codenames for projects, what I want to talk about is Longfellow. And that was, if I recall correctly, a plan to get the big minds in the company together to figure out what’s next; how do we build the video platform of the future.
Ellis: That was also the first and last time you ever hired me to help you with something. Just pointing that out. (laughter)
Williamson: Note to self.
Ellis: Whatever happened to that? I mean, did that become where you went?
Williamson: Oh yeah. Longfellow became —
Ellis: And why did you call it the Longfellow? Was it a poetic thing?
Williamson: No, it wasn’t a poetic thing. Let’s go back to that point in time because it was —
Ellis: So 2000?
Williamson: No, that was probably two thousand —
Ellis: Six or seven?
Williamson: At least that, when we first started thinking about it. Maybe even a little later. But the whole Longfellow story is, we always think about what’s next.
Ellis: That’s your job.
Williamson: I’m in the architecture group. If I’m not doing that then I don’t have a job. So I’m always thinking about what’s next. But what Longfellow was trying to answer was, what is the long-term technical road map? What do we really need to do? And we were trying to figure that out and get it started and budgeted and sold to the board and all these other things you have to go do. And there were lots of concepts that we wanted to go work on, but the big concept at the time was what we called four-any; any device, anywhere, anytime, anyplace. Which was just building on the themes we had been doing. We had tried to get our content anytime with Video On Demand and the Mystro project had come up. We wanted the anyplace part of it. We wanted the any device part of it there because there was a proliferation of all these new devices; tablets were coming out, the PC was way out there, mobile phones now had this capability. We knew we had to find ways to get our products on those types of devices. So the long-term plan was, what do we need to go do to make that happen. That was right about the time, when I was assigned it, I was actually made the first Fellow, Senior Fellow was my title.
Ellis: I meant to ask you about that. So a lot of people who are not in the engineering community don’t know what that means. So what does it mean to be — it’s a prestigious thing. What does it mean?
Williamson: Well what the fellows are in our organization —
Ellis: Oh, it’s all coming together now. OK, go. Fellow, Longfellow.
Williamson: Yes. Well to finish the last part of the, how did Longfellow become a part, it became the long-term plan, I was a Fellow, and one of our program management guys one day wrote down this long-term stuff for the Fellow.
Ellis: I get it.
Williamson: And it got shortened to Longfellow. And that name stuck. Everybody liked it because it was a little poetic, but it was really —
Ellis: It’s literally poetic.
Ellis: But what does it mean to be a Fellow? An engineering Fellow, for people who are not in the engineering community?
Williamson: Fellows — at least my definition of a Fellow — because I also had to define what it meant for Time-Warner Cable to have Fellows — are individuals who can step outside of the day to day, get stuff done, run big projectsand really go think about future stuff and do it across the organization. Because at the time, we were still siloed; we had our digital video guys, we had our ad guys, we had our IP guys, they were all separate working on their own things. What we were trying to do under the Longfellow umbrella, getting our content on all of these devices, meant all these groups had to come together. So, Fellows have the luxury of working across all of the company. And not just engineering; it’s marketing, it’s operations, care. Everybody had to be involved because, to make a big transition you just can’t deliver technology —
Ellis: You need everybody.
Williamson: — you have to have the support in all the other areas. So, Fellows do that. So I came up with three pillars for Time-Warner Cable Fellows; to lead us the future, to advise us, and be a mentor. So those are the kind of pillars I use to define Fellows. And in the role, you do. You go out and you try to lead everybody to where you’re trying to get everybody to, you give the right advice to company or the best advice you have to the organization. And the other one was to really mentor the community.
Ellis: Engineering and non-engineering.
Williamson: Engineering and non-engineering. And not just Time-Warner Cable; vendors, everybody, on where we should be going because that Longfellow evolution really was about taking us from our own devices. Today I can only deliver my content to my own box, and we treated customers, well it is a household, it wasn’t a customer. And we were trying to break all of these things. So it was a pretty ambitious plan that Longfellow laid down of all the things we needed to change to be this any device, anywhere, anytime, anyplace concept. And we had to go, I had to go sell it along with others to the whole company, the industry, the board.
Ellis: So yes, let’s talk about that for a second, because you have worked for my — I have like 25 years of verbatim notes of things you’ve said, and everybody else, but for the longest time you’ve been like the smooth hand. You’ve worked with some really big personalities like the Mikes; Hayashi and LaJoie. And you’re always kind of the smoothing influence, the steady hand, the voice — the quiet voice of truth. So how do you — can relate an incident in your Fellow life or in your life as a Fellow where something happened and you had to calm the big personalities, let’s say?
Williamson: Not since I was a Fellow. Everything was calm then. I did have other places where I did have to maybe become the voice of reason.
Ellis: People listen to you.
Williamson: Yeah. Probably one of the — I don’t know if it was a defining moment, but it was one that I know Mike Hayashi always remembers or reminds me of, was — and it was actually back in the early days of Pegasus, and we were in the boardroom, trying to sell this whole digital video project to — at the time, Jimmy Doolittle was our president. And, it was still an ambitious project at that time. We put all this bet on two-way capability and what we wanted to do, and to some degree Jimmy just wanted it to be –
Ellis: Do more channels.
Williamson: Yeah, do more channels. Those other business models really weren’t proven out. But probably about the fourth or fifth time we’re in the boardroom going through the whole project and I had these executives architecting the system by — they were just trying to reduce the costs of the headend because at the time prior to that, you build an analog headend, you build it once and it goes everywhere. All this two-way stuff just grew with subscribers. VOD cost grows with subscribers. They didn’t understand that cost and they just kept trying to take it out. And finally I just blew up one day in the boardroom and told the —
Ellis: You blew up? You got mad?
Williamson: I pretty much got mad and told them that —
Ellis: What does that look like? You don’t have to tell me.
Williamson: It’s not a pretty picture.
Williamson: I always regret it after I do it, but it was one of those turning points.
Ellis: You were exasperated.
Williamson: I was. I had these executives who didn’t know — who weren’t technologists trying to take all of the two-way stuff out, I just lost my cool.
Ellis: Louis lost his cool.
Williamson: I pretty much told them, you have to do this. All of the stuff you’re working on it’s not working that well. You need to do this.
Ellis: Was there like silence afterwards?
Williamson: Yes, it was pretty much silence after that.
Ellis: Nobody said, you’re fired. You can pack your knives and go?
Williamson: And Mr. Doolittle calmly got up from his chair at the head of the table and walked around to me — because I had all of my extra —
Ellis: Walked around behind you?
Williamson: — because you know you had your PowerPoint which summarizes everything.
Ellis: Yeah, but that’s a power move when they walk around behind.
Williamson: So he looked at all my notes and said, “I need to get a copy of all of your stuff.” (laughs) Sure boss.
Ellis: OK. But then you ended up doing it?
Williamson: That was a turning point. After that I think everybody realized that you have to make these kinds of investments, and we needed to and we weren’t just doing it for no good reason. I try not to do technology for technology’s sake, even though I’m a technologist. I think when I show up — and most of us show up — with these ideas and concepts that are unproven, but we have a lot of belief that they’re going to go somewhere and drive us to the places that we need to be. So you have to — sometimes you have to be strong and sometimes you have to like, shout at the president and say, “You can’t do that –”
Ellis: It’s time.
Williamson: “– and all this stuff’s not working. We’ve got to go.”
Ellis: That’s good. I want to talk a little bit about your life and awards, and then a little bit about you and where you think things are going. So, you’ve won Emmys, you won the Vanguard Award for Science and Technology. My personal favorite was when you one the CED Magazine Polaris Award. Do you remember this? In like 2009 or something?
Ellis: You win the award but you didn’t know you were going to win the award, and you like jumped out of your chair, like woo! You went running up and jumping up and down.
Williamson: I did know I was going to win.
Ellis: You did know you were going to win?
Williamson: Yes. You know you’re going to win before you get up there. I actually had a speech prepared.
Ellis: It was very great. Nobody ever does that. They walk up to the podium and go, “I’m very excited to receive this award –”
Williamson: Just to add to the story, it was —
Ellis: That was for fiber.
Williamson: It was for fiber. It was also the first year the Broncos won the Super Bowl. So when I cheered, I went up and part of my intro was, that I just won the Polaris award and the Broncos are the Super Bowl champs! So it was part of the whole excitement I was trying to build.
Ellis: All right. Well what — can you name a favorite? Are the Emmys just — is that the —
Williamson: By far my favorite is the HFC Emmy. That’s the one that is most meaningful for me. I mean, the Polaris award, again, I really liked the Polaris award there, too. I mean, it’s hard not to be humble when you get recognized for the things I did on HFC, because those are — I think that’s one of my big career things, is the work I did on optical stuff. And all the Emmys. They’re all in New York except for the Full Service Network one, where —
Ellis: You got a copy.
Williamson: — we were actually able to get a copy of it. So I have that one at home. And definitely proud of it, not just because I have a copy. I think the Full Service Network was another one of those foundational things that —
Williamson: — really started changing the industry, and again, our work with Silicon Valley companies and all these other companies that traditionally we hadn’t worked with. So any time you’re recognized is humbling, and the Vanguard, what can you say? It’s the industry’s highest award. To be put in that camp is —
Ellis: It’s a big deal.
Williamson: I was surprised at first, and again, it’s humbling.
Ellis: I know. Louis, you have influenced a lot of people in your life. Myself included. Who influenced you?
Williamson: Well it’s a long list of people. (laughs)
Ellis: I know. Don’t forget anyone. No pressure.
Williamson: Oh, I can’t name everybody. I’ll just name a couple of people that I think were a big influence of my life. Probably the first one was Dave Pangrac who, during the HFC days when I was working on fiber optics, he was probably the first one who believed enough in me who kind of forced me out into the public limelight, because before then I was never visible externally. I was a lab guy; I was always doing stuff internally.
Ellis: Blowing things up.
Williamson: But I didn’t do any public speaking or any of these other things, and he just pretty much pushed me out there and said, you have to go do this and go evangelize it and sell it. So he forced me into that mode and it’s just hard to be an architect or the visionary that people call me without being able to get out into the public. So he’s one that I would always say was a big influence. I always give credit to Chiddix and LaJoie, too. Having that kind of support system and people who believe in you, who also know how to go sell it in their own styles back to the rest of the world, has been important because some of these things sound crazy at first. (laughter)
Ellis: Give me money to do this crazy thing.
Williamson: Yeah, to do this crazy thing that —
Ellis: Might work.
Williamson: That may or may not work. So having those two guys over a career has been — it couldn’t have happened. And finally, Mike Hayashi who is probably the biggest mentor of my career. I don’t know — I’ve worked for him for the longest time, but he’s always been there. And again, he pushes you and —
Ellis: He pushes you. You have to ask him a question six different ways — I have to.
Williamson: Yeah, and I think people give Mike a lot of credit for being this technology idealist guy who comes up with all these ideas, but I don’t think a lot of people — I know you do — who have seen the time he spends helping people grow.
Ellis: Oh definitely.
Williamson: So, yeah, he’s been a great mentor, I’m his biggest fan, besides you. You’re my press agent.
Ellis: I kind of am.
Williamson: (laughs) But yeah, Hayashi definitely has been the guy, especially as I moved up in management. He’s always been that person that was always there beside me.
Ellis: Yeah, because he doesn’t give you the answer; he makes you find it yourself, and he kind of pushes you in some directions that — right? I mean, that’s what he does for me.
Williamson: He does those things. And you know, I’ve known him long enough, he doesn’t always know the answer there. He just has this thought that’s simmering in his mind –
Ellis: He’s not going to give it to you.
Williamson: — and he’s looking for all of us to go out and help solidify that into a real story of what we should go do and how. And again, letting you grow and the latitude to go do the things the right way, the way you want to do them, and also to cover you when you get a little bit far out there where you’ve got to be reeled back in. But yeah, those are the folks who —
Ellis: And Jean.
Williamson: Oh you know.
Ellis: Jean above all.
Williamson: Jean above all.
Ellis: Can I tell the story of Japan?
Ellis: We were in Japan — now I’m telling you the story even though I’m telling everyone the story — and we had been there for like almost a week. It was a long time and our body clocks were off and it was the last day and everybody was kind of down in the dumps, and Mike was making us eat a Japanese breakfast when we wanted scrambled eggs. Do you remember this?
Williamson: I do remember this.
Ellis: And I looked at you and like, “Louis, you look a little glum.” You said, “I miss my Jean.”
Williamson: Yep. That’s definitely true. Above all else, she’s the one that helps me when I’m down, keeps me cheery, always has that smile on her face.
Ellis: You are the dynamic duo.
Williamson: Yes, thank you.
Ellis: So let’s talk about Louis Time. You have this huge following of people who don’t just respect you, but adore you. Absolutely adore you. And we all adore the story about Louis Time, which I’ll let you tell. But we all say it now; I’m sorry, it’s Louis Time.
Williamson: The Louis Time story.
Ellis: You can leave names out of it.
Williamson: I can put names in it. It was actually during the Full Service Network. I would, not just myself. I mean, a team would fly out to Orlando on Monday. We’d worked 10, 12 hour days and Friday afternoon we’d sit in the Red Carpet Club and have that last debrief conference call before you got on that last plane back Friday. I mean, we’d been doing this for a long time.
Ellis: You were spent.
Williamson: The Louis Time story was, I get on the plane one day and when I got on the plane, I was actually trying to relax. I very seldom remember a take-off. Even to this day, I’m usually asleep. But one day it just happened that John Callahan sat right beside me on the plane. We had been through all this long week, and the debrief call. So he sits there on the plane and he opens up his Mac, and he’s like — wants to start going over next week. And, I pretty calmly said, and at the time I actually did not put in the head phones as the story says. (laughs)
Ellis: I think I embellished that. I’m sorry.
Williamson: I pretty much looked at him and was like, “John, this is pretty important but this is Louis Time.”
Ellis: And went to sleep.
Williamson: And I rolled over and got my nap. (laughter)
Ellis: So now you have retired, or as I prefer to call it, rewired.
Ellis: Are you still — tell us about blowing glass. Are you doing that now? Are you getting back into that?
Williamson: I haven’t done it yet, but I plan on doing it this fall. Kind of shuts down during the summertime. You don’t want to be in front of the furnace in the middle of summer.
Ellis: That’s true. Are you still going to focus on making angels — or fallen angels?
Williamson: I don’t know what I’m going to focus on right now. I mean, I got into glass blowing — like a lot of things, I kind of fall into these things and sometimes I fall hard. But as — my wife Jean and I were talking several years ago about, what do you do when you want to rewire?
Ellis: Yeah, right.
Williamson: She had her thing in massage and herbal medicine that she wanted to go do.
Ellis: And real estate.
Williamson: And I really hadn’t decided what I wanted to do, but I did see this class in the Colorado Free University magazine about glass blowing, and was like, I’ve always been interested in this. I had seen it in Jamestown, Virginia, when I was growing up and was always interested. And so, she actually signed me up for the class. So I started — I took a class and actually I really liked it. It’s a side of me I really didn’t use; the artistic side, but it’s also a lot of science in it too and trying to understand how glass works and flows and things like that. So, I ended up taking more and more classes and kind of got adopted as an apprentice by the lady — Agnes — who runs the studio. And for me glass blowing is — besides the artistic relief– it’s that sense of accomplishment because, with all of the things that you do through your career, some of these things take a long time to get done so you don’t really have that sense of accomplishment.
Ellis: Instant accomplishment.
Williamson: Yeah. It was that. But it was also really a good stress reliever. My expression I’ve used many times about glass is, when you’re standing there in front of the furnace with 2,200-degree glass, you forget about everything else. (laughter)
Ellis: You have to.
Williamson: Yeah, you just forget about the rest of the world, so there’s really a big stress reliever for me there. But yeah, it’s fun.
Ellis: Last question. What impact do you think the cable industry has had on our society worldwide?
Williamson: I think we’ve had such a huge impact on the world. You think about the things we’ve spawned in cable.
Ellis: Twenty-four-hour news.
Williamson: All of the programming and entertainment. We created this bandwidth and through that creation programming exploded. There was never that much programming until we created this bandwidth and everybody started filling it up. So now you have all this niche programming and advertising came and insertion came and then localization. Then you get to things like the internet.
Williamson: Broadband. I mean, we were doing dial-up and AOL and CompuServe and things like that, dial-up. And by that time it went to 56k modems, but you were still doing dial-up to get information. And here comes cable along. We place these huge bets on broadband and DOCSIS, we start delivering this always-on, high-speed experience that really just drove — in my opinion, drove the dot.com era. I mean, all of those people who came out and use the power of the internet.
Ellis: I call them broadband natives because they grew up in this.
Williamson: They all grew up, because of this creation that cable did. So yeah, cable’s impact is huge. If we had waited for that to evolve by other ways it could have been -it would have slowed that down. We accelerated that. And to this day we keep making it faster; now there’s video over cable to all these devices. We’re doing Wi-Fi now and we’re connecting with our customers and getting our products and services there. And not just our products; it’s everybody’s. This is like the broadband highway that everybody is using now.
Ellis: I have one more question, and you can’t play the “I’m retired” card because you’re less than six weeks retired. You can’t do that. If you had to architect — if you were the architect of the industry’s future right now, what would be the top couple of things — what were the top couple of things on your mind before you retired?
Williamson: That’s a tough one.
Ellis: I know.
Williamson: It’s a tough one, but I think right now what I would say — and I think there’s multiple things where I think we aren’t done. We’ve got to keep moving on. The first one is mobility, It’s an area where I still think we’ve got a lot to do there. We started building these vast Wi-Fi networks outside of the home and I think we need to find a way where we can take advantage of our ability to deliver our products and other people’s products when you’re not in your home. We still are tied to homes and I think we need a mobile play.
Ellis: You don’t realize how much you need the cloud until you can’t get to it.
Williamson: Yes. And so I think the Wi-Fi strategy and all that is going to grow, and I think at some point we need to do something a little bit bigger than that or keep growing and getting more capacity in Wi-Fi and use it that way. But yeah, people aren’t going to be tethered forever anymore. That’s just not the way these devices work.
Ellis: What about fiber to the home?
Williamson: I think there’s going to be another upgrade cycle. As I said earlier, the plant is pretty old. It’s still working well, but at some point age catches up with you and you’ve got to go rebuild this stuff.
Ellis: Do you think there’s a way to do it success-based that won’t make Wall Street freak out?
Williamson: Sure. (laughter) That’s easy to say when you don’t have to go figure that part of it out.
Ellis: I actually think there is.
Williamson: No, I — it is one of these where — and internally we say this too. We have to rebuild stuff all the time because storms come through —
Ellis: Right, hurricanes.
Williamson: — or the age of the plant comes through. We build an extension. You know, we need — now that we have IP — the ability to deliver all of our products over IP, it’s the right time now to make those same kind of bets and investments and go evangelize that story about fiber and come up with all of the right products that help us do that, and then we’ll start building it organically in small ways as we did with the fiber backbone through HFC and eventually over time you rebuild the whole plant. Sometimes you may be forced to, by a competitor like Google if someone comes in, you’ve got to go do something and at some point you make that bet. I think that’s going to happen there.
Ellis: Any others?
Williamson: The other one where I still think we have a lot of work to do is in our OSS and BSS.
Ellis: Operational support.
Williamson: Operational support systems and business support systems, which people call billing and all of the care stuff. I’m always amazed when I go visit our sites and sit with CSRs and do rides with technician how much they can do with the tools we give them, which right now are lacking. We’ve got to do a lot more, because if we are going to be this broadband highway and support all of these devices and all of these things that we talk about, that whole care/operation side, they need the right tools to go do that in the operational side and on the billing systems and business support systems, we need better ways to monetize all of this stuff. We know how to bill subscriptions pretty well. We need a better cash register in that sense, where I can charge people by time or capacity or speed. All these things. You need those kind of support things in place. I think that’s going to have to happen if we really are going to become the company that ten years from now is still on top and customers are coming to us and spending as much money every month. We’re going to have to find those better ways to take care of them with our OSS tools and better ways to charge them (laughter) with billing. Those would be my big ones.
Ellis: All right. Duly noted. Thank you, Louis.
Williamson: And I don’t have to solve any of them.
Ellis: No you don’t. You can go back to being rewired. Go back to doing more things with glass than fiber.
Ellis: Thank you, Louis.
Williamson: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW