Dr. Rouzbeh Yassini is many things. He is the chairman and CEO of YAS Capital, a technology advisory and investment firm in New England. He is the executive director of the University of New Hampshire’s Broadband Center of Excellence, which is an advocacy think tank and center at the university that is very much intertwined with what is going on in broadband today. Rouzbeh, colloquially, you are known as the father of the cable modem for the seminal work you did in transforming what we used to call the cable television industry into something very different and very high-tech. Really ushered in the broadband era for cable. Thank you for spending some time to recount that story with us today.
I think I’ll just start at the start. What brought you into this world of cable and what made you think that there might be a role for cable to play in delivering a different kind of Internet service to businesses and residences? How did it all begin?
Yassini: First I would like to thank the Cable Center for their great effort they have done in the history of the cable industry to allow such a documentary to get created but more importantly, let the industry know of the past, present and future of our industry. So thank them for that. And thank you for helping me to be able to map the story.
It all started in early 1980 if you really look. The whole industry, if not the entire corporate American enterprise, was really excited to get the computer all connected within the buildings and make it work. So the area of local area networking shaped itself in early 1980. There were a number of technologies to be able to do so. Then the factories, like General Motors and Ford and Chrysler, who also wanted to be automated, they said, “What about us?” The factories were far bigger than the buildings that you could connect the networks together. They didn’t know how to connect all the computers, all the devices together. So they created what they called at that time the IEEE 802.4 as the basis of broadband technology to really connect. Technology was not ready, the art of technology wasn’t quite prepared. While the factory automation failed in the early 80s, corporate America enterprise networking took off. So it was the mid-80s, the late-80s for some of us who were around and looked at the industry, local area networking was working, what about facility-wide networking? And what about city-wide networking?
So we took the story and tried to see what was the common denominator…that can help buildings and facilities a distance apart from each other to be connected. The broadband concept, which came from enterprise networking within the buildings, within the corporations, actually shaped and formed the broadband technology. But because broadband was not ready, you had to go and create the elements and DNA of broadband, which was the cable modem, the heart of it.
Schley: Meanwhile, there’s this thing called the Internet being created, right, which sort of dovetailed with this progression of broadband and local area network technology.
Yassini: We had a good perfect storm, if you will, in that era. We had the creation of ARPANET/Internet by the government. We had the formation and structure of the cable modem to be designed by entrepreneurs, and then we had universities to work on the World Wide Web. These three came together very nicely to shape and form what we know today as 2.2 billion people around the globe to be connected on broadband. But the essence of that all came together in a window of eight to ten years. That eight to ten years was probably very critical for our industry because the cable industry as we knew it at that time was a one-way system, not really prepared to make the investment nor go the next step to go outside of video. Video was a comfort zone; they wanted to do everything about video. This thing about data and this thing about high-speed and this thing about two-way really needed to be proven to them.
Schley: I want to drill into that, Rouzbeh, but first I want to ask you where were you, what were you doing that gave you a vantage point into this emerging world at this time?
Yassini: Very good. I started at General Electric. We built TVs, VCRs, cameras, from 1981-1986. We used coax to [network] every one of those. Then I became involved with a company before even Cisco existed that did networking, a company called Proteon. Proteon was doing everything about networking, computer networking. They adopted Token Ring, versus Ethernet, but it was a form of open networking. So I hired my general manager from GE who came to be the President and CEO, Fran Scricco. He called me and said, “Rouz, do you know how to build high-volume, low-cost products? The data networking industry needs such a thing.” I said, “I know nothing about digital. I’m an analog guy.” He said, “Well, we’ll teach you digital, you teach us high-quality and high-performance boxes.” So we brought the two together and the idea was–based on my experience at GE and [after] my experience at Proteon–I asked, why do we need two separate cables? We really can do all this in one cable.
So that simple question—when I share that with people, people told me I was crazy about thinking that way because we have always done it on two separate cables. That was the spark.
Schley: What made you have faith that this single-cable approach could work? Because you’re right. Nobody had ever—this was a television mechanism. Nobody had ever conceived of it as a reliable and potentially very robust medium for transmitting data.
Yassini: The barrier was very high. I was in my late 20s and I had learned everything I wanted to learn on data networking as well as TV. So I needed a challenge. I was willing to get the challenge that two in the same cable would work. The most important thing was, can I carve this story, can I build this technology fast enough that I would be able to get the interest of the cable industry on one side and interest of the data networking on the other side, yet to overcome the technical barrier. Because our biggest issue was how would I be able to put all those transistors, all those basic silicon chips in a bigger silicon that could fit the form factors of what it needed to do. The earliest stage of the highly integrated silicon was just beginning at that time. We were at a 4-micron to 3-micron technology. We were pushing the envelope to build the type of silicon that could work and could be cost-justified and more importantly, would not act as a toaster oven that would be so hot it would burn everyone.
So there was the combination of…enterprise networking and the combination of the technology that we had to overcome because our biggest issue on the cable modem was to be able to go longer distance. The two parameters were the speed of light and the delays that the cable infrastructure has.
Schley: Where was the cable industry at this point? We were starting to wire the big cities in the early to mid-80s. What was going on in the cable industry?
Yassini: The cable industry at the time, they were just about in the early age of the HFC. Fiber was becoming the backbone of the infrastructure. They were moving close to 550 megahertz spectrum to be able to have more channels available. It was the earliest stage of thinking about having 500 channels in that era. But it was all video-centric. Everything there was about video.
Schley: You talk about 550 megahertz and that makes me think data, but back then it was just shoving channels down that…
Yassini: Good old-fashioned 6 megahertz channels, that’s where the story was, yes.
Schley: But fiber was an enabling element for you to leverage, wasn’t it?
Yassini: No, not as much. What we needed—even though the fiber was instrumental for the cable industry and our HFC platform. Why? Because the fiber was able to eliminate the number of amplifiers, the forty to forty-five that we had. That architecture brought the number of the cascaded amplifiers from that many to less than ten. As a result, the jitter and noise was less. As a result, we were able to make the cable infrastructure two-way much faster and more elegant. Therefore the fiber had the main role to play in the sense of giving us the type of a network infrastructure and the network media that we needed in order to have the characteristics for the high speed transmission of the data.
Schley: So I hear you recount the story and it’s easy to see that there was this dovetailing of a lot of different forces. You called it “the perfect storm” earlier that created the possibility. You saw that possibility, though. Not a lot of other people did.
Yassini: So it was likely because I had a lot of good mentors. There were a number of people in my earliest days who helped me…So when I ran into at that time organizations like Jones Intercable, like Continental Cable, like Cablevision, we were able to work at a CTO level, on a level with people like David Fellows, Wilt Hildebrand, with individuals like Chris Bowick, Alex Best – we were able to actually share at a concept level that this type of thing would work. And of course because they were so good, they would always say, “Can you prove it? Can you show us how it works?” And then I had some good leadership in the industry on the CEO side. People like Jim Robbins, Bob Miron, Bill Bresnan—they were able to really see the vision and the passion I had for it. Between the passion and the knowledge that I had, really the only variable was time that we needed to do it. There were the days that we would spend just 70-74 hours just straight without sleep to get to the next level of the barrier, to the next level.
So I will give you the story very quickly. First, the guys didn’t expect us to have a modem that worked. When we made it work, they didn’t expect us to be able to reduce the size. When we reduced the size, they didn’t expect us to have the cost justification. When we justified the cost, they said, “I bet you couldn’t make a million.” So my story goes when I ran to the venture capitalists in 1988 and told them the vision: that we want to build something like that and this will be a billion dollar market, the industry said, “Rouz, we like your passion, we like your story. It makes sense. But you don’t know how big a billion is. Because of that we don’t want to invest in you.” And we went to do it by what we called “earn to grow.” So we built the stuff, made it work. And they were right. By the year 2000, the market wasn’t a billion, the market actually ended up to be two billion. So in a way we know the story; we made it happen. But it was really hard to convince everybody that it can make the cable plant two-way, make it cost-justified and make it useful so that people can do something with it.
Schley: In addition to these technical hurdles, I’m trying to imagine what it was like to be Wilt Hildebrand or one of the people you just named. And one day, I guess, the phone rings and here’s this guy on the end of the line. He calls himself Rouzbeh Yassini. “But I don’t know you.” What was it like trying to cultivate relationships really for the first time with this industry?
Yassini: I was an engineer and most of my tasks as an engineer were with my team to work and make the technology work. But the bigger task was to actually prove to the industry that there was a market and this type of thing is a consumer-quality product and more importantly, can work.
So to overcome good technical CTOs that we had in our industry, the only lesson I knew was to let my product also do the talking. So to refer to our cable modem at the time as a “puppy;” we gave the guys a puppy to play with. If they need it, they like it, they keep it. If not, we’d go pick it up in a month. So I financed the industry in 1990-91-92-93 by giving them six-packs of the cable modem and letting them play with it. Then we would go back a month later. We’d say, “What do you think? What does it look like?” “Well, these six work but we’re not sure how the others work and so on.” But before you knew it, the technology was speaking for itself. So the importance of our cable modem was the technology was written based on fundamentals—the enterprise was working, the local Internet was working. All we did was take the concept of local area networking and made it user-friendly for the cable industry. That’s why at my earliest-stage company called LANcity, we took local area networking, put it over the city working with the coax and going first to 35 miles and then to 200 miles distance.
Schley: I think it’s a key. You married the concept of local area networking, which was within buildings typically with this cable infrastructure that spanned entire cities in metro areas. LANcity, as you said, was the name of the company. You talked about the “puppy.” What did the puppy look like? What were the first generation cable modems that you guys produced?
Yassini: The first generation of the modem was half the size of refrigerators. They consisted of eight boards. Each board was about fifteen inches by fifteen inches, an eight-layer board at the time that would take significant time of manufacturing and alignment and cooperation to really make work. We were lucky because a number of the universities, a number of government military bases, a number of hospitals had a fundamental problem. They really ended up using our technology. Our biggest site ended up to be 5,000 users by the year 1990 and was the Rock Island Arsenal on an island in the middle of the Mississippi. The buildings were built during the Civil War, the buildings’ thickness was about—the walls were about one yard thick, and it just happened to have coax that was going between them. The military wanted to connect a number of the users—5,000 of them. There was really no way to drill a hole in the one-yard thick walls and bring in new wires to be able to do that so the question was raised, could you use the coax to connect the computers, mainframe IBM 370s and the terminals and micro computers together. We said we’ll give it a try. We learned a lot about that enterprise networking, which was actually the heart of operations for the war in 1990 in the Persian Gulf. And that center, the Rock Island Arsenal, was being utilized to be able to do all the communication, telecommunication, globally.
So Rock Island Arsenal was an island of 5,000 users using broadband and the inventions that they had were to use the existing cable, just like our cable industry.
Schley: Exactly. So it was a small prototype of what was to come in some ways. The prize for the cable industry—you talked about estimating how big this market could be. Even early on you could see millions of people using the Internet over dial-up telephone networks. Even as frustrating and as unsatisfying as that experience was, you could clearly see this demand building for Internet connectivity on a grand scale, right?
Yassini: Early, yes. Because in the 1970s and early 1980s, the corporation walked away from the dial-up modems to connect their computers and offices together. It was not able to really run a business, a corporate network and a corporate infrastructure. If you go earlier back into General Electric, General Electric made their own first X.25 packet-based networking. Packet-based networking was fundamental for them to do global running of the business of General Electric. The reason was all other corporations needed to connect packet-based services. So to do the packet-based services, the dial-up modem in the sense that you wanted to do was not really quite fit to handle that type of element. Because we started with enterprise networking and then we modified to put it over existing cable, we ended up calling it “cable modem” and now, twenty-five years later, we are actually going back to the same fundamental enterprise networking, symmetrical services, 100 megabits with the low latencies that can do twice of the HD transmissions on either side of videoconferencing. So all we have done during this transformation was make the technology work through existing cable and then sped up the speed. But more importantly, work with the transformation of our cable industry in the right way.
Schley: Rouzbeh, two questions about LANcity. Who worked with you? Where did you find your team and who was crazy enough to join this renegade effort? Then I want you to talk about some of your very first retail market, consumer market installations. Who were your partners and what experiences did they have?
Yassini: LANcity Corporation was built based on the remnants of the earlier company, called Applitek. Applitek was a venture based company started in the 1982 timeframe and did a great job with trying to build facility-wide networking. In that mission, they failed for three reasons. One, they built so many products they didn’t know how to handle all the products. They built about sixty different products. Two, the management and the venture capitalists couldn’t quite work together in harmony. Third, the market was not patient to solve the known problems they had.
When I joined Applitek as a vice-president of engineering, I started peeling the onion, as I’m known to be called for, to see how I could solve some of the technology problems. Frankly sixty products were one too many. Frankly solving all those issues was impossible so a group of my original members of the team of LANcity, which used to work at Applitek, came together and we recognized that really there was the one key product out of the sixty that truly did what we wanted. And that happened to be what I called it at that time, Ethernet Bridge. The reason we called it Ethernet Bridge is because it was bridging the buildings together. So we took the fundamentals of the Ethernet Bridge and overcame the issues that the cable industry had. Make it two-way, make it go over long distance, and make it work. So my original thirteen-member team, which worked very hard at LANcity to build a product, was really the remnants of the Applitek Corporation which once upon a time was 250 employees.
Schley: They were based in Boston.
Yassini: Outside the Boston area. The original Applitek was in Wakefield, Massachusetts. We moved LANcity to Andover, Massachusetts, and by the time we built the technology around the Ethernet Bridge/cable modems, by 1995, we had a $500 million business around our country, which created jobs, which created infrastructure, and created the buzzwords—how big the segment of the market could be in the sense of creation and all the elements that was going into the cable modem.
Schley: Where did some of the first LANcity cable modems end up being installed?
Yassini: Our first original customer base ended up being universities like University of Michigan, Emory University in Atlanta. On the government [side], we had Vanderbilt Air Force base, we had Rock Island Arsenal. In the schools, we had Indianapolis school district, and a school outside San Francisco. And a golf club we had in Oregon, Beaverton. International bases, we had Amsterdam. So almost literally, everyone wanted to connect facility-wide networking from each other. And we were able to provide them with the technology that was working and was doing the task of what we know today as the cable modem functionality.
Schley: And then Rouzbeh, what about in cable? Who were some of the cable companies that used your product to connect some of their very first residential Internet customers?
Yassini: Between 1991 and 1996, I was lucky to be able to have nine out of the ten top MSOs working with me. The application varied depending on where they were, all the way from Continental Cable to Cablevision to Cox to Alabama Cable at that time, which was a really small size cable operator. So we had a variety of those. And worldwide, by 1996, I had 400 of the operators worldwide using our technology. There was only one major MSO that was not interested in our technology and I agreed with them because they wanted to make sure there was a second vendor in the market who could actually build the thing. So there was good cooperation among the engineers; there was good cooperation with operators and us to really make it work.
Schley: I remember that time and it just seemed revolutionary. The demand was there. Remember that quote? “You couldn’t pry my cable modem from my cold dead fingers” was one of the great marketing lines, but people loved the technology.
Yassini: It was really suddenly a major issue for us. The telecommuting was becoming a buzzword after the World Wide Web became to be graphic-oriented and people could utilize it in their laptops and computers. The energy of the cable industry was getting to a point that data became an essence for them, and the consumer wanted to have a choice to give a chance to something that could put this thing together. Plus we all knew there was not enough fuel in the globe to really burn the oil and the gas that we have as a fossil fuel and really be able to go to the places called “workplaces.” Cities and countries were growing really rapidly. So it was really needed for that.
1990 was a good era to really let the technology do the talking and make telecommuting work. It was amazing.
Schley: Cable companies were charging how much a month typically for Internet service over these broadband modems?
Yassini: At that time, the prices were in the range of $9 to $14 for connectivity. You actually had AOL and Prodigy at that time, more dominant to really carry the relationship. And the cable industry wasn’t sure. “Do I need them, or do I need to make myself some relationship with AOL and Prodigy?” At that time some built their own in the sense of making their own network backbone to work. Fellows was probably one of the leading guys to realize at that early stage that a network backbone was essential for Continental and others, so they moved forward. So were Chris Bowick and Alex Best and Wilt Hildebrand to build their own earliest-stage high-speed infrastructure.
Schley: David Fellows.
Yassini: David Fellows, correct.
Schley: I want to take you to your next chapter in a second. But you mentioned something interesting about the spectrum the cable industry had available to use. Talk about the alignment of the Internet flowing over a cable television network and the habit of chopping spectrum into six megahertz chunks, which of course was a throwback to the early days of broadcasting in this country. How did you work within that configuration?
Yassini: We knew in order for our cable modem to be successful, a) we had to be transparent to the cable infrastructure, b) be friendly to the language that the operation team of the cable industry could speak, and c) utilize the tools that were in the toolbox of the cable industry in order to be able to do the installation of our technology.
So six megahertz became our friend. We worked very hard to make sure our technology lived and survived within that six megahertz and did not spill to the adjacent video channels. The nightmare was, what if an HBO channel or what if programming of critical importance were affected by the data. So we went out of our way. We created the SAW filters, we created the silicon, we created the filterations that really guaranteed the survival of the six megahertz. The next question was not only whether we had the six megahertz working on a forward channel— does it work on a reverse channel just the same way? Because we had very limited reverse channels to make that work and through that process, we learned about significant issues on the cable on the return channel that needed to be done. We also had to make sure that automatic gain control was adjusted in a way because the idea of the digital spectrum and the digital density of the signals on the data that was different in the video. So that we had to make sure that the power spectrum will stay very good.
Six megahertz was our friend. As long as it could live and survive within six megahertz and it doesn’t bother my native video and no CTO was going to stop me within the cable infrastructure and say, “Take the equipment out.” We became to be a friendly, quiet puppy coexisting with the inhabitants of the infrastructure.
Schley: Right. You’re coexisting, you’re speaking the technical language of cable, you’re consolidating all this functionality on silicon. You’re reducing the form factor of the cable modem. I can see why you guys didn’t sleep a lot in the early days.
Yassini: It was fun. Creation is always fun. Innovation is always fun. I remember at LANcity there were three time between 1989 and 1996; we looked in each other’s eyes and we said, we are bankrupt. There was no way because every modem we could build we had to give to the operators for free to help this market to get started. Secondly, we had to pay the payroll to our staff, and thirdly, we had to invest in the technology. One of our strong supporters who came at the time was Ken Olsen of Digital Equipment Corporation. Ken believed in Ethernet…He actually had done enterprise networking. So we were able to position our technology for him. At the time his wife was fighting cancer. And he was devastated that he had to go to four different buildings in downtown Boston with X-rays in his hand in order to cure his wife because they couldn’t transfer the pictures digitally from one building to the other building. And Ken also couldn’t understand. “Why could you not—I do it in my building.” Well, the issue was the distance. So when we shared the problem with Ken that we could solve; to him, it was a home run. Boy, this type of technology has medical applications, educational applications, in factories. So he could see it fast enough and he was one of our strongest supporters, a really strong supporter of all this technology to come to the level that it did.
Schley: You came back then from the brink more than once with LANcity. What became of LANcity then?
Yassini: The good news about LANcity was, because we had significant market share by 1996—in the industry, 400 top operators were utilizing us. The message was clear for us from operators. “You are too small as a startup company to be able to survive.” In Andover we were doing 95% of the technology in a box shipment. So we sold the company to Bay Networks at the time, which was enterprise networking. Bay Networks later was sold to Nortel and the rest of it is a story that goes to ARRIS Corporation. But in order for technology to survive, we had to do two things. One was sell our company to a big enterprise. Secondly, I had to fight and overcome Motorola, Intel and HP—three major competitors who wanted to come into the industry but they didn’t have the technology that we had. So we turned around and put our technology of what we called “free royalties” in the standardization models. Thanks to CableLabs we were able to do that. And we couldn’t have done that without Bill Schleyer. Bill by 1995 at the Western Cable Show had recognized every [operator was] buying cable modems and everybody was from different guys and none of them could really transfer them. So Bill Schleyer at the Western Cable Show led the organization so the standard was good. At that time we were one of the pioneers to help CableLabs and the cable industry to adopt our technology because they had to adopt a working technology that was proven and kind of doing the job. Thanks to the number of good things between the CEOs at the time from Bill Schleyer to Bill Bresnan and to Jim Robbins to the CTOs, like I mentioned, it all came together. And there were one or two other successful members on the public relations side thanks to Roger Brown, who gets a lot of credit. Roger and I spent a long time together to really write the story of what this thing was supposed to do; it has to work. Robert Sachs and I talked a number of times in order to see the passion for what the regulators needed to do. Also, something really important. Pamela Yassini, my younger sister, she was brilliant and behind me 100% to really allow me to work 72 hours, 74 hours straight, where she was singlehandedly taking care of my elderly parents while I was working and traveling. I remember that it was a year that I traveled, just in that year alone, two million miles, going from continent to continent to try to share the story. So the credit goes to Pamela for helping and being behind me to make those things happen.
Schley: Roger Brown, the late and the great Roger Brown, a friend of both of ours, in 1998 had named you—CED magazine, Roger was the editor of CED magazine—he named you Man of the Year for your work in bringing this technology to reality. Was it around that time that you began your work making regular pilgrimages to Colorado to work with the CableLabs organization?
Yassini: I joined CableLabs as a consultant for them in the 1996 timeframe. From 1996 to 2003, every week I traveled. We got up at three AM in Boston rain or shine, snow or ice. We got on six o’clock flights to be at CableLabs by ten o’clock. Then on Friday night, we’d go back again to be able to do that. A number of my colleagues—we built a consortium of 500 engineers from multiple companies. As a result of my leadership and theirs, I was able to help crystallize what I used to call the LANcity cable modem to the essence of DOCSIS. So DOCSIS was born in March, 1999, but from 1996 to 1999 we worked to really make that happen with our team and collaboration of everybody.
Schley: In our audience is a friend of ours, Michael Schwartz, who spent a lot of time at CableLabs and he is going to kill me if I get this wrong. But for our audience, DOCSIS stood for Data over Cable Services Interface Specification.
Schley: When we say DOCSIS, that’s what we’re referring to.
Yassini: Well said. In fact, I remember we said in so many meetings and the people had to decide what name they did they want to give it? A number of our certification board members at the time were really positive about it. They said, “Well, we’ll let the engineers keep building it. I’m using engineering terminology until the marketers finds a name.” No marketer ever came up with a better name.
Schley: We’re on DOCSIS 3.1 today in 2014. What did it do? What was the contribution of the family of DOCSIS specifications?
Yassini: So DOCSIS did three good things for our industry. First and most important, it established platforms and the protocols of standardization. You could actually grow a million modem installations to the majority of the cable plant distribution. So that helped crystallize the technology, crystallize the siliconization and make sure the global industry spoke the same common language when it comes to high-speed data over cable infrastructure.
The second thing, it showed collaboration among engineers from a variety of the companies that had to work together tirelessly to really overcome some of the fundamental problems that the cable industry had because of the noise, because of each cable plant being a bit different than the others and the manageability of building large networks. When we were thinking and talking to people that we wanted to have a network of 100 million users, the people would laugh at you. So we had to build up network management.
The third thing, I think, it was a fabulous thing for CableLabs because DOCSIS put CableLabs in the heart of the cable industry where it was seen as an organization that can actually be able to transform some of the technology into what they wanted to do. So the elements I think that will always stand tall for me with DOCSIS and the cable modem is the technology and the people were really the fundamental of giving the cable industry a second life of revenue with market capitalization—if you look at the cable industry in 1980 and 1990 versus today it’s a hundredfold difference. That hundredfold market capital is really enabling and empowering by making them become a telecommunications pipe versus a video pipe.
Schley: You know, today you’re well aware of this: the majority of U.S. households with Internet service have a DOCSIS-enabled Internet service. It’s become the dominant platform for high-speed Internet delivery in the U.S. and very influential elsewhere. I remember, just to wax poetic for a second, hearing Rob Glaser, who was an early streaming media pioneer with RealNetworks of Seattle, got up on stage once and he said he thought DOCSIS was the cable industry’s greatest creation, you know, because it enabled so much. Let’s talk about what you did after that chapter of your career. You had invented the cable modem, you helped the cable industry create this standard that really affected the world. What did you turn your attention to then?
Yassini: There’s one more story on DOCSIS I want to tell.
Schley: Let’s do it.
Yassini: One of the biggest values of DOCSIS was that everybody questioned me, and still question me: why did you do it? We provided the technology and the essence of the cable modem royalty-free to the industry. Nobody before the cable modem and DOCSIS had ever given to this industry a free IPR—intellectual property right. Nobody after us has ever come after that and done that. Everybody questioned, why did you do it? Why didn’t you guys keep the royalties? If you remember, right now there is 2.2 billion modems deployed out there; times one dollar that would have been significant revenue for an operation to have. But it was more important on the cable modem from my point of view to connect the people and let the technology allow telecommuting to happen. When I was in Tokyo—400 miles outside of Tokyo—in the middle of a rice field a lady came to me and said, “You’re Mr. Yassini.” I said, “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“No, no, no. You are the one who did the cable modem. We have your technology built into our town. I can work from my home through the rice fields to the factory.” So that type of influence would have not happened if you had not put that technology free for humankind to use it over the globe. It’s because of no royalty, the cost of the modem went from $18,000 once upon a time…to thirty U.S. dollars. That’s remarkable.
Schley: So it wasn’t a hard decision for you.
Yassini: It was simple enough to make because we know with the openness standard, free royalties, and it worked in technology. The rest is history. And it is. It was really a well-known decision we made and we are proud of making that happen.
Schley: Thank you.
Yassini: Even though I still get questioned for that.
Schley: What was next?
Yassini: The next is a good story and a sad story. The good story is the cable industry was so excited with the revenue stream that high-speed data was bringing that folded over to triple play—voice, data, video, and would not be able to think outside of voice, data, video. They looked at data just as Internet. We were looking at the data as not just Internet, not just data, but the services which run over the data. So the story was, do I make a PowerPoint presentation to tell about hundreds of the services that it goes on? That would not work. Would I be able to go to operators and say, “Let’s (build) a research organization that can get all the services that are going on?” That would not work. So what we did at the time, I built my own research center where we actually built a building with a fifty-plus broadband services and applications, known as the Yassini Broadband Knowledge Center and within that, we brought the services and applications all the way from the senators to the governors to the students to the universities to let them touch and feel the type of technology that works. So that’s one thing we did.
The second thing that we did for the industry, we took the same standardization that we did on the high-speed modems and tried to bring it to the set top box and the IP version of the set top box is known as RNG/Home Networking.
The third thing we did, we tried to get academia engaged with, “What if a billion people want to be connected?” And that question was—this was huge. “Tell me something simpler to solve.” So we brought the CTOs and we brought the professors and we brought the entrepreneurs and we started thinking together about what those issues were. For example, the security of broadband. Are they secure enough to be able to have every house in America, every house on the globe, be connected? Is the user interface good enough to be able to look at the type of video programming you want to look at or data programming. And can we transform the industry fast enough where hundreds of services will be deployed over infrastructure and not the triple play. So that’s where from the year 2003-2013 came to be that type of evangelism.
Schley: In that period you found time to publish a book called “Planet Broadband” in 2004, I believe.
Schley: What was the book about and what was the inspiration behind it?
Yassini: So one aspect of the book was thanks to yourself, thanks to Leslie Ellis and thanks to Roger Brown, to be able to communicate in a publication the vision that I had in my head, that I couldn’t implement it on technology in a product fast enough. So the book did that.
The second one was to be able to actually articulate the road ahead. What does it look like by the year 2020 and the year 2030 where we can guide academia and entrepreneurs to solve different problems that we have.
The third one was it was a good point because in my life, I was a young engineer so when I took over the cable modem I opened my eyes almost at 45 years old and all my entire life was the cable modem, day in and day out, day in and day out. I remember going to a physician at the time. My physician said, “You should be dead. Why are you alive?” I said, “How come?” He said, “Your sugar is at 450, your [blood pressure] is 300.” I said, “I didn’t have a chance to measure those in the last 15-20 years.” So we chuckled about that one. The book actually for me was being at a stopping point in my career to see what I had accomplished and where I wanted to go. Thanks to yourself, Leslie and Roger, I think we did a great job to crystallize for me the past and the future.
Schley: One of the concepts you wrote about in the book and that I’ve heard you talk about over and over is the concept of the analogy between broadband—the toolkit that broadband provides—and the alphabet, which I think is really interesting. Can you talk about that?
Yassini: Sure. In life, there’s always a few moments that you will find a poem that you read and say, oh, wow, how beautiful this poem looks like. And then you open the book of poetry and say, oh, my God, look at these poets from 1,000 years, 2,000 years, 3,000 years—especially from my country, Iran, where I come from, where poetry was the fundamental part of our literature and you say, how did that happen? How did these guys elegantly put all these things together? And the answer was they used the alphabet and they said it very elegantly. To me, the cable modem, the DNA of the cable modem, is the same alphabet. Everybody was asking in an interview that I used to do, “What’s a killer app? What’s a killer app?” Nobody could really tell. I would try to explain to people. Those alphabets are the ones that would allow the future generation to come to define all those services, all those functions and all those elements of the transformation of the Industrial Age to the Information Age to happen. And guess what? It’s exactly what is happening now. The alphabet is doing the work; the cable modem being there or not is almost transparent. People are writing services and applications connecting people to people.
Schley: The other concept that you sort of schooled me on is you talked about the woman in the rice field. But the notion of people not just being consumers of data and information but being producers of data and information and value. I invite you to talk a little bit about that.
Yassini: So the Industrial Age was built based on producers and consumers. Producers on one side and consumers on the other side and the distribution channel in which the material and the goods go from one to the other. It was only really the Information Age that for the first time allowed the producers and the consumers to be in the same exact location so they could actually consume material and at the same time they could produce material. The professors, scientists, doctors—they all could do that level of the work. A farmer, a mechanical engineer, a shop that builds models could be the same. So the elements become how would you enable the people with the level of connectivity that they can have the real tools, not the toys, to be able to do that? We have slang that was very popular for the people who knew me in the late 80s, early 90s. I would say, “Let’s have a technology, let’s have a system that is plug and play, versus not plug and pray. With plug and pray, you can’t really go far. So we build it, we designed it, we made it symmetrical, we made it work, but guess what? Industry was not ready at the time to have the producers and consumers in the same place with symmetrical services and the mandate was we need more on the forward channel and less on the upstream channel. So we went through fifteen years of what we called, “follow that” and I’ll be back to the same point. DOCSIS 3.1, symmetrical services with as much as the bandwidth as you can and make the consumers and producers have access to the same technology.
Schley: Isn’t it interesting, Rouzbeh, that—I guess I should say it seems like it’s been a short amount of time, but long after you first began building boxes in your company, we’re finally starting to get away from that six megahertz definition of spectral resources.
Yassini: So the digital pipe is here, right? The digital pipe has arrived; thanks again for a tremendous job by the cable industry and service providers have done. Tremendous job the software industry has done. Now there is a digital pipe and it’s all about services, it’s all about services.
Schley: The themes you’re expressing now are also being evangelized and advanced by an organization you’re affiliated with now in association with the University of New Hampshire, called the UNH Broadband Center of Excellence. You organized that center in 2012, I think.
Yassini: That’s correct.
Schley: What’s it doing, what’s it for?
Yassini: So within the Yassini Broadband Knowledge Center we accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish. To be able to show fifty services, to be able to show—people do comment, say, wow, I never knew that building automation could be done this way. I never knew building management could be done this way. I never knew critical services and critical mission services could be done this way. So we did a pretty good job. But we were short; we were short in the sense of having a big laboratory, a big environment that we could make this thing work for 30, 40, 50,000 students. So the University of New Hampshire gave me that ecosystem—there are about 30,000+ students and faculty and administrative workers there, it is citywide, they have a hundred megabit connectivity to every dorm, they have ten gigabit connectivity to every building, they have a hundred gigabit capability within the state of New Hampshire. So the challenge was can I really take my Center of Excellence and show how the whole state could be interconnected together and in everyday life of the critical missions where the universities are running hundreds of services and applications, where the students are intending to graduate and they need to get jobs—could you actually bring a physical building, stretch it to a town, stretch it to a county, stretch it to a state and try to speak the language?
So the University of New Hampshire Broadband Center really gives me that element, especially since UNH really was one of the land/air/sea based universities that founding members of our country had created in order for farming and all the others back in the 1800s who actually helped the state to grow the economy. I believe the biggest segment of our growth in job creation is going to be in the Information Age. The biggest segments of innovation in this country to keep our leadership in the world is the information base that we have and the universities are unified and qualified in this country to take major roles. Hopefully the Broadband Center of Excellence will help to empower not just UNH but also all the other universities to see how they can significantly help and push us to the next era of tens of thousands of services, that can bring these types of networks together.
Schley: It was interesting Rouzbeh, because hearing you express what BCOE is about and about, if you will, that stretching of connectivity. It’s sort of is a back to the future; that’s sort of where you started with this when you began to originally to have this concept of the connected city, the LANcity amalgamation.
Yassini: So I’ll give you two examples of that one. Today I see the roles with the networks of sensors and devices. The network of the automated tools that will be able to do functions and the networks of the networks. Well, guess what. Back in Rock Island Arsenal, in 1989, we had the same team. We had the sensor devices, we had boxes and then we had connectivity of facilities to be able to work together. Except at that time, it was the lowest speed and now we’re talking about gigabits and hundreds of megabits to be able to do that.
So this connectivity is really an important part of human evolution from my point of view. Broadband belongs to the people of the world just like the air we breathe, just like the water. And service providers actually have a chance to really do something for the 21st century that no other industry has ever done in the last 21 centuries as we know for mankind. Empower every individual to be a producer and consumer and be able to have the right to be able to utilize the technology and let the innovation take over.
We talk about the global economy; we talk about global communication; we talk about global politics, but broadband really enables all those to be done just the right way. But personalized for you differently than is personalized for me, differently from how it’s personalized for my grandmother and mother to be able to use because all of us should be able to interface with it and use it.
Schley: I probably couldn’t have asked you to script a better closing line for this interview and hopefully in five years we’ll get to do it again and see where the vision has taken us. Are there any parting thoughts you want to express or share?
Yassini: One missing element of our broadband story is the number of the engineers, the number of the hard-working marketing guys, the number of the editorial as well as the number of corporations that really became part of this ecosystem since 1990. At one given time, we had 140 startups that were working and building toward these elements of the industry’s success. None of those startups really lasted except for one or two at this point. However, they were all instrumental in working on this common vision, common approach to make this happen. That type of collaboration, that type of team-building and that type of spirit is what we need to take us further ahead on hundreds and thousands of services that need to be deployed in order to make doctors more productive to save lives, teachers to be more effective in the languages they want to teach their students, factory workers to be more productive, governments that can work transparently and more importantly, an industry that can create extra jobs. So a lot of credit should go to the excellent members of the technical staff, marketing staff, editorial staff and that cooperation will really help to bring all these things to the service providers of what I call “a perfect system” now.
Schley: It’s not only informative to talk to you, but it’s often inspiring and it has been today with Dr. Rouzbeh Yassini for the Cable Center, April 22, 2014. I’m Stewart Schley. Thanks for listening.
Yassini: Thank you, Stewart.