“Broadband Is His Baby”
By Glen Dickson
“-And Dr. Rouzbeh Yassini wonders what it will be when it grows up”
Widely known as the father of the cable modem, Rouzbeh Yassini has played a pivotal role in the cable industry’s successful deployment of high-speed-data services, creating the first cable modem and then overseeing the industry’s lengthy specification, standardization, and certification process.
But the 45-year-old Yassini, founder and CEO of YAS Broadband Ventures and the recipient of the 2004 Vanguard Award for Associates & Affiliates, says his baby is far from fully grown.”The biggest thing I take from the Vanguard Award is that it comes at the midpoint of the broadband evolution,” says Yassini, who has a deep interest in the environment and how technology can affect it. “It took hundreds of years for the Industrial Age to create cities in the range of 15 million to 20 million people,” he points out, and they are necessary for aggregating services, skills, and customers. But, he notes, broadband can build virtual communities, eliminating the need for large, clogged metropolitan areas. “Our technology will get a billion people connected globally through a high-speed broadband pipe. We’re at a remarkable point in our history.”
Yassini notes that, 16 years ago, when he first began exploring the idea of broadband services over coaxial cable, the cable industry was a one-way medium relying solely on video for revenue.
Last year, broadband services generated $15 billion in revenues, and Yassini sees continued exponential growth into the future. He predicts that, by 2020, broadband will encompass “hundreds of services” ranging from telemedicine to long-distance learning to home monitoring. He predicts, in fact, a “trillion dollars in revenue.”
Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1958, Yassini came to the U.S. in 1977 to study electrical engineering at West Virginia University, following in his brother’s footsteps.
Upon graduation in 1981, he was recruited by General Electric to build receivers in its TV division. He also was selected to participate in GE’s Financial Management Program, where he earned an equivalent MBA. The finance, marketing, and business-development skills he learned were crucial to his work in driving the acceptance of the cable modem. “The engineering part was the easy part,” he explains. “It took a good 16 years to get the industry to understand its business value.”
In 1986, Yassini left GE to join Proteon, a data-networking company focused on the “twisted-pair” technology, which uses a different kind of wire for data transfer. But Yassini had learned about video distribution over coaxial cable at GE, and it struck him that perhaps data would work over co-ax, too.
“The question in my head was, ‘Why are we not using the same cable for data and video?’ It made no sense.”
That idea took further root in 1988 when Yassini became vice president of engineering for another data-networking firm, Applitek Corp. It had a data-over-cable product but hit financial difficulties. Yassini still believed in the potential of broadband over cable pipe and, with the support of his mentor Bill Elfer, raised the funds to buy Applitek’s assets in 1990 and form LANcity Corp.
Then, Yassini and his engineering team got down to the business of building the first cable modem—a $15,000 model.While $15,000 was too expensive for a consumer product, by 1993, LANcity had developed a $5,000 modem that drew interest from top cable engineers like David Fellows, then of Continental Cablevision, and Jim Chiddix, of Time Warner Cable. By 1995, the company introduced a $500 cable modem built on data-communications standards and intended for retail sale.
That was also the year a consortium of cable operators announced plans to work with equipment vendors to create a set of industry-wide cable-modem standards, which eventually would become DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification), the cable-modem specification currently deployed in some 26 million cable modems in North America.
The move to an industry standard meant that big players like Motorola were entering the cable-modem business. While LANcity enjoyed an 80% share of what was then a nascent market, Yassini saw the writing on the wall and sold the company in 1996 to Bay Networks for $59 million. He soon became a senior executive consultant to CableLabs and took charge of the DOCSIS interoperability test plan and certification process. In 1997, he also founded his own venture-capital and consulting firm, YAS Broadband Ventures, devoted to funding broadband hardware and software vendors and providing broadband training and education; Andover, Mass.-based YAS would work closely with CableLabs from 1997 through 2003.
The DOCSIS specification, interoperability, and certification process represented almost three years of continuous work by a team of more than 20 vendors and more than 10 cable operators, encompassing more than 300 people.
By March 1999, CableLabs certified products from Thomson and Toshiba as the first cable modems ready for retail sale, a milestone for both the cable industry and Yassini’s personal vision.
In making DOCSIS a reality, the industry overcame five major challenges, Yassini explains, “Nobody believed the cable industry would have a modem standard. Nobody believed we would get it done in the timeframe that we did. Nobody thought we would get it done in a cost-effective way. Nobody thought we could get vendors and [CableLabs] members together. Nobody thought that, if we had a product, we would actually certify it and get consumers to pay for it.”
Over the last three years, Yassini would drive the certification process for more than 300 cable-modem products and 50 cable-modem headend systems.Looking at his career on a more individual level, Yassini notes that he has come full-circle from his days at GE.
“I started in consumer electronics, went to cable, and wound up back in consumer electronics because that’s what the consumer wanted,” he says. “Providing the consumer with quality consumer-electronics equipment is a great achievement. I love to look at a modem in a home and see it doing the job for them.”