On-Boarding the Future: CableLabs Tasks Team To Flag Key Innovations

Christian Pape, VP, innovation operations, CableLabs

Christian Pape, VP, innovation operations, CableLabs

July 11, 2013 – With the creation of an innovation operations group headed by Christian Pape, CableLabs has taken a ground-breaking step toward making sure the cable industry has an eye on the future as its technology teams execute on present priorities. In the following interview with ScreenPlays editor Fred Dawson, Pape explains his mandate and how his team will go about filtering things of interest to the cable industry from the vast range of activities that are reshaping the broadband communications landscape.
 
ScreenPlays – How do you describe the role of the Innovations Office?
 
Christian Pape – If you think about Geoffrey Moore’s three horizons of innovation [from the book Escape Velocity], my group is responsible for helping the organization focus its attention on innovation activities of potential interest to us on the third horizon, which is just beyond the horizon of what consumes our attention today. One of the purposes of the Innovations Office is to work with vendors to bring to bear their expertise and to reach out to other industries on the understanding that everything is IP at heart and that our role as an industry is to continue building good pipes that can deliver whatever types of content and applications the market needs.

SP – So you really represent something new as we’ve seen CableLabs evolve, which is a commitment to looking at all the things taking shape on the trends map that need to be not only bird dogged but actually systematically incorporated into the long-range planning process. As you go about putting this together, what are some of the things you see that aren’t top of mind right this moment but that are going to be top of mind real soon and that CableLabs should have a role in?

Christian Pape – We’ve identified eleven megatrends that provide us a framework for evaluating ideas that come to us from our members, our employees and from outside the industry. This gives us a starting point for focusing our efforts. [Shares document listing megatrends as All IP; Smart Space; Identity Management and Security; Pervasive Wireless; Better Pipe; Future of Work; Transformation of the Content Ecosystem; Rich User Experience; Big Software Platforms; Radically Changing Economics; Measurement Revolution.]

SP – Of course, there are major developments happening right now within each of these categories. How do you determine what your group needs to follow versus the horizon one and two facets of these trends that may be impacting current activities at CableLabs?

Pape – Certainly we’re focused on things that are three years out and beyond. But we recognize that those trends are evolutionary – the roadmap for IP, the roadmap for better pipes, the roadmap for smart spaces – all things that are happening today. And there are interdependencies among trends.

SP – Let’s take a specific example – M2M (machine-to-machine) – or as you title it in your list of megatrends to watch, “Smart Space.” This is an area of exploding activity. What distinguishes what you’re looking at from everything that’s happening right now?

Pape – We see M2M types of things happening in the marketplace today that tend to be proprietary in nature. If you look at the larger cable operators, they have solutions in this space that are unique to specific verticals, whether it’s medical, energy, home security or something else. Our focus for horizon three is on the question of how we can get away from these silos.

Our members can introduce applications much faster and with greater cost efficiency if they have a common platform to work from. So we see a future where there are going to be common platforms for doing that type of work. Those are the types of things that we’d expect to see happening a few years down the road and that are really central to the areas we’re focused on.

SP – From a procedural standpoint, how will things you identify as worth pursuing eventually turn into real projects at CableLabs?

Pape – Our mission is to drive engagement on all the topics we’ve identified. But we have to have real killer instincts, because there’s only so much we can take on.

We’re regularly engaged with the people who are focused on horizons one and two, so what we do is coordinated with their activities. Once we decide to pursue an idea, we have a gated review process where, if something doesn’t pass at one level we don’t move it on to the next. Fail early and fail fast is our basic motto.

If we’ve proved to our satisfaction within the organization that a concept is worth pursuing we engage with the membership to make the determination on whether or not to move forward. The initiative might be embraced by the membership as a whole or it might be more of a lighthouse type of engagement where one or two operators raise their hands and say, ‘I’d like to take this to market.’

SP – We’re hearing all this cloud talk in cable circles. Certainly the vendors in cable have embraced the cloud. And it seems like the operators more and more are comfortable with working with that level of abstraction and virtuality as a way to lower their costs.

This brings into focus a whole lot of analytics. It brings into focus a whole lot of management issues and integration with back offices, and certainly it brings in the whole big data picture as far as storing and coordinating all this information that’s in play. Do you see those things as part of what you have to look at?

Pape – Yes. To the point you’re making, these things are all interconnected with one another. So we see relationships between these things. Certainly all-IP networks are going to be fundamental to making these things happen, and our ability to develop solutions that allow our members, our industry to more effectively and more quickly get that infrastructure put in place so that they can effectively deliver the related services coming from the cloud is a big part of what we’re looking at for the future as well.

SP – In that context what is it that the industry needs from CableLabs? There’s a big world out there developing standards, developing innovations. I guess your agenda is to focus on what is going to make these things more cable friendly. What helps define what makes it more cable friendly? Is it just defining a bunch of interfaces? Does it get more fundamental than that with something more comprehensive as far as core functionalities?

Pape – I think to your point there is a very broad set of things that we’re challenged with and have an opportunity to work on. So what they’re looking for us to do is provide speed, focus and innovation. And we do that across the board on all these different topics, recognizing that each of these trends we talked about is at its own stage of evolution.

We have opportunities at each of these stages. We make the choices about which of those trends are most material to the industry based on the things that we’re seeing both on the ground and as things we can anticipate based on our insights working with members, working with the industry at large, working with thought leaders and innovators in other industries that have not traditionally participated in the work that CableLabs has done.

SP –You just mentioned three things – speed, innovation, focus. What do you mean by speed?

Pape – There are really two key elements to it. One is the speed at which we’re moving ourselves in exploring and pursuing concepts related to new technologies. There’s also the speed of how quickly is data getting through the pipe. That’s a big part of what matters to the industry today and for the foreseeable future. There’s always going to be more stuff going through the pipe, and it’s going to have to get there faster in order to enable those rich experiences.

Certainly focus and innovation are a big element of what we’re working on as well. We’re focused on the types of things you just talked about, the trends, providing direction. On the innovation side we’re very disciplined about the choices that we make using the framework of the megatrends to determine what that work is going to be.

SP – So you have the task of looking at this huge funnel with all this stuff pouring into it. And you have to have something coming out the bottom that is worth the cable industry’s effort and time. How do you figure that out?

Pape – For us it really comes down to three key questions. Is the idea or the opportunity we’re looking at going to fundamentally change the customer experience or their expectations? Is it going to change the competitive position of our industry? Or will it change the economics of our industry? If we answer yes to one of those three questions we know we’re on to something that’s going to be worthwhile for the industry to pursue.

SP – I would posit that if you’ve answered yes to one of those questions, you’ve answered yes to all three.

Pape – I think it varies, but certainly that would be the desired outcome.

SP – Obviously wireless is now a big part of the  entire story of the evolution of broadband, the introduction of 4G in mobile, some real competitive aspects to all that. As you look at that wireless environment, what you call “pervasive wireless” in the megatrends list, is that something you think you could contribute to for the cable industry, and, if so, what is driving your interest? Where do your members want to go now that they’ve committed to Wi-Fi?

Pape – I think certainly we recognize that in the end our customers are looking to have these experiences in wireless, the detached experiences regardless of location.  As the largest broadband provider, certainly in the Americas market, this industry recognizes the need to be able to extend its services into that space. And it’s been doing so.

So a significant investment is being made in Wi-Fi related technologies in terms of delivering things in the home. But we also recognize the wireless industry is largely dependent from an infrastructure perspective on those wired pipes still to ensure the speed is there for all this hosted use in devices to allow them to capture information or allow them to receive information wirelessly. That stuff is coming through pipes. It’s coming through wires. So we certainly see a role for that. When you look at the technologies that we have with DOCSIS 3.1 and our historical achievements in this space, those play very dominantly as well.

SP – What about the other side of that coin, which is the partnerships the operators look for as either MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) or just by virtue of the opportunities to offload things, to monetize what the mobile providers need and to work with them in different aspects of how everything works, from M2M to video service? There’s a whole lot of coordination and intelligence involved in making those things actually work to a point of being able to monetize them, to charge for them and basically keep up with the movements of people. Are those things you are looking at as well?

Pape – I think to the point that you’re making innovation is a team sport. It takes a lot of participants in this. We have great minds at CableLabs to contribute fantastic ideas. We have great relationships, both with our members and with individuals and organizations outside our industry. We’re working with all of them across the board to explore the types of opportunities you’ve just spoken to. I’m not that familiar with some of the details, but I know that work is going on and will continue in the future.

SP – It’s good to know there’s systemization to looking at the freight train coming down the tracks at CableLabs, and we’ll certainly be very interested in seeing how you guys analyze and funnel this through to actual projects.

Pape – We’re very excited about what the future has to offer.

SP – Thanks a lot, Chris.