broadband / Consumer / Intel

Goodbye and thanks Doug Semon


When I decided to write a book about my high tech journey, I had several objectives. One of those was to document the creation of residential broadband in which I played a leadership role. I wanted to tell my personal story, but I also wanted to make sure that the people who contributed to its creation got the credit. At this point in my life, I often say that my contribution to the future of technology is to document its pass because that is how I feel. As I began working on my book almost three years ago, I was glad that most of the people I worked with were alive and still accessible to me.

Sadly, today, I learned that Doug Semon, one of the pioneers in developing residential broadband over cable died. It was a privilege to know and work with Doug in 1993 and 1994. Doug was one of the first people to understand the potential of combining high-speed connectivity to powerful personal computers in homes.

Doug Semon was director of Viacom’s cable operation before they sold it to TCI. It was a time when Time Warner was pushing a concept called the Full-Service Network, which had the Television at the heart of home interactivity. I discuss all this a length in my book, which I hope to have published early next year. Billions would be wasted by cable, telephone, and computer companies on what was a bad idea.

In the process of exploring doing a small scale version of the Full-Service Network, Semon had put out a Request for Proposal for the various piece of technology needed. One proposal, from a company called Hybrid Networks, did not make sense. It did not deal with interactive Television. It was about a modem that could use the cable network to transfer information at very high speeds to a computer located in a home and use the telephone system to send data back. That is why they had “Hybrid’ in their name. At that time, most cable systems either did not have an upstream capability or if they did, it was of minimal bandwidth and poor quality.

Doug was a bit geeky, including putting together his computer out of parts. A light must have gone off in his head when he realized the potential of the cable industry offering broadband. He meets with the founder of Hybrid, where they demonstrated a cable-based connection to one of the few web servers in the world. It had a graphically oriented website that would have taken a very long time to display using conventional telephone modems. Doug sought support from his management to do a trial.

Around this time, I was introduced to Hybrid. I had already decided to have Intel, together with General Instruments, the largest provider of equipment to the cable industry, develop a cable modem. We invested in Hybrid. They told us about their discussions with Semon. We saw this as an excellent opportunity to do a trial. It took a while to get Viacom’s management to agree. This even involved discussions with the CEO of Viacom, Frank Biondi.

However, I wanted to have a modem that works bi-directionally on cable and did not require a telephone line. I was convinced that the key to success would have an always-on, always-connected, high-speed communications capability. We had set up a cable modem development group at Intel, Arizona. We had some of those engineers modify the Hybrid product so it could use the upstream capability of the cable plants. Fortunately, the Viacom test used had this capability.

The trial took place in Castro Valley, a community in the San Francisco East Bay. The first modem got installed in Oct. 1994, but no one was charged until December of 1994. here were 50 homes initially, but it grew to 256 by one 1995. The downstream rate was 10 Mbps, and the upstream rate was 128 kbps. It was at a time when the state of the art telephone modems were 28.8 kbps.

Viacom and Intel conducted focus groups. The users’ reaction was extremely positive and was very important in gaining support both within Intel and Gi but, importantly, the other cable companies.

During the same period, Intel/GI/Hybrid did a trial with Comcast in Marion, PA. It was also very successful. Doug and his counterpart at Comcast, Steve Craddock, would argue with each other about who was first. In my mind, they were both first.

Both the Viacom trial and the Comcast trial were announced in December of 1994.

Doug Semon went on to have a successful career in the cable industry and played an important and continued role in making cable modems a success. He will be missed by many.

6 thoughts on “Goodbye and thanks Doug Semon

  1. Avram,
    good that you are documenting IT history. Due to age most of the people involved are dying so recording the words of those involved is necessary for the next civilizations records. People like your colleagues, Dennis Ritchie, the networking pioneers. I sympathise as some of my work cohort have died. Just the time of life when funerals outnumber the weddings and births, but no-one taught me or anyone I know how to grow old. I look forward to your book.
    regards
    Roger

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  2. Avram,
    you and I had the fortune to see computer history made at DEC in the early eighties. And some interesting times after that. I tell war stories, and my wife urges to put them in the book. I Will read your book first.
    best regards from the Rainbow group,

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  3. Avram – Great write-up. Here’s a bit more color: One thing that I’ll always remember about Doug is what a gracious, welcoming, and exciting host he was when inviting and receiving me to see his cable modem trial on the Viacom system in Castro Valley, California in late 1994. It was the pre-DOCSIS era, I had never met Doug, only had a few months under my belt working the cable industry, and knew nothing!

    Doug was my “larger than life” teacher. He excitedly explained how the cable modem system worked using a mix of Hybrid Networks, Intel, and General Instrument technology. A return path for each modem was set up on-demand and then torn down after an idle-timeout so that another person’s modem could use the same carrier. Yet, one particular modem was misbehaving by keeping a return carrier up all the time. It was a bandwidth hog! As such, no other modems could use the return carrier, and Doug initially could not figure out why the modem never went idle until he realized through some IP packet sniffing that the user had figured out how to automatically set the clock on his PC every minute. This kept the cable modem always busy–and Doug intervened by having a conversation with the customer.

    All Doug’s customers were part of this pre-DOCSIS trial and Doug shared vivid stories from the focus groups with quotes like “You will have to pry my modem from my cold dead hands”, “Please start charging me for my trial of high-speed data service so I will know I can keep my modem forever”, and “It [my modem] has changed my life!”

    In that very first meeting with Doug Semon being such a wonderful host, he taught me the importance of cable modem service to customers and the technical challenges that lay ahead–all of which informed us as we embarked on the journey to create DOCSIS.

    I am forever grateful to Doug for all he did to help me, our industry, and other students over the years. He is missed

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    • Thank you for your comment and for sharing your experience with Doug. Here is another story about the trial that Doug shared via email. “One man with family in East Asia, when prompted how the modem had made a difference, if any, in his daily life, literally had to choke back tears at the question. “This thing has changed my life!” he said, losing his composure completely five words into his answer. Many users even refused to return their cable modems at the end of the trial”.

      I am almost done with the broadband section of my book and will send you the draft so that hopefully you can give your feedback.

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