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.