What Makes Cable 'Cable'?

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By Ron Hendrickson

Once upon a time, it was easy to tell what cable was.

"Cable" was the piece of coax that screwed into a box on the TV set. It provided TV service, period, originally in places where over-the-air TV reception was poor or non-existent. Ma Bell was the one telephone in the living room and provided telephone service, period. Computers took up entire city blocks, and satellites were a Buck Rogers thing that Uncle Sam used to keep an eye on those dirty Commies. "Wireless" was strictly radio.

Over time, though, cable has grown and expanded its reach, as have the other industries. The lines are blurred now.

Cable now uses satellites for distribution and offers video, Internet, telephone and sometimes wireless service. So do Ma Bell's descendants and the satellite outfits. Cell carriers and computer/Internet companies offer mixes of these. All are increasingly using the same technologies: IP and wireless, Ethernet, fiber optics, and on and on. All are increasingly eating out of each other's lunch boxes.

So, where's the difference? What makes cable "cable" today? If it's not the physical medium or the services or the technologies, what is it?

I believe the difference is culture -- that is to say, people and how they think.

From its inception, cable has been entrepreneurial, innovative and results-oriented. Back in the '40s, Ed Parsons and the other pioneers saw an opportunity, figured out how to make it work, executed the plan, and in so doing created a whole new industry. These guys weren't ivory-tower dwellers -- they didn't just think up a new thing -- they thought it up and then rolled up their sleeves and went out and did it.

That mindset continues in cable to this day and is its greatest asset. The industry attracts and rewards innovators who make things happen. Being opportunity-seekers, such people tend to switch companies more often than those working in more staid, sedentary industries. But although cable folk sometimes change employers like other people change socks, it's unusual for a cable vet to leave the industry itself. It's kind of funny, actually -- a common greeting at trade shows is, "Who are you with now?" The golf shirts change, but the faces remain the same.

That is what makes cable "cable": the people, the innovative opportunity-seekers who make things happen. The technology piece is important, but it's almost like Alfred Hitchcock's "MacGuffin" -- it's what all the players are after, but it's secondary to the players themselves.

Ron Hendrickson is BTR's managing editor. Reach him at ron@broadbandtechreport.com.

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