Chris Bowick is, quite possibly, the first person in history to be able to both throw a tight spiral pass and design radio-frequency circuits for cable video-transmission equipment.
In the early 1970s, Bowick was starting quarterback at his high school in Columbus, Ga. Voted most valuable player his senior year, he went on to play at the U.S. Air Force Academy for a year until a shoulder injury sidelined him.
College football's loss was cable's gain, it turns out. In addition to earning a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech, Bowick went on to receive a master's degree in business administration from the University of Colorado. Since then, he has established himself as one of the industry's preeminent technologists, which is why he receives the NCTA's Science & Technology Vanguard Award this year.
Bowick, 51, certainly has called some heads-up plays for Cox Communications. He was hired in 1998 as VP of technology development by then-CTO Alex Best, who groomed him to be his successor. Bowick did just that in 2000, becoming chief technical officer/senior VP of engineering of the Atlanta-based systems operator.
He has led the effort in widely deploying phone service. Cox was pulling off the triple play—cable, Internet and telephone—well before the rest of the cable industry started getting its act together on voice. Cox now offers voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) service in all 35 of its markets and counts about 1.9 million voice customers.
“We've been in VoIP for a long, long time,” he says. “Frankly, we have operationalized this thing very well.”
Bowick has also built out an all-fiber–backbone network architecture at Cox and—displaying a knack for clever marketing—branded the operator's bandwidth-boosting initiatives as the Extendable Optical Network (EON), which includes switched-digital video and node-splitting.
Right now, Bowick is juggling more than a dozen big projects. Among them: meeting the FCC's mandate for separable set-top security by July 1, launching video-on-demand in six new markets, undertaking trials of OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) software so Cox can launch it on all of its systems in 2008, and working on several full-market interactive-TV trials. That's just the short list.
As an engineer with an MBA, Bowick knows about dollars and what makes sense. He sees technical and financial elegance in cable's hybrid fiber-coaxial network (HFC) technology. There's no need for operators to scramble and pay bazillions of dollars to build out fiber to the home—“emphatically, no,” he says—because, he believes, HFC will continue to serve cable economically into the next decade.
Aside from the high price tag, Bowick believes, cable doesn't need fiber to the curb to fire up more bandwidth. “HFC has a lot of legs—great legs for the foreseeable future,” he says. “Our network has very capably migrated over time, using a set of tools that will provide immense, targeted bandwidth into homes.”
For Cox, one such tool is upgrading the network beyond 750 Megahertz (MHz). Today, about 32% of Cox's systems are at 870 MHz or higher.
“It's time-consuming from the aspect that we've got 100,000 miles of plant out there that we need to upgrade,” says Bowick. “But we can do this very, very quickly. The choreography is such that you can do a drop-in [to increase spectrum capacity] very easily.” He is confident that EON—and the HFC network—will handily keep up to challenges from Verizon and DirecTV, which have aggressive plans for adding HDTV channels.
Cox's engineers are deploying switched-digital video in a test market and expect to roll out the technology in two additional markets this year. “We're just now kicking that off in the field,” Bowick says. The beauty of switched digital, in his eyes, is that it becomes more efficient as more channels are added into the mix. Instead of being broadcast as linear channels are today, switched channels are delivered to a group of subscribers only if somebody in that group specifically requests it.
“The intent for us would be to launch switched digital for both high-definition and niche content,” Bowick says.
He has command of the whole forest, but Bowick has to make sure that, when he goes in, he can find a way out. For example, an immediate concern, not just for Cox but also for most operators, is preparing to deploy CableCard-based set-top boxes in July. “We're working feverishly to meet that date,” he says. “There's a lot of back-office work and provisioning in our headends, but we believe we're going to get there.”
Under Bowick, Cox typically does get it done. “We have an awful lot going on,” he says. “It's a techie's dream to be here.”