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Rouzbeh Yassini-Fard


Interview with Rouzbeh Yassini-Fard

Rouzbeh Yassini-Fard, Ph.D. is an entrepreneur, philanthropist and the Father of the Cable Modem. In this interview with Ethernet Alliance chair Peter Jones for The Voices of Ethernet oral history archive, Rouzbeh reflects on how the lessons of Ethernet, specifically the focus on low cost, interoperability, and open standardization, impacted his work in creating the cable modem. 


“Ethernet has done a fantastic job of connecting people. Ethernet has done a great job of connecting the workforce together and telehealth. But the next thing is, would Ethernet be able to connect the real-time data of the air that we breathe and the water that we drink, to be able to provide valuable health information to improve our quality of life?” 

Rouzbeh Yassini-Fard

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    Interview Transcript

    Peter Jones: Welcome back to Voices of Ethernet. Today we’re talking to Rouzbeh Yassini-Fard. Now Rouzbeh is a long term friend and also a key figure in the development of the cable modem industry, which I view as sort of going hand in glove with Ethernet. So Rouzbeh, it’s great to talk to you again.  Would you introduce yourself to the listeners, please?

    Rouzbeh Yassini: My pleasure, Peter. Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to talk with you.  I’m Rouzbeh Yassini, an Iranian-American who has been living outside suburb of Boston since 1986. I consider myself as a serial entrepreneur who have devoted my time and knowledge to innovating, creating new technology that helps humanity and the planet Earth.

    Peter Jones: So that’s a pretty broad scope. Do you want to narrow that a little bit? Because that could include developing new species of plants or potentially working on international relations.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Well, no, mainly technologies. I’ve been involved with thirteen plus companies and the key innovation of my era has been what is known as a cable modem. So I’m a technologist in which I would develop boxes, systems, architectures, that ubiquitously helps humanity by using the technology for the right reason, and right objectives.

    Peter Jones: So just because I am annoying, as you know this, right? Some of the issue with technology is, you can imagine ways it’s good for humanity, you can’t actually enforce it. So I think this is a place where we can consider what we build and we can offer guidance. Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to actually make sure that stuff gets used well. And I think that’s always a bit of a problem. You have to look ahead and say, what are the likely uses? All right, so going back a little bit. So a disclaimer for all of those watching. Rouzbeh and I actually worked together in a company in the first half of 1990, which is going back in dates just a little bit. So Rouzbeh, do you want to tell us a little bit of a story about what that company was doing, and then how that rolled through into the cable modem world? 

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Excellent. So as you know, my background comes from two elements. One from General Electric where I learned TVs, and cable TVs concept, and the other one was Proteon, where I learned from concept of the networking. So those two came together, allowed me to work with a company that had the mixture of the technology, where you could actually put data over a coax in that nature. So that’s where we actually met, Peter, if you remember. And in that era, my goal–

    Peter Jones:  Yeah, I remember very well. It’s like a formative part of my career stories.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yeah, and my goal was to be able to answer a question that I came up with in 1987.  In 1987, my vision was that there are two types of a network. We had the data network which work what we said, Peter, that many people can be connected in short distance. And then on the other hand, we had data that will go long distance and only few people could work on it. So I came up with the idea that why not to have a solution that voice, data, video can work for many peoples over long distance. And that’s where my visions came together, shared with the technology that now it’s being known as a cable modem. And that was the era that you and I were kind of working together some in late 1980s, early 1990s. In that concept, we were able to actually do two things: pick up the best of the standards, which was coax cable TV, which was going to many consumers, and on the other hand, pick up a standard internet, which was readily available, multi-band or a standard, and could help to ease the connections and the connectivity of such a networking, both for institution and residential.

    Peter Jones: One of the things that springs to mind here is that when I look back, I think the key things where Ethernet has progressed, and personal opinion, is that’s when it’s used the existing infrastructure.  The “I need you to build an entirely new cable plan” is hard, and I think that the twisted pair succeeded because it could use what was in the buildings already, as we do regulate that. And it seems to me, the whole cable modem thing was the same thing. You didn’t invent a brand new medium. It’s like, what is around that I can use? I mean, was that in your head?

    Rouzbeh Yassini:  That’s exactly right. So you really had two great opportunities. Coax was everywhere, all over America, all over the globe. Every home had access to a coax, where they received their entertainment. So it was already existing cable infrastructure. Bingo. Ethernet, on the other hand, was a standard data networking that everybody in corporate America was using and around the world for connecting the office environment and office automation. And my challenge was, how do I get that beautiful standard Ethernet and beautiful standard cable to work together? There were many challenges.  One time, there were listed more than 500 plus challenges, but fundamentally, the two challenges was, get the Ethernet go a long distance of 200 miles, and get cable– which was a hostile environment for the data and very noisy– to be more friendly and be automated in a manner that the data can travel and autocorrect itself without being damaged by the hostile environment of the cable noise. So to do those two things, we had to invent a whole new protocol. This protocol, MAC layer access, which called UNI Link 2, it was, you know, entered from the bottom up, and the goal of the UNI Link was to grab Ethernet packets, take them over long distance up to 200 miles, in the noisy environment of the cable infrastructures, and allow every consumer to be connected with it, and intuitively be able to get them under system and flying right. It took us some time, but within six years, we were able to make exactly that dream come true.

    Peter Jones: So if I recall my history correctly, the thing where it started was actually more of a little bit of corporate places. I’m pretty sure I remember deploying some of this stuff in arsenals and other places.  So it was not home facilities, but it was corporations, or entities that had this type of infrastructure and needed to basically build the network. And that seemed to me to be that sort of a place where we got to pioneer a bunch of this work. Is that correct?

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Well, you’ve got a good memory, Peter, so I take my hat off to you. In fact, there was an organization in Mississippi River called Rock Island Arsenal, known as  RIA for the short. Rock Island Arsenal was a facility, an army facility where they provide variety of their materials for the army around the world. Rock Island Arsenal was early adopter of the technology, and in fact, they have 5,000 users up and running in 1989 in that facility, thanks to the taxpayer and government of US funding this type of technology. We were able to be years ahead of everybody else by troubleshooting and making the networks to work in institutions like Rock Island Arsenal, or Emory University or Vandenberg Air Force Base, or a number of other facilities.

    Peter Jones: A bunch of those places being in the military, they tend to have fairly high expectations. So it seems to me it was a great way because you could really work through the proof points and get the value and actually make the thing reliable.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: That’s correct, that’s correct. You know, we also made it reliable, but we also made it scalable and we also made it manageable. And then we were able to bring all that together to actually lower cost. Really, the credit goes to those facilities in 1988, 1989, 1990, which gave us also learning all the operations of that side of a large network that comes together, what it means and how we have to manage them. So I take my hat off to those guys and we were able to learn very quickly from them. And that’s why we were able to bring $18,000 cable modem in 1990 to less than $299 by 1996, which became to be de facto standard or basic DNA of the DOCSIS technology to go forwards.

    Peter Jones: So if I’m, again, still thinking through this, another part– not just the technology part but sort of a cultural part– was at the time, the Ethernet– management of data networks was a little fast and furious, and you had to take this in to satisfy the network with a very different culture. And so you mentioned management. I think the management provisioning side was much more important for that for the people. So I would imagine that was a really interesting sort of culture barrier to go with.  Let’s go for the fast and furious Ethernet, guys. Let’s plug it in to the cable people who are actually selling that service, and have to make sure it works. So that culture change must have been pretty dramatic.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yeah. I referred to it as a plug and play. What we were used to be plug and pray. You connected these boxes and you hope it works. But in order to introduce it to residential cable, which is now broadly being used around the globe, we had to convert the plug and pray technology to plug and play. And that’s a game where the Ethernet comes to play. Ethernet was the nicest standard, easy to use, easy configurable, multi-vendors sell product. And once we made some automation technology to work within our cable modem, that deal with aberration of the coax and the cable TV environment and residential network, we were able to build the plug and play technology.

    Peter Jones:  Well, plug and play and manageable. So plug, play and operate. And so just thinking this through, this sort of pre-dates when the main carriers got into things like DSL. Because, you know, cable modem was some large number of years ahead of them.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Exactly. You know, the cable modem, if you really look at it, I called the company LANcity, which means local area network, and extended citywide. So we brought the same capability that–

    Peter Jones:  — take the LAN from here to there.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yeah. So but at the residential level, right? If you look at the cable industry, cable industry was purely video industry. They brought 100 percent of the revenue from video, and then they were started focusing, later on, on the voice. They had no idea what the power of the data could be. What we did, we transformed them from a video industry to telecommunication industry. And if you look at Comcast’s revenue in 2022, they actually brought more money from data than they brought from the video.

    Peter Jones: Which is much like this is. And just on that, were the initial adopters actually home, or was it starting– when it started out, was it first businesses trying to solve the getting the LAN across the city problem?

    Rouzbeh Yassini: No. You know, once we passed the schools, universities, government institutions, facility-wide networking, air force bases, and those to the data, our goal from 1991 was work on residential stuff. We went to Stowe, which is a small town in Massachusetts. We went to San Francisco. We went to a number of the small cable operators, because the big cable operators were not going to take the challenge. And we did a lot of great work with a lot of the small cable companies, like Alabama Cables, you know, and so on.

    Peter Jones: So this is the ones who say, “This is a great idea. I’m willing to try this.”

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Absolutely, absolutely. So the barrier to enter with the small cable operator was a lot easier. Also, at that time if you recall, Peter, we had a lot more small cable operators around the country before the big ten tried to buy everybody and move forward. But all said and done, we really were 13 employees, if you will. Originally, that we put our minds together, so six advisors and myself, total 20, and people who created these massive innovations on technology called cable modem. And well over a million people working on broadband industry, and everybody taking the fruit of that. In a sense, if you look at COVID in 2020, if we didn’t have the broadband as reliable, as manageable, as easy as been used, the entire world would have been in different trouble.

    Peter Jones: We’d have been in a very different place. So I think there’s three questions I sort of want to go, and I think they’re in parallel. Firstly is about the development of DOCSIS. And then there’s development of DOCSIS and cable modem, sort of being parallel with Ethernet. So I see them as being very complementary things that were happening at the same time. They were working dependent.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: So cable modem, so it had to be created and innovated from bottom up, because the technology on Ethernet, we had to look at Ethernet value that it had, but also yeah, how do you overcome the speed of light? How do you come latency? How do you come all those good parameters? So UNI Link 2 was invented from bottom up to be able to extend–

    Peter Jones:  — for a second. Ethernet succeeded when it went away from shared medium, and you had one. You had not only a shared medium, you had a really interesting shared medium.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yes, correct. And that shared media was a blessing, right? It was a total blessing in the sense. But so in order to also create a cable modem, you had to make the RF technology to work in a way that data modulation of a cable does not impact the videos around it. So the cable industry was very worried that how much noise we’re going to put in adjacent channel. So that was really thing. So what happened, when you put all that together, and we had six years’ time to test it, verify it, validate it, in the residential cable, that gave us all the experience we needed to know how to equalize the solution to work.  When cable industry wanted to start adopting the data, back in 1995, they had already learned a bad lesson. The lesson that they learned was, oh my god, every setup box from different manufacturer is not standard. So in fact, they learned the ethernet lesson. The Ethernet lesson was, low cost, multi-vendors.  Open standard is a good thing. So they said, in the case of data, “Guys, let’s not make the same mistake that we build in setup box. Let’s adopt the value that Ethernet brought in, which was a standard, a standard, a standard,” and that created the momentum for DOCSIS, where they put an RFP out that says, who can put high speed data over a cable, and who is willing to give this technology for free to be used by the industry? We were six years ahead of everybody else, and we put our technology right there as a baseline and DNA of the DOCSIS. Our MAC protocol UNI Link was adopted, and general instruments, modulation technology was adopted, and the two together brought the DOCSIS alive.

    Peter Jones: So this is sort of like the whole thing, where yes, they’re on the Ethernet, but then the entire plan– the success was based around making that consumable, right? Because if you held it for yourself, it would be really interesting technology, but it would have been fragmented into very small pieces.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: You said it lovely. And also, we put our technology available to stand out with the zero royalty, free royalty, and that was really the key. Again, another lesson learned from Ethernet. So Bob Metcalfe perhaps should be known as not just inventor of the cable Ethernet, and not as the inventor of the multi-vendor shared video, but he needs to be known, his principal, a ripple effect to many other technologies, including cable modems, where we adopted those open mindset of the standards to go where we have to go.

    Peter Jones: So can you talk a little bit more about what driving you? You mentioned this earlier about technology for the good of humans. And so when you were thinking of the cable modem, like what did you see coming? What did you think you were going to enable?

    Rouzbeh Yassini: You know, if you look at my book that I published in 2003, and if you go back to my 1997 FCC presentation, and if you go back to my 1988 meeting I had off site with my staff, I come from Middle East. I come from area that fossil fuel and oil runs then 99.9 percent of the world. And with that come pollution and with that comes one politics that world’s run. And it’s always been my dream that, couldn’t we do telecommuting and could we do otherwise than not using fossil fuel? And by default, that would have solved a lot of the problem that Middle East is facing, and a lot of problem that population that it’s facing. So my dream was, would I be able to have impact? And I was lucky enough, being in General Electric and then Proteon, to learn a couple of core technologies that brought a vision to me that my box happened to be in center of that. In fact, if you look at the study that came from a university in India, indicated that during the COVID era, the air pollution went down by 50 percent. Fifty percent, can you imagine that? Who would have ever thought–?

    Peter Jones: I’ve actually seen the pictures. The normal– in the pictures in Delhi where they could actually see the horizon.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yes, yes. So that was my passion. My passion have always been not– look, I don’t want – to put words to it –  work to make money, and then go build a foundation and try to distribute money. My principal motivation has always been, what can I do to contribute to the society in a way that from get-go, my technology can have a major impact? And cable modem happened to be the right box in the right time–?

    Peter Jones:  — so technology’s a lead. But how can you enable other people to do more?

    Rouzbeh Yassini:  Exactly. Thank you for simplifying it that well.

    Peter Jones: Actually, so just on the sidelines, again, I recall an interesting story from you, because obviously we were both a little younger at the time. And if I remember correctly, you were coming back from Germany at one stage with a whole bunch of stuff in your back pocket. And the unfortunate result of where you came from and everything you were carrying produced a little bit of a challenge. Do you just want to walk through that for a second?

    Rouzbeh Yassini:  Sure. That was 1983. I was working in General Electric, and in GE, we were developing ITT digital TV chip sets. And I went to consumer electronic show, CES, to show the digital TV works. And we had worked so hard around the clock to get. There was only two working chips that ITT– two out of the lot of hundred that could work. And I happened to have those two chips to take it to CES.  So I left Germany, Freiburgers, and then to Frankfurt and tried to come in New York. The gentleman in customs was asking me what are these? I told him, “These are the chips.” He looked at me, “Huh? They don’t look edible. What do you mean by chip?” He had no idea what the chip was. So they hold me there for nine hours and I missed the CES show because I couldn’t get there on time on opening day. And took long time to get out of the airport with those two chips. I tried to explain to them what they are. We had a high level people, from legal team in General Electric come in and explain to the guy what the intention of those chips was, and things worked–

    Peter Jones: It’s amazing, because many of us have had a not quite as bad but similar experience to someone that’s like, “What is that thing you’re carrying, and why do you have it in your bag?” It’s like, “Well, this is complicated to explain.”

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yeah. No, that was– I mean, yeah, I’m deeply involved with the invention of the digital ITT chip sets. And so it’s sidebar story, but I’m amazed you remember that story that I had shared with you, yeah.

    Peter Jones: Well, I told you, you are one of the people I remember a lot about. Tell me how you see the future of connectivity evolving. Because I would say at the minute, the bulk of what we have– right, so if I go in the not-5G world, the bulk of what we have is technologies to give ethernet to people, one way or another.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yes.

    Peter Jones: And of course, WIFI is, to some extent, an access mechanism for Ethernet. So what do you think comes next?

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yeah, love your question, Peter. So my vision has always been, in order to give humanity a chance to save the planet Earth, that can be in a better shape to pass to our future generations, we need to obtain dynamic and the live data from our waters and airs. So I imagine a day that we have all the–

    Peter Jones:  This is the– you can’t measure, you can’t manage, and you can’t adjust.

    Rouzbeh Yassini:  Yeah. So if we get a sensor based Ethernet that hops around the globe, that we can collect that appropriate data from the ocean and waters and from the airs, it would be a dream come true, where high school kids and university kids and the scientists will have now real time data to be able to see the variation of our planet Earth, that will make a profound impact in the quality of life for the people. So I think Ethernet has done a fantastic job of connecting the people. Ethernet has done a great job of connecting the workforce together and the telehealth. But the next thing is, would the Ethernet be able to connect the real-time data, the air that we breathe and the water that we drink, to be able to provide valuable health information to improve our quality of life. That’s where I see the networking goes, and that’s where I hope it goes. Perhaps not in my life cycle, but hopefully soon after.

    Peter Jones:  So thinking about this, as you well remember, Ethernet is 50 this year. And so I’ve been carrying around some 10BASE5 cable and some 10BASE2 stuff, showing it to people, and their first answer is, “What is this?” 

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yeah.

    Peter Jones: And I’m saying, “This is Ethernet.” They say, “No, that’s not Ethernet.” Like, let me explain. So right now, Ethernet is actually at its highest dynamic range ever, because we have concurrent standards working on 1.6T and 10 megabits, which I don’t know if we had this conversation while we were doing 10 megabit, but we’re going back to see the OT world.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Wow.

    Peter Jones: If I look at most buildings, right, it’s going to have one IT network and a bunch of OT networks. And so I think that is the next place where we can contact all those production control systems on. As I said, we have 1.6T really being built for the AI data center case, and 10 megabit being built to connect machines together. And so I think that partly answers your question. We’re actually on that path.  Because my belief is, that’s the next thing we can do. So Ethernet succeeded primarily through the existence of the BASE-T cabling, right. Cable modem succeeded because we had that. The next thing is, we actually have to run Ethernet over serial to basically deal with all the OT stuff. So that’s actually my white whale at the moment.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: That would be fantastic, because think about it, Peter. If for a moment that we look at the planet Earth as the only planet that we know in the solar system that life can exist. If we be able to get–

    Peter Jones:  –you don’t get to restart once you mess it up. So like a game, right? In the game, you do this, you mess it up, it’ll just start again, right? We don’t have the ability to reboot it.

    Rouzbeh Yassini:  Okay, yeah. So that makes perfect sense on that side. So if we can now have, the low power consumption, networking around the globe, runs on a standard, such as Ethernet, and be able to gather this valuable information from key elements of the airs and waters, I’m just fascinated with that element. To me, that is the passport for the extension of the humanity in our planet, if it can work out.

    Peter Jones:  So also, we’ve done an interview with Paul Nikolich, and as it turns out– though I didn’t know– Paul and you actually are sort of getting on. So where did you and Paul fit together, and where do your passions align?

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Well, very good. So Paul, as you know, is a major contributor to IEEE and the standardization. Thanks god, we have people like him to dedicate their life to go forward. Paul and I met in 1988, in the predecessor of the LANcity, which was a company called Apple Tech. Apple Tech was going down in a number of different ways, because of technology that they had was not really producible in a mass away, and so on. So we’re now going to go to add details. But anyhow, when I interviewed a company to join them as a vice president of engineering, I wasn’t smart enough to really know how bad that company was financially, and how bad that company was deteriorating. I just loved the technology that they had. And so that was very good to work. Paul was working for with Andy Borsa, and Chris Gorbisky, in that company. And he was literally left second day that I came on board, and he told me, “That’s no reflection on you, Rouz, but it’s basically, I don’t believe this company will ever make it, and I have a family to feed.” But he and I were able to have, in that short communication that we had, be such a thoughtful of each other and respecting each other that he helped me as an advisor, even though he left the company. And he was my key advisor from 1988 to 1996. I actually joined a company that he invented later called Broadband Access System as a board member. And our relationship has ever since gotten stronger and stronger. I consider Paul as a brother to me, where I’ve known him since 1988, and his expertise was digital signal processing and RF. And now it was instrumental for me to reshape the entire cable modem. Just give you an example. Originally, QPSK technology that was invented by our friend Andy Borsa had about 45 different alignments. So it would have taken one full day of two people to align one cable modem, that might work in that day, because where they align it in the lab doesn’t necessarily mean it works in the closet or in the– you know, somewhere that is warm or cold.  So we had to take that modem, that functionality and be able to convert it to a technology that they can build 1,000 a day, without an alignment, and be able to work in a hostile environment of the 45 degrees C, right? And Paul was instrumental in helping–

    Peter Jones: So this is sort of where I’d describe– Silicon Valley, often just people want to buy Ferraris and Formula One cars. But I’m more in the Camrys and Corollas market, right? There’s a cool technology, and then there’s making it consumable, and they’re very different.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yeah, yeah.

    Peter Jones: I had this brilliant thought. The brilliant thought has now escaped me. Oh, there was the other one. So I mentioned earlier, before the interview, that I’d spent some time with John Chapman at Cisco Live, and so I know John was deeply involved at the start. I just wondered if you could complete a profile where he and you fit into the creation and really, it’s the productization, or the making consumable the technology, right? Because as you said, there is the one that you can make work sometimes, and there is the one that works every time, and they’re very different.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: So the second part of my life, after inventing LANcity and cable modem, and that we created LANcity, was joined an organization as executive consultant and adviser to help the DOCSIS standardization and interoperability go forward. So I created a workforce of perhaps 500 plus visiting engineers and contributing engineers from multiple vendors, to help to build this open standardization.  Among them, there were 25 to 26 key people from 1996 to 1999, which were with me, day in, day out, as an architect, as a system engineer, as an innovator, as a thinktank. All these people, John Chapman included in that, were the group that assisted us to solve and innovate and build all the hooks and the tools that we needed in our technology to have the DOCSIS to be interoperable, DOCSIS to be certified as a multi-vendors and DOCSIS have no recall in any shape or form. So John was instrumental, working– John Chapman was instrumental, working quickly from broad comms and John Olme from my company, LANcity, and a number of other people like Jerry White. This group of 25 people were committed, above and beyond the line of duty, and their own company, to help to make sure we can get our MAC protocol that LANcity had donated to the DOCSIS, and the quanta was donated by GI to be a better, faster, cheaper and more interoperable. So John’s name goes in history for one of those guys. He was one of the top 25 assisting and enabling DOCSIS as standardization to actually work in the millions of the levels that we brought to the market.

    Peter Jones: So to some extent, this is taking the lessons of what ethernet and 802 did, and replicating them with a somewhat different technology. It’s like, I know how to make this work, because I’ve seen it work. So I just need to basically run the same play again. You know, slightly different environment, but it goes. Okay, so we’ve seen how this succeeds. Let’s go do that.

    Rouzbeh Yassini:  So you said it right again, Peter, and that’s where I gave the name of LANcity.  Ethernet created affordable LAN in corporate America that was worked ubiquitously everywhere. So when I called my company LANcity, it was exactly as you meant, and that’s what DOCSIS took over. How can you use the experience of Ethernet? How could you use experience of the data networking and make it ubiquitous and make it to work, regardless of what media is going through? And again, that’s why Bob Metcalfe should get credit for building a root system, that a lot of branches grow out from it, and this is one of them.

    Peter Jones: I’m assuming you saw that he received the ACM Turing Award this year.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: I did not see that, actually. Congratulations. That’s great.

    Peter Jones: It happened a little while ago, which I think is very appropriate in the Ethernet’s 50th anniversary.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Yeah, it’s so good to see those real things happen to real people, right?

    Peter Jones: Yeah. And so I think, the other thing about Bob is, interesting person, but it also more than willing to recognize the contributions of everyone else involved.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Bob has been like that, yeah. Bob is a good friend and I’ve met him a few times. I was in a company with him as a board member and I learned how he thinks, how he operates. So it’s good to have those real mentors, right?

    Peter Jones: Absolutely.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: And he used to live right by my house in Beacon Street, in Boston, before he moved to Austin, Texas. So he came to be a Texas hero.

    Peter Jones: So any final thoughts, Rouzbeh? I mean, I think particularly what would be interesting is a little bit of advice coming from the non-traditional background. Like, if you’re looking for people who want to follow your sort of path, what should they be thinking about?

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Peter, I’ve been from the schools for mentoring a lot of the student in university. That is my passion for many years, that I have done parallel to my technical job. And I think my advice has always been to the people, find a real problem that we are facing, and based on that problem, see if you can provide a solution. Don’t find a solution and then try to fit it in a problem. We have many problems that we are facing as humanity in the world. We are facing many issues for a scale of the population we have in the world, and we have many problems that we are facing in our food systems, health systems, and our education system. So my advice is that, those problems are real. Observe them, and look at them in the deep, and then use your innovation and technology and see if you can solve one of those. If we continue doing that, as Bob did with the Ethernet, I think we will go a long way, as you have done, with chairing and magnifying the message that Ethernet has brought after 50 years, then we’ll be fine. So I’m very hopeful and very positive to see the new generation behind us carry that flag. I just hope we can give them better than a shark tank and better than government-funded technology. Allow the schools and universities to flourish with that type of a thought process in a faster way.

    Peter Jones: So if I paraphrase it a little bit, it’s go find a problem that’s real, that you really are excited about. Go find a bunch of smart friends, and go work.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Bingo. And as you know, our development process today is a lot easier that what you and I faced back in 1990. You know, in 1990, we had to write every line of the code. We have to solve every single issue. Today, thanks to the cloud-based solution, you can almost pull universal teams together overnight. So I agree with that, the way you simplified it. Thanks so much.

    Peter Jones: All right, so Rouzbeh, thank you so much for talking with us today, because we really appreciate hearing your background, given the place you’ve been and interested in your view of it. So again, thank you very much.

    Rouzbeh Yassini: Thanks, Peter, for the opportunity and good luck.

    Peter Jones: Okay. So listeners, please visit the Voices of Ethernet section on the Ethernet Alliance website, because we’re going to continue to document the experiences of the people who were around when we built this technology, and we’d really like to get your feedback. So thank you very much, and we’ll see you on the next episode.

    Peter Jones:  Welcome back to Voices of Ethernet. Today we’re talking to Paul Nikolich, one of the busiest people behind Ethernet’s rise through his account and experience with a central group of technologies history, this is the LAN/MAN Standards Committee otherwise known as IEEE 802. Thanks for joining Paul. Can you introduce yourself please?

    Paul Nikolich:  Sure. Thanks, Peter and thanks for having me on. I really appreciate the opportunity to give you my perspective on what some of the wonderful things we’ve done in 802 specifically in the field of Ethernet. I’m self-employed. I am an advisor to several small tech companies. I’m also an angel investor in tech companies and on the board of some nonprofits and companies. And I’ve been chairing 802 for the past 22 years, it’s hard to believe. But yeah, that’s my focus, my focus is on helping 802 develop standards and companies to develop products and services that’ll be useful in the marketplace.

    Peter Jones:  So, Paul you’ve been chair of 802 since 2001, right? This is a long time. So, when and how did you become involved?

    Paul Nikolich:  Yeah, so I first got involved in 802 when I joined a company called Interlan which was developing Ethernet interfaces back in the ’80s. The original Ethernet interfaces that were for thick coax and thin coax and the hot new physical layer back then in the late ’80s was twisted pair wiring, which existed in buildings, you didn’t have to pull new cabling in order to network your computers together. So Interlan hired me. My technical specialty is analog and RF design and they hired me to develop their 10Base-T interfaces. 10Base-T was a new project in 802 specifically designed to carry Ethernet packets over the twisted pair wiring I just mentioned, the telephone wiring that existed in the walls. And that’s how I got started, I got started as a regular participant helping to develop the 10Base-T standard which we completed later that year. And I found it fascinating, the whole process of standards development and building consensus and working together with natural competitors but working together cooperatively was a very, very intriguing opportunity for me. And I really enjoyed it and I gradually assumed more and more responsibility within 802 going from the 10Base-T project to leading a conformance test project to becoming the vice chair of 802.3 then becoming the vice chair of 802 in 1996 and then the chair of 802 in 2001. And I never believed that I would be still chair of 802 in 2023 yet here I am.

    Peter Jones:  You must have done a good job.

    Paul Nikolich:  That’s it for me, I have made it clear to everyone that 2024 when my term is up, I’m done, we need to get some fresh young blood into the leadership of the organization.

    Peter Jones:  So, standards development is often seen as this mysterious thing that happens behind closed doors. So what do you think is the thing that’s most commonly misunderstood about standards development?

    Paul Nikolich:  I think what’s misunderstood about standards development is that it takes too long.  People and executives say, “Well, you know, if you’re going to develop this standard it’s going to take two to three years and why does it take so much time to do that?” And the fact of the matter is that if you have a successful project that’s meeting a need in the marketplace you will have a lot of people engaged in the participation of that project to develop that particular standard for in the case of 802 and 802.3 the Ethernet interfaces. And it takes time to build consensus, you have a lot of individuals bringing different perspectives, different ideas on how to accomplish the project’s goals, and the chair of the project has a tremendous job in terms of getting people with diverse opinions to eventually come to a common understanding of how to proceed and then moving on. So, what’s most misunderstood is the time it takes to build consensus and the value associated with the consensus, once it is arrived at. The value being you have the benefit of dozens, if not hundreds of people’s experience making sure that the technical specification is of the highest possible quality so that when manufacturers go out to build components, silicon, systems, software, it will easily interoperate and flawlessly interoperate despite who’s manufacturing the platform. So that’s I think the least understood aspect. We understand it Peter and I and everybody that’s in 802 certainly understand it, the value of it and the necessity of it, but the outsiders, they don’t get it. It’s like, “Why can’t you move faster.” Democracy is slow.

    Peter Jones:  Well, that’s also providing a document that everyone can implement and everyone gets right, everyone can get right is hard. So as 802 Chairman, right you oversee a lot of standards happening at once, right, so how do you manage that?

    Paul Nikolich:  By having an excellent team around me. The way 802 is organized, it’s organized into working groups and within those working groups there are projects and within those projects there’s dozens to hundreds of people working on the individual projects and most of them are very dedicated and very skilled, experienced…

    Peter Jones:  Very opinionated.

    Paul Nikolich:  Very opinionated for sure, which is good, you want opinions, you want different perspectives.  But that’s how I’m able to oversee all of the work is by having excellent people around me from the upper management, from the executive committee level down all the way through the active participants.

    Peter Jones:  So this is the classic delegate– delegate correctly is the way to get good results.

    Paul Nikolich:  Right, right.  One of the benefits of being the chairman is you get to appoint several of the executive committee members.  So I get to appoint the two vice chairs, the two secretaries, the treasurer, members emeritus and the working groups that I mentioned earlier like the 802.3 working group and 802.11 wireless LAN working group, we’ve got five different, five, six, seven groups, working groups and technical advisory groups, they elect the chairman and the vice chairman are part of the executive committee. But all of those people, every single member of the executive committee is a really experienced knowledgeable individual in the field of standardization and strongly endorse and adhere to the principles of openness and transparency that has made 802 so successful.

    Peter Jones:  Okay, so what do you think is the most important lesson that you’ve learned over your time?

    Paul Nikolich:  Surround yourself with good people and the better they are, the more skilled they are, the better it is for the organization and the better is for me. I love the fact that most of the people that I’ve got reporting to me are better engineers than I am and better standards developers than I am. I just kind of try to set a high-level direction and they take off accordingly to their own particular market needs.

    Peter Jones:  Sort of to go on with that a little bit, certainly one of the things that I’ve learned is how important it is to be able to understand other people. To build consensus you have to basically be able to figure out what other people want and need otherwise if you just show up and say, “This is what we should do, you get nowhere.”

    Paul Nikolich:  Absolutely, you have to be a good listener, much more important than being a good talker. 

    Peter Jones:  And that’s not a skill that comes notably for many engineers.

    Paul Nikolich:  Well some people have a tough time with it, I agree, but most people eventually get it, they eventually get, “Listen, I may have a different idea than you do, but I really shouldn’t dismiss your idea just because it’s coming from you, I should understand that it is that you’re proposing and why you’re proposing it and how it might dovetail with my particular approach.”

    Peter Jones:  Yeah, this is the, “How do we get to a we, not an I?”

    Paul Nikolich:  Right, right. It’s a challenge and there have been very big battles over differing approaches that I’ve seen through my time in 802 that have resulted in significant delays that may have been avoidable if people didn’t take such firm antagonistic positions. But it’s just part of the standards development process is that sometimes you’re unable to come to consensus and then you need to figure out what to do. And so what we’ve done in 802 is we’ve either terminated a project, if we can’t come to consensus then we’ll just terminate. We have terminated projects. Or we’ll split them off and we’ll get two projects going that are different than one another, sufficiently different than one other such that each camp can take their own tack and eventually the market will decide whether or not one is more important or better than the other.

    Peter Jones:  So one of the things I’ve tried to learn to think is, “Okay, this is really important to me, but will any of our customers actually care?”  Because sometimes you look back and go, “If it meets the needs and our customers won’t care,” then you say, “What’s the quickest way to get market?”

    Paul Nikolich:  Well, I mean the customers have to care, I mean you shouldn’t start a project if you don’t know that you have customers…

    Peter Jones:  Let me say different, right, so we’re going to build this, right, but often you see people want a particular thing. Now if that particular thing is very important, like a particular coding scheme, but the customer’s not going to end up caring than maybe that becomes less important.

    Paul Nikolich:  Oh okay, yeah. Yeah, that’s true. So who is the customer, that’s a good question, the customer the way you’re defining it Peter is the individual or entity that is going to build the equipment and offer the service and if the individual that is using the service, the data communication service really doesn’t care about the fine grain details buried down deep inside of the infrastructure. I mean what we do inside of 802 certainly Ethernet it’s about the data communications infrastructure. Ethernet supplies the infrastructure on top of which I would say well more than 90 percent of data ultimately flows over, all the wireless data’s got to be connected via wireline communications and that wireline communications is 90 plus percent of the time going to be based on the Ethernet specifications. So, to your point Peter, a fine grain detail with respect to a technology approach the end user doesn’t care about, but choosing the right approach can affect whether or not the platform, the equipment or the service can be economically offered to the end user ultimately. 

    Peter Jones:  That I would agree with.

    Paul Nikolich:  And deliver the reliability that needs to be made in order to have the service, whatever the end application is, have that end application service operate properly. With choosing forward error correction code, boy we’ve had knockdown drag-out fights in that area. But ultimately the ones that are chosen are the ones that are the best for the end user even though they don’t know about it. And lots of times the driver behind the contention for that particular technical approach can be intellectual property ownership. So, if I’ve invented a code I really am going to try to get it embedded inside of the standard because if I can embed my intellectual property in the standard and it does end up making it into chips and systems there’s a significant, potentially significant large financial benefit to me for licensing arrangements. So, part of it is economically driven as well.

    Peter Jones:  That makes sense. So, what’s the one thing almost no one agrees with you about?

    Paul Nikolich:  That I would like the individuals that come in to lead 802 be in their early to mid-40s. I’ve been asking, since I decided and announced that I’m not going to be standing for chair again, I’ve been on a pretty strong direction to try to get more young people involved in leadership positions in 802. When I started in 802 I was in my mid-40s and now I’m in my late 60s. And I should have stepped aside sooner, but I really, really love what I do, I really enjoy 802 and leading 802. I call it a very expensive hobby, I don’t make any money out of chairing 802, it’s a donation to the community and I love it, I just enjoy working with you and all your colleagues and changing the world. We have changed the world, Peter in the time that we’ve engaged in 802.

    Peter Jones:  So what’s your biggest challenges in 802 over the last couple of years and looking forward?

    Paul Nikolich:  The biggest challenges I would say is bringing technology into 802 that may not be ready for standardization, but conversations should be occurring within 802 about the potential for those technologies. So, a lot of our participants are very focused on, “Hey, I’ve got a project, we’ve got to just focus on this project and get it done before we move on to the next project or opportunity.” And they’re not welcoming to some of the new ideas that are out there like specifically with respect to machine learning and artificial intelligence and how that might be leveraged in building better networking field, networking equipment and incorporating that into the standards. That’s changed in the past year, the 802.11 group has kicked off an interest group that’s examining the opportunities for machine learning and artificial intelligence in the 802.11 standards. But the 802.3 group hasn’t started that as far as I’m aware. It may be discussed and I’m not aware of it, but the big challenge is agreeing that we got to stay focused on the task at hand yet let’s be aware of the emergence of new technologies that we could leverage to our benefit four or five years from now.

    Peter Jones:  So this is the looking over the horizon idea.

    Paul Nikolich:  It’s looking to the horizon, not so much over the horizon, but to the horizon is the way I would state it. So that’s a challenge for the group now. In the past, I mean there’ve been other challenges, really big challenges with respect to because there’s such a great amount of commercial activity in the equipment and the potential for revenue by the vendors that sell the equipment and services, sometimes people are trying to establish unfair advantages. And one of the things that I pride myself on is that we provide as level a playing field as possible for the participants to come in to 802 and develop the standards so that when we detect some behavior that is potentially unfair we’ve had to go in and take steps to eliminate that and that’s been very, very difficult and challenging. And it’s unavoidable because of the economic benefits that may accrue from having that unfair advantage. I like to pride– I think we in 802 generally pride ourselves on the fact that we make choices based on what’s best for the particular project and not what’s good for an individual or a company.

    Peter Jones:  So, can you talk a little bit about how Ethernet has impacted the world over the last 50 years since we’re in the 50th anniversary.

    Paul Nikolich:  Fifty years, it’s been dramatic. It has been a fundamental enabler of communications between endpoints computers that are endpoints. The computers back when it started were big huge hulking file cabinet-sized things as opposed to now there’s dozens of computers in a single chip. And Ethernet has been the essential connection between those computing entities and it’s grown as the technology has developed the Ethernet interfaces have developed to enable all sorts of endpoints to be connected. And depending on the requirements of the endpoints the capacity of Ethernet has been tremendously flexible. I mean when I got started ten megabits per second was a really big deal and now we’re working on a project in 802.3 that’s looking at 1.6 terabit potential interface. And in addition, and this is the flexibility and how 802 is able to adapt to changing market conditions, in addition to providing faster physical layer speeds, as the industrial Ethernet market for instance has emerged as a big market opportunity they don’t need gigabit speeds, what they need is they need to have twisted-pair multi-drop environment high reliability so that when you connect your machines in your factory that is controlling robots you’re able to cost-effectively connect them and we are developing time sensitive networking technology that guarantees that packets will be delivered when they need to be delivered so that you could have real time control over these industrial processes. And this is also important for intra-vehicular communications. So the Ethernet group has been tremendously flexible in developing the interfaces for a wide range of target end applications very, very successfully.

    Peter Jones:  I agree with all that. Are there any particular areas of Ethernet development or is that the case of you love all your children?

    Peter Jones:  Actually I was going in terms of what’s happening today.

    Paul Nikolich:  Oh, what’s happening today?  Well I think the big areas that are in the pipeline right now that are projects right now are the multi-drop twisted-pair physical layer for the industrial and automotive applications and the 800 gigabit per second 1.6 terabit per second optical interfaces for the very high speed networks that are needed inside of datacenters and in between regional networking hubs.

    Peter Jones:  That’s interesting because we’re going from here right to– the scope is enormous, the range of Ethernet at the moment is huge.

    Paul Nikolich:  Oh yeah, right. So not only does it go very fast or at an appropriate speed for a particular application, we also deliver power. We go literally from DC to light with the 802.3 working group and we’ve been going from DC to light with that working group for 20 years now. That’s pretty impressive and each thread has continued to develop according to its particular market drivers.

    Peter Jones:  Agreed. So, if you were going to look back and say who were the people who’ve helped you along the way now with mentors or people that you’ve modeled after, right, who springs to mind?

    Paul Nikolich:  Well I would say that the leadership of 802 back when I was a newbie in 1989 were critical to helping me understand the value of 802 standards activities. So, the leadership of the 802.3 working group, the leadership of the project, the 802.3 10Base-T project was led at that time by Pat Thaler who eventually became the chair of 802.3 and became the chair of 802.12 and then I appointed her to be a vice chair of 802 eventually. And whoever was in leadership roles at the time influenced me and gave me guidance, Jeff Thompson was the chair of 802.3 when I was the vice chair of 802.3.  Whoever was in a superior leadership position in 802 was a positive influence to me.

    Peter Jones:  Okay, got that. So, what’s one thing about your professional journey you didn’t expect.  And I’m actually sort of guessing it was the whole standards thing because I could imagine you started as a normal engineer type and then your career took this dramatic turn.

    Paul Nikolich:  Yeah, that’s true and the fact that standards were a critical component in my professional journey, the fact that I was a part of 802 and an expert in 802.3 physical layer and I was also involved in the early phases of the 802.11 wireless LAN before there was a wireless LAN working group, I was a strong promoter of radio frequency data networking. And the fact that standards played such a prominent role in my career and also in the ultimate success of the company that I cofounded back in 1998 Broadband Access Systems, we developed carrier class cable modem infrastructure equipment that was based on the DOCSIS standard and we actually started– DOCSIS is the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification whose progenitor was 802.14 Cable TV Working Group. We started working on cable modem standards inside of 802 before it moved out into the cable television industry cable labs and that standard enabled companies such as mine, the one that we started to be successful. So that’s one surprising thing. The other thing that I did…

    Peter Jones:  Hold on before you go to that particular one, I’m reminded that we actually have a contact in common being Rouzbeh going back to the time of the start of that technology.

    Paul Nikolich:  Absolutely. Speaking about mentors I mean Rouzbeh and I have been colleagues and friends since 1987. I started working at a cable modem company before there were standards back in the late ’80s and Rouzbeh was there as the VP of Engineering. I at the time was convinced that cable modems were going nowhere, so I left and I joined Interlan and I…

    Peter Jones:  If I recall correctly that was the company Applitek because I was involved in the same one.

    Paul Nikolich:  Yes, yes, it was Applitek and yeah I left Applitek, Rouzbeh stayed and he and I remained friends and colleagues and he stayed in the cable modem side and founded a company called LANcity which was this subsequent company to Applitek and he helped create the market for cable modems with the cable operators and I helped him out a little bit in that company and also he was very active in the data over cable service interface specifications, developing the standards there. So, he and I have been working closely together for geez, a long time, close to 40 years and we’re really good friends. I’m a partner in ventures where Rouzbeh and I together will decide whether or not we would like to invest in some early stage companies.

    Peter Jones: So any final thoughts, Paul?

    Paul Nikolich:  No, I appreciate the opportunity to give you some thoughts about my involvement in 802 and the value of 802 and the impact it’s had. It’s something that I encourage as many people as I can in our industry from students through professionals to engage in standards development because it represents an opportunity to take an idea and if it has real value to enable it to be deployed widely on a global scale. So I encourage people to always consider the opportunities that exist for bringing their new ideas to market through standards.

    Peter Jones:  Right, so Paul thank you so much for your time today because I really enjoyed hearing some of this because every time I do one of these I find out something new. So to our enthusiast watchers, go take a look at the Voice of Ethernet’s section on Ethernet Alliance or on the YouTube Channel, take a look, tell us what you think. Thank you very much.

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