The Cable Center Remembers Wilt Hildenbrand
43-year Cable Veteran, Engineer, and Visionary Was an Industry Pioneer
The cable industry and technology community lost a guiding light on March 21, 2018 with the death of Wilton J. “Wilt” Hildenbrand, Jr. at age 70.
Long admired as a pioneer, visionary, leader, and mentor, Hildenbrand helped foster a global community of technology leaders. Over the course of more than 43 years in cable, he consistently blazed a new trail rather than sticking to the established path. According to his friend and colleague, Rouzbeh Yassini, “The clear theme of Wilt’s career was not to wait for technologies to mature elsewhere, but to innovate. As a result, he repeatedly made timely and critical technology innovations that advanced the cable industry. He was a true legend.”
Hildenbrand retired as Cablevision’s Senior Advisor of Customer Care, Technology and Networks when the company was purchased by Altice in 2016. His original plan was to become a chemistry teacher, studying at Oneonta Teacher’s College in New York. He joined the Air Force, where he worked on electronics. After leaving the service, he found a job at a cable TV station in Louisiana and discovered a new career path.
Returning to New York, he was hired as an assistant warehouseman with TelePrompter’s Long Island facility. Quoted in CED magazine in 1996, he joked, “they hadn’t hired a warehouseman yet, but they certainly knew assistant material when they saw it.” He advanced to become a service technician, and by 1975, he had become a chief headend technician. In 1976, he joined a neighboring MSO, Cablevision, as chief engineer of the company’s Long Island system. According to Multichannel News, he “rose to become [Cablevision’s] top technology and engineering executive, including many years as Cablevision’s executive vice president of technology and engineering. He also served as director of engineering for Rainbow Media Holdings from 1979 to 1986, where he designed and built a microwave network that cablecast baseball games and later became the SportsChannel.” Most recently, he served on the board of directors of MSG Networks.
At Cablevision, Hildenbrand’s responsibilities included customer service. That was unusual for a cable engineering VP, but it allowed the technology executive to understand more deeply the direct impact of technological advances on individual customers.
Under Hildenbrand’s leadership, Cablevision implemented a network architecture that incorporated DOCSIS in digital set tops, using the standard to achieve high bandwidth interactive functions as well as command and control functions. This industry-leading deployment of advanced digital STBs was a precursor to OpenCable-based devices. The resulting information contributed to the CableLabs specification process, which in turn contributed to the DOCSIS set-top gateway advanced mode.
In addition to advancing network management systems and cable modem technology, Hildenbrand was a pioneer in a number of other industry-changing areas, including:
- Introducing cloud DVR and content management;
- Developing 1550 nanometer technology alongside 1310 nm deployment;
- Delivering high-density WiFi to all Cablevision subscribers;
- Moving the industry to software-based services on the set-top box and in network operations;
- Developing voice over cable before PacketCable VOIP.
- Pursuing a quad play vision in which all customers were on triple play, and driving WiFi research and experimentation.
As a leader and mentor, Hildenbrand insisted on accountability from his engineers, maintaining that they owned the solution. Blaming failure on vendors was never acceptable. He encouraged enthusiastic debate among his team -- one engineer, Joe Godas, recalls “email exchanges and debates until your fingers bled.” An excellent listener and communicator, Hildenbrand had the rare ability to put complex technical concepts in terms appropriate to varied non-technical audiences. When he was named CED magazine’s Man of the Year in 1996, the magazine included a recollection by Joseph Cece, then president and COO of business services provider Cablevision Lightpath. “Coming into the telecommunications industry with a completely non-technical background would have been a much more difficult task if I could not have run to Wilt every 20 minutes to discuss megahertz, Ethernet and other technical subjects,” Cece said.
Rouzbeh Yassini considers Hildenbrand a critical influence in the history of cable. “He didn’t just lift the cable industry with his execution, but mentored four generations of cable industry technology contributors: RF and cable engineers, digital video and voice experts, data over cable designers, and providers of software-based and cloud-based services. You got what you asked for from Wilt, short and sweet. He never compromised his commitment to doing what was right. He was a trusted friend and a true leader.”
Services for Wilt Hildenbrand will be held Wednesday, March 28, 11:00 A.M. at Branch Funeral Home in Smithtown, NY.