Interview Date: Thursday, November 29, 2018
Interview Location: The Cable Center, Denver, Colorado
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Cable Center Hauser Oral History Project
Schley: Welcome. Good day, good evening, good morning—depends when you're watching, but we’re pleased to have you tuned into this episode of the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Series. I'm Stewart Schley. I have the privilege today of visiting with Andrew Healey, who is a builder, whose career in telecommunications and cable construction and construction management and infrastructure, really aligns with the modern history of the industry. So, Andy, it's great to have you here.
Healey: Happy to be here.
Schley: I really look forward to sharing your story.
You are presently the founder, president and CEO of VerTek, which is an infrastructure company and construction management company. You do projects all over the States. That’s now; I want to go back to then. I'd like to invite you to just tell me about how you found, in 1973, I think, the cable industry—or how the cable industry found you, maybe.
Healey: Well, I think I found the cable industry. I was working for a fence company, Clark and Wilkins, out of Brooklyn, New York. And we were fencing in lots from homes that had been demolished as part of the urban renewal process.
Schley: This was in New York City.
Healey: New York City.
Healey: In Harlem. Actually 123rd Street, kind of south. Just putting up fences, digging fence holes. Mixing cement. Carrying pipes. I was actually in college, my first semester in college and I had aspirations of being an attorney, way back then. But I got involved in this fencing, we were putting up this fence work, and one afternoon we got rained out. The work was so manual that we used to have to go home in the evenings and take a razor blade and slice the calluses off our hands so that we could get our hands around the diggers and the shovels and the fabric of the fence. So I walk into this bar on a rained-out afternoon, wet, tired, cold and we go into get lunch, and I see this gentleman sitting at the end of the bar, little blue shirt on, little blue pants, little blue hat—
Schley: Looking good.
Healey: Looking good, looking comfortable, he's got a little beer, shooting darts. Life’s good. I walk over to him and I'm like, “What’s the deal, man? I'm out here busting my butt putting up chain link fences in the rain, and you're in here enjoying life.” And we get into a conversation and it turned out he was the installation supervisor for TelePrompTer in New York. After a while, he kind of took to me and he said, “Are you interested in a job?” I said, “Sure.” I went down the next day, interviewed, and they hired me.
Schley: TelePrompTer was an early, prominent cable company.
Healey: Very prominent at the time. Sold to Westinghouse in 1975, I believe, to GE. But Bresnan was the president and CEO at the time, Bill Bresnan. They hired me as an installer for $2.95 an hour.
Schley: So you literally learned the cable business from the ground up.
Healey: From the ground up doing installs. We didn’t have power drills. We had a crank drill. They used to give us a bit and a hand drill and they used to give us a handful of fittings and a handful of crimp rings. You put the fittings in one pocket and the crimp rings in another pocket. You take your little drill. You go to the side of the customer’s house, drill a hole, poke the cable on the drill, pull it through, hook it up to the ground block, hook it up to the TV and go to the next house.
Schley: And Andy, what was cable in 1974? What were you selling? What were you installing?
Healey: Twelve channels, small converter box. The installations were quick, in and out. As a matter of fact, the big thing in New York is we used to drill through the window sills. We come up the side of the building, and just drill through the window casing and into the house and drop down and run a wire over to the TV set, screw it into the back of the converter box. And you're talking the old, old boxes. These are all Panasonic slide boxes and Viacom switchboxes—these are old boxes. And you hook up the box and leave.
Schley: What was cool about it, though? What were you, besides the $2.95—
Schley: What was the job …
Healey: What I liked was the freedom, the ability to control my destiny. I would show up in the morning, they would issue me my work orders and I would get in my truck and I would go out and I would take on the world. I got to meet with customers, meet with people, actually leave and make people happy.
Schley: Then where did you go from there?
Healey: Well, I did that for four or five months and I got in pretty close with the chief tech and they moved me up to service calls. And from service calls I moved up to maintenance. That took about a year. I started doing that. Back in those days—the cable guys today probably don’t even remember. We had one cascade that was 39 amplifiers deep.
Schley: The string of amplifiers.
Healey: Just a string of amplifiers…in a town called Cornell. Just outside of Newburgh, New York. There were 39 amplifiers in cascade.
Schley: That’s a lot of amplifiers.
Healey: Basically we would sweep the amplifiers, get to the end and then turn around and come back and sweep it again. We used to look at the carrier-to-noise on a meter and look at the TV pictures on the TV set that was so bad. Snow back in the day. So I did that for a while and then in 1975, when the FCC mandated telcos to get out of the cable industry, we started a property rights and violation search, which TelePrompTer was gracious enough to give me an opportunity.
Schley: Explain property rights and violations.
Healey: So basically the cable back then was basically fused-disc cable wrapped around the phone utilities. So when the phone company had to get out, we had to rebuild with our own plant. We had to find a space between the lowest communication carrier—or the highest communication carrier and the lowest—
Schley: To literally string your plant…
Healey: You have to have 52 inches of clearance. So we would go out with representatives of the phone company, representatives of the power company, representatives from the cable company and we would literally take sticks and measure it, and say, there’s only 50 inches or somebody has got to move this pole, somebody’s got to raise this and we would identify where this new structure would go.
Schley: What strikes me about that, Andy, is the absolute labor-intensiveness of that. I mean, you're going pole by pole.
Healey: Pole by pole, no computers back in those days. Lay up sticks, measuring sticks to measure it. And that was only the beginning of the fun because then came who was going to pay for it. There was already a violation. Were they going to pay to make a space? If there was a new pole, who was going to pay for it? Then you had to wait for the make-ready to be released so you could go out and actually start building. So that started the make-ready wars between the cable companies and the utility companies way back then.
Schley: It was such a demonstration of economic faith because honestly there were probably easier ways to make money in the day. And to do this arduous work of building out cable plant. But people believed in it. Right?
Healey: People believed in cable and everybody—you know, I went into homes in New York City, in Newburgh, Orange County, New York, where people couldn’t afford groceries, couldn’t afford movies, couldn’t afford to go out to dinner. Couldn’t afford to buy clothes to send their kids to school. But they always found $9.00 for cable TV. Because it was something that people always wanted.
Schley: Why was it though that the industry has such a rural heritage where you couldn’t get good over-the-air reception, but you're in an urban environment at this point. So what was the draw? You couldn’t get over-the-air signals in the dense New York City environment?
Healey: You could get more channels, and you know, back then, we used to have antennas that went on the roofs and there were snow issues. The pictures were snowy. People couldn’t get antennas on the roof. A lot of the work in the city environment was because the buildings had to be wired. So the cable company would come in and run the wires on the buildings. It was just easier, convenient and more channels. And obviously along with this, we would put a much higher tower and we would get off-air channels from further away than they could get with that residential antenna. So people in New York could see, for example, channels out of Connecticut, which would have been more difficult with a small household antenna.
Schley: And as you say, the demand proved to be there.
Healey: The demand proved to be there.
Schley: What, and so, are your aspirations to work in law now fading?
Healey: Once I started, I loved it. You know, I used to look up at the guys in the bucket trucks and say, man, I want to be in that bucket truck. And then I saw the guy behind the office issuing the work and I said, man, I want to get in that office. I even did a short stint in the warehouse for about three weeks before they moved me into a bench technician role. And I just always had my eye on the next position. I said, I want to be there. I liked the industry, I liked the people, I never left.
Schley: Where did you go after the TelePrompTer experience?
Healey: The FCC at the time was mandating Class I, Class II licenses. And never having the opportunity to complete my education, I thought that I needed some kind of certification. And I actually signed up and passed the FCC first-class license. And the company that helped me get the license had a recruiting agency. They contacted me and said they know this guy—it's always “this guy” in cable. We know this guy in Connecticut, northwest Connecticut, a guy by the name of John Ducey. Very, very wealthy independent electrical contractor. And he was awarded the franchise for Winsted, Connecticut. And he was looking for somebody to run the system. And I drove from Highland, New York, to Torrington, Connecticut, and met him at his golf course. We had dinner and again, we hit it off, I liked him, he liked me, he offered me a job on the spot. I went back, gave two weeks’ notice to TelePrompTer, and moved my family to Winsted, Connecticut. 25 years old.
Schley: He and his group had earned rights to string wire…
Healey: They had been issued the franchise, earning the rights to string wires in Winsted, Connecticut, and a couple of the outlying communities. It was about 50 miles of cable plant.
Schley: And what was your role there?
Healey: I was the chief tech. We don’t even have chief techs in the industry anymore. It was actually even a more advanced role because I was chief tech/technical manager. So I pretty much did it all. I was the chief cook and bottle washer.
Schley: What did you build? What were the characteristics of the system in terms of capacity…?
Healey: Well, then, we built—we were really cooking now. We were going from twelve channel systems to 36 channel systems. So this was like 300 megahertz. We were living—
Schley: This was the late 70s?
Healey: This would be 1975 when I took the job with Northwest Cablevision with John Ducey. This was 1975. So we actually bought the equipment from Jerrold Electronics, who had just bought a company out of Texas called Tocom. And Tocom had never built a cable system this side of the Mason-Dixon line ever. And they selected fused disc cable from General Cable. (Hope nobody’s listening from General Cable). But General Cable had never built in subzero temperatures similar to what we were exposed to in Connecticut.
Schley: Fused disc? What are you talking about?
Healey: If you look at a piece of coax cable, basically it has an outer aluminum conductor. They extrude a piece of copper through that and there's a dielectric foam that keeps the semiconductor in the center of the outer shield. The signals travel on the outer conductor of the inner conductor. It's called the skin effect. So the dielectric material is actually where the waves are traveling. So General Cable came up with this great idea. Instead of having this polyethylene dielectric, let’s put a disc, a little fused disc. So the dielectric is actually air. You'll get less loss. You can go further between amplifiers and your system will work…
Schley: On the drawing board it sounds pretty brilliant.
Healey: Looks great on a piece of paper. Tocom bought it. They're from Texas; doesn’t get all that cold in Texas. Never been through a northwest storm. And life was good. Thompson Lake up there, putting up cable. T-shirts. Tocom, two-way clamp. First two-way clamp. They had what they called a collector system. We had a headend up on the top of a mountain. And we had a hub down in the city. There was a run from the headend down to the hub that had two systems: one forward, one reverse, so we could communicate. And then the system itself was actually two-way.
Schley: …to the subscriber’s home?
Healey: To the subscriber’s home. We actually called it a collector system back in 1975. And we actually launched our pay-for-view service out of our hub, which was launched out of a VCR player that was basically like a sandwich machine.
Schley: Oh my gosh, a rack of VCRs?
Healey: A rack of VCRs. And we would select the movies we were going to give our subscribers. We'd come in, stack them in the sandwich tray and we'd sit there and have to watch the movie and put a cue tone in because most of the movies went beyond two tapes. So you're watching the movie and then all of a sudden, it would go up and say “intermission,” hit a cue tone, intermission. Sandwich tray would come up, eject that tape, come up with the new tape in, and the movie would come back on, and you get to watch the end of the movie.
Schley: We've come a long way.
Healey: We’ve come a long way.
Schley: The problem was it did get cold in your market.
Healey: So, yes. You know, we put HBO in, first earth station actually installed in the state of Connecticut. We had to put it out in the parking lot of our Northwest mini-mall. Life is good and then all of a sudden, winter came. And temperatures dropped. The first snowstorm, temperatures dropped 15-20 below zero, and all of a sudden, the entire system started going out. I'm 25 years old, responsible for this system, I've got this millionaire electrical guy that knows nothing about cable calling me, saying, “Andy, what’s going on?” And Tocom engineers were there. I still remember the guy’s name was John Carter. I learned a tremendous amount from him. He and I actually built that system alone. We went out in this bucket truck. We went out and found that the cold had actually forced this cable to pull back out of the amplifiers. It's called a “suckout.”
Schley: I heard the term.
Healey: Very common term in the cable industry. And we found out that 50% of the amplifiers and most of the passes had sucked out of the equipment. And this happened on Christmas Eve, by the way. It was so bad—I had one employee that did installs. And we’re trying to get drops installed. We’re trying to get the outages installed, and I'm driving down Main Street in Winsted, Connecticut—it's a true story—and I see this young kid with a white apron and a broom shoveling snow off the sidewalk in front of this restaurant. I pull over and said, “Hey! You need a job?”
Schley: No kidding.
Healey: He said, “Doing what?” I said, “Cable TV. Get in.” And he took his robe off, his apron, threw it on the ground, got in my truck. I hired him. I see him every year to this day. His name is Mike McCarthy. He works for DV Cable today. He worked for me through Northwest Cablevision, through Haystack Cablevision all the way to American Cable Systems, and now he's working with DV Cable out in Pittsburgh. I see him all the time. We don’t go to a cable show—even this last show, the Expo, in Atlanta—where he and I don’t meet at a bar and end up having to tell that story, how I got him into cable in 1975 in a snowstorm in Winsted, Connecticut.
Schley: So you literally lost connectivity to—
Healey: Everybody. We had 2,700 subscribers and we were lucky if we had 500 subscribers on.
Schley: So what did you do—did you have to rebuild the entire—?
Healey: We had to go out and you know, they put expansion loops in the cable, we had to pull the expansion loops out to get more cable, re-cut the connectors, open the amplifiers, put them back in. Things were shorting out. We had to change the electronics. This is my first experience ever in anything like this. The gentleman from Texas, he was so new to this and the weather and the elements, we were unscrewing the amplifier and one of the bolts came out and he had to take his gloves off and he didn’t know what to do with the bolt. He put it in his mouth, and it froze his lips together. And he's down in the truck with his face up against the defroster.
Schley: …it gives you an appreciation for, like I said, the arduousness of building…
Healey: And people are just calling into our office: “We want cable! We want cable!” And little did they know, some 25-year old kid from New York City and some Texan who’s putting bolts in his mouth in 15-degree weather—
Schley: Trying to make it work.
Healey: Trying to make it work for you.
Schley: So you did though.
Healey: We did. We got it working. We learned a lot. We went out and put extensions, we put bigger loops in and made some changes and life was good. I worked there 1975-1980. 1979 actually.
Schley: The outages have always been troublesome obviously for the cable industry. We've gotten a lot better, obviously. But this was your first face-to-face with the ire of the consumer, right?
Healey: Major outage, yes.
Schley: So just kind of continue the progression. You really ran the operation for this system.
Healey: Ran the operation. And you know what was really funny, again, 25-26 years old, we had our office above the Northwest mini-mall. I'm sitting in my office one day and the secretary out front calls me and says, “There's some guy out here wants to talk to you.” And he comes in. And I'm like, “What’s going on, man? I'm busy.” And he says, “Well, we'd like you to buy this sports network. Put it on your system.” I'm like, “Come on, man. Who's going to buy a sports network?” He was with New England Sports Network. It was two guys. “We've got a great idea. This is going to really fly. We’re going to try it per subscriber.” And we talked about it and talked about it. Finally we added it in to our network and today, that’s ESPN.
Another time, a guy walked into our office, and here’s where I made a mistake. There's good stories and bad stories. But Cliff Schrock. Walked into my office, had basically a cardboard box. And he opened it up, there was a bunch of components in it. I'm looking at it, and say, “It looks good. What is it?” And he said, “I've got a company called “Cable Bus,” and it's for home security. I think it would be a great addition to your system.” And we talked about it and I didn’t do it, and he ended up—I don’t know if you ever heard of Cable Bus—he ended up selling to Jerrold, it turned into Jerrold Security, it ended up making him a couple billion dollars. He's now out of the cable industry.
Schley: What I take away from both those stories, on the programming side and the technology side, is people were literally in cars driving from market to market—
Healey: Trying to push new equipment. We had bought a Jerrold VSM meter, which is basically a visual field-strength meter that gives you a spectrum analysis so that you could see the channels and see the noise in between. I had never seen one and I called Jerrold. “We have a representative up in Massachusetts.” I put the analyzer in the car, drove up to Massachusetts and spent two days learning how to use this piece of equipment. It was that kind of relationship, those kind of networks that went on at the time.
Schley: What also is interesting, and I think this dovetails with your job progression after this is that you had—these weren’t always big companies that ran the cable systems. Sometimes they were entrepreneurs, sometimes local investors, what was your experience following the repair of the suckout incident, and that job? Where did you go from there?
Healey: Well, obviously a lot of entrepreneurial type folks had an eye on the cable industry at the time because they could see the growth. There was a local attorney in Winsted, Connecticut, who I had used for actually to get the dish installed in the parking lot. And his name was Nick Eddy. He approached me that he and three other gentlemen had secured a franchise in the other end of Connecticut—Salisbury, Lakeville, New Canaan. And they wanted to build a cable system and would I come on board with them and help them build it. And it sounded like a tremendous opportunity, and Northwest Cablevision was kind of cruising. I had outgrown it and I was looking for the next adventure. Incidentally it was about five years.
Schley: That’s how you did it.
Healey: And I took the job and I went down and they put me up in a little office in Salisbury, Connecticut, and I hired a guy by the name of Ernie Tonneman from Worcester, Massachusetts, to do a turnkey build. And we hired Scientific Atlanta to put the headend in. And 30-31 years old, we started building a headend, we put up a tower, we redid the whole thing. We added the channels, we built the cable system. Actually before we ran a piece of cable in the air, I took a look at the business model. They were charging $9.95 per month, and it looked like it wouldn’t work. I singlehandedly negotiated with the PCA in Hartford, Connecticut.
Schley: This is the regulatory agency for telecom.
Healey: The regulatory agency. And had them give us a rate increase from $9.95 to $13.95 before we put a piece of strand in the air.
Schley: Because you had moved or added financial management to your list of duties at this point?
Healey: Yes, I was the manager. I was the guy.
Schley: You had a budget?
Healey: I had a budget, I had financing, I had it all. Now the three owners would switch on a six-month basis. So the first guy that came in was Zenus Block, another mentor of mine. Zenus owned a worldwide food company—actually owned the patent for Burger King onion rings.
Schley: Why not.
Healey: Very, very intelligent man. And he was really interested in it. He used to come to the office on his cross-country skis. Another down-to-earth guy, he was a billionaire. He's traveling to China four times a year and he's showing up at the office on his cross-country skis, giving me a case of Kirin from China, from his last trip.
Schley: Good owner.
Healey: So it was him and then he would switch and then another gentleman by the name of Howard Goodkind, who was on the board of directors with Encyclopedia Britannica. These were just business-minded guys who saw something in cable.
Schley: That’s what I think is interesting. I mean, what did they see, what was the opportunity that people like these entrepreneurs identified?
Healey: The challenge of building. You know what’s really funny is a lot of times there's always an unspoken reason. Zenus Block wanted cable TV and couldn’t get it.
Schley: I've heard stories like this.
Healey: He just had a ton of money and he wanted cable and he couldn’t get it. He went and put these other guys together and they got a franchise and he said, “If you're not going to give me cable, I'll build my own system.”
Schley: How big was that property/operation?
Healey: Again, 2500 subscribers, about 50 miles of plant.
Schley: Where was the technology going at that point? What was different from what you were originally accustomed to?
Healey: Newer plant. With Scientific Atlanta, 300 megahertz gear.
Schley: Still like a 35-channel?
Healey: Still 36-channel system. Had a few more pay channels. Showtime had come around, Movie Channel had come around. I think Movie Channel is gone now. The various different channels had come around. We had more channels to offer to fill up that 36-channel bandwidth.
Schley: The satellite era was in full swing then. You had channels…
Healey: We had TBS and HBO. It wasn’t anything like it is today, but the satellite era had been launched.
Schley: But I think the economics are interesting because now you saw you could get more money out of the household if somebody added on a movie channel or a pay channel.
Healey: Just a quick jump: the funny thing is that all through my career—and I think anybody that’s been as long as I have is that the cable TV industry from an engineering perspective is always pushing for more bandwidth, more space, more channels. And finally, we got to a point—I mean, if you look at Cox Cable systems in Atlanta, Georgia, they're building a 2 gigahertz system. And I think for the first time ever, the capacity of our networks has outgrown our desire to have more channels.
Schley: For the first time ever because—it's interesting you say that. But even when you were building the 300 megahertz, did part of you say, what are we going to do with this capacity?
Healey: Always. Always. What are we going to do with all this? That’s what people would say. What am I going to do with 36 channels? But you know, the whole thing is choice. You might have 36 channels, you might only want 20. But if you don’t buy the whole 36, you're not going to get it. It's all about choice and getting what you want. If you look at some of the research now around OTT and streaming, people that thought they could do better by just picking and choosing what they want are actually spending more than having 150 channels…
Schley: You're talking about the self-styled cord-cutter, amalgamation…
Healey: Self-styled cord-cutters.
Schley: …of video services. Isn’t that interesting?
Healey: It's kind of like walking into a grocery store and there's a big rack of things to buy. And you're filling up your cart as you go. Next thing you know, you’ve spent $100 more on your grocery bill than you thought about.
Schley: What does that tell you about where the future is going in terms of bundling? Is there still a role for an aggregator and a discounted provider of services?
Healey: I think there is, and again, there’s many people in this industry much smarter than me, which is why I found my niche in project management and leadership. Because there’s plenty of people in this industry that can provide strategy, but it's really about execution. The leaders set the strategy, but somebody has to get it done. And that’s where a lot of the larger MSOs to this day are struggling in the actual execution of getting things done. That’s where I focus my energy.
Schley: After Mr. Block and crew you ran across or encountered a very entrepreneurial individual called Stephen Dodge. Talk about that.
Healey: Well, we had just a wild, wild west at Haystack Cablevision building that out. And we built that out in the course of a year. The next thing you know, I'm sitting in the office again collecting money and watching TV, thinking, what’s next? And I got a phone call from Steve Dodge that they had just bought a 14-foot AFC conical horn. Which is a TVRO—an earth station, a receiving station—because they just added HBO to their system in Rockland County, Haverstraw, New York. They bought this AFC dish because there were interference studies that had said that there was TVRO interference coming from AT&T. Because AT&T common carrier microwave operates at the same frequency as the TVRO. And if you cross paths, there's interference. It shows up as big black dots in the TV.
Schley: So the conical guy was an alternative to the particular earth station.
Healey: The AFC conical horn was an alternative that ostensibly would give you higher protection against this interference. And it worked. But the problem was they bought this dish. First of all, it was in Rockland County, Pomona County, one of the richest counties in New York State on federal property, park property. They had it on a large truck and the dish was on a trailer. They got about hallway up the hill and the truck got stuck. So the manager at the time is under tremendous pressure to get HBO turned on for the community as part of the franchise obligation. And in his infinite wisdom, calls up a local D9 operator. The D9 operator shows up with this bulldozer, throws a chain on the pickup truck and starts dragging this truck and this dish up the side of this park.
Schley: I’m envisioning this scene.
Healey: Envision it. As they’re dragging this dish and this truck up the side of this park property, they are knocking down trees and bushes and boulders are getting pushed out of the way.
Schley: For HBO, right?
Healey: And they get this dish up to the hill and if you look at the carnage going down to the bottom of the road, it’s unbelievable. And they get the dish set up and I probably don’t have to tell you, in the end, it doesn’t work. Now they’re being sued by the environmental committee to restore this property back to its pristine state.
Schley: Meanwhile, the thing doesn’t work.
Healey: And the thing doesn’t work. So Steve Dodge called me—I don’t know where he got my name—and I met him for dinner at the Ossining Community Center in Ossining, New York. Here we were talking before the session about Steve Dodge, truly one of my mentors, truly one of the most energetic, brilliant, financially brilliant man I’ve ever met in my life—shows up in denims, short sleeve shirt, sport coat. We talk for a few minutes, he puts me in his pickup truck, and almost kills me driving me up to the top of this mountain, telling me the story. One hand on the wheel, telling me this story. We’re bouncing around, we get up to the top of the hill—and this is the president of American Cable Systems.
Healey: And we go in and we look at the dish and I take a few measurements and I see this 60-70 IF interference. And I said, “I can fix this. Let’s go back down.”
Schley: How did you mean to fix it?
Healey: Hey, listen, Richard Branson, who I am not a big fan of, says, “If somebody calls you up and asks you if you know how to do something, just say yes, and figure it out.” So I knew and—first of all, I knew what it was and I knew I could figure it out. I knew I just had to call a guy. I knew it was 60 and 70 IF filter—IF interference because it was an AT&T microwave dish looking right down the throat of the horn. So I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what the problem was. Plus, I’d been around for a few years now. So I go back down with Steve—and we had cell phones obviously at the time—and I call up Glenn Bostick from Microwave Filter in Syracuse, New York, and I tell him what’s going on and he says, “I’ll make you a filter and I’ll send it to you.” He FedExes me a filter, comes to the Ossining Convention Center next day, back in the truck with the crazy millionaire, up to the top of the hill, hook up the filters, make a few adjustments, turn it on, boom—there's HBO.
Schley: OK. It worked.
Healey: It worked. So we go back down to the Ossining Convention Center and he says to me, “Look. I like your style, I like what you’re doing, I need people with energy, I want you to come to work for me. I’ll give you stock in the company. I’d like to make you regional engineer for the Eastern Division.” At the time they owned Rockland, Peekskill and a small group of systems in Glade Spring/Abingdon, Virginia, all of which had been purchased from Acton Cable in Massachusetts.
Schley: It was a rollup company, sort of, right? They bought properties—
Healey: He went out and actually bought properties. At the same time, Barry Lemire, who was one of the owners, he was from Canada, he was out franchising like crazy. And they were from Boston and they were awarded franchises in Newburyport—just all across Boston. And we were building brand-new franchises, and we got the franchise of Peekskill and Cortland, and we were just building like crazy all over the country. After about five years, we actually—Steve threw a huge party in Beverly, Massachusetts, where the new corporate offices were. And we had hit, from 25-30,000 subscribers, we were up over I don’t know, 5-10 million subscribers.
Schley: You were one of the top, at least ten, operators in the country.
Healey: We were within the top ten, that’s what the party was about. At the time, there were over 350 MSOs at the time.
Schley: Was it just gut and instinct, Andy, that led you to say, yes, I’ll take the job?
Healey: You know, it was the challenge. If there’s anything that I can say about cable television, is that this industry will afford an opportunity to anybody that has the drive and you know, the enthusiasm to go out and get it done and ask questions. Because there's always a guy that will help you. I wouldn’t be where I am today—if you asked anybody, hey, call Andy, he knows a guy. Because I can always find somebody to help me. I’m the dumbest guy in the room and I’ve always looked at it that way, and I'm not afraid to ask anybody any questions. When Steve Dodge put me in charge of American Cable Systems, I was 34, 35, 36 years old. I was responsible for building headends, launching addressable cable systems in DEC computers, the PD-1103 computers. I didn’t know what a bit was. I thought a byte was something you took out of a McDonald’s sandwich.
Schley: This is analog cable, analog video distribution.
Healey: I took that job and I took that challenge, and I would call Jerrold on the phone from the headends and they would walk me through it. I would call manufacturers to have them help me. I launched addressability in Glenville, New York. I ended up being the DEC expert, kind of, for the company and started the addressability in the Boston systems for my counterparts in the other regions.
Schley: Can you take me aside and explain the addressability concept? What does it enable?
Healey: Well, addressability really started kicking in—I mean, there’s been no secret to conditional access, securing channels. If you look at Time Warner, if you remember the old Time Warner Qube system, way back when, that was conditional access. So in the old days we used to have to disconnect some of it. But let's go back to my days in New York. When they used to give us disconnects, we used to have to route into the street and disconnect the ground block and put terminators on the end. And I remember a manager—if you're still out there, Doug, how are you doing? Doug Brook used to tell us to pull the extra cable so they couldn’t hook themselves back up.
Healey: And I can’t tell you how many guys would be pulling the cable and next thing you know, here comes a $400 Sony Trinitron out the seventh floor window come crashing down to the floor because it was still hooked to the TV set. So that’s how we did disconnects. When conditional access came around, that gave the operator the ability to turn channels on and off, turn boxes on and off from the remote site.
Schley: Press a button.
Healey: Press a button and turn them off. If you look at it today, you know, this all-digital push that everybody’s putting out at Comcast, Charter, Cable One, Cox—they're all going all-digital. And the reason for that is now, much like the phone company, if you don’t have their box, you don’t get their service. If you look at the decision that Tom Rutledge just made—
Schley: From Charter.
Healey: From Charter. It’s public. With their new all-digital launch, everybody has to take a box. They don’t have what they call “DTAs.” Digital to analog adapters. They do that for commercial, but not for residential. So addressability back in those days was done through the DEC PDP-1103 computer system through Jerrold.
Schley: Using that as an example, as a general manager and a technical expert in the cable industry, was it worrisome to introduce new technologies? Did you feel like there was a risk factor, that you had to just kind of take a flyer on some of those possibilities?
Healey: You know, I was never good at taking flyers, for some reason. My famous line used to be, don’t threaten me with a good time. If you want it done, I'll get it done. And we would always figure out a way to get it done. And I think that this just was internalized with me over the years. Whether it was addressability, whether it was meet a franchise commitment, whether it was getting across an underground street in Boston, Mass. To me, a franchise commitment, there's always a way, if you stick to it and dig in and ask and involve your team. I want to tell you about cable TV. I told you about strategy—there was a bunch of smart guys out there, there’s all these great, brilliant guys that set the strategy. But if you really want to know how to get things done, talk to the guys at the front line. If I want to know how to get an install done, I go talk to the installer. If I want to know what’s going on in the headend, I go talk to the guys in the headend. If I want to know what’s going on in the call center, I go to the call center. So the best decisions, from my perspective, doesn’t come from leadership. But it comes from the interactions between leadership and the folks on the front line. Because they're out there every day swinging.
Schley: I think that persona or that ethic does sort of prevail across the industry at large, right? “We’ll figure out a way.”
Healey: We’ll figure out a way. And that’s the thing about cable. Cable has always been the little brother. We’ve always had to fight telco, we've always had to fight municipalities, we've always had to fight broadcasters. And I think that’s what drew me to this industry. It keeps me in this industry, is we've never backed down from a fight ever. We haven’t backed down from net neutrality, we didn’t back down from copyright rules, we don’t back down from franchises. Google was going to put cable out of business and here we are. DirecTV was going to put cable out of business and here we are. Fiber was going to put cable out of business and here we are. FIOS was going to kill us and here we are. Because the guys in the cable industry that have been here since the beginning, and there’s still a lot of us around, there’s no quit.
Schley: Your career has intersected with that of some interesting figures, Steve Dodge being one. Glenn Jones was another individual who’s sort of a legendary cable person. Can you talk about your sort of intersection with his world and what you were angling to do together?
Healey: American Cable Systems sold. I'm going to get to Glenn, because Glenn was another very, very strong effect on me. I left American Cable Systems in 1985 when they sold to Continental. And I started my own business back then, New Century Communications. And we basically did sweep engineering. And I was sweeping some systems in Ohio, and I got a call from Rick Guerrero, telling me they were looking for an eastern director and he had heard my name and I went to California and interviewed with him and took the job.
Schley: What company?
Healey: Time Mirror Cable. And I went to work for Times Mirror as the eastern division construction and engineering director. We were literally building 10,000 miles of plant a year. All across the country. Kentucky, Ohio—
Schley: Were they new build markets?
Healey: New builds or rebuilds. Because now we were in the stage where we had gone from 300 to 360, and now we’re going from 400 to 450 and even some of our systems at the time were even approaching 860. And Times Mirror had a model where they would put a corporate team that would come into say, Providence, Rhode Island, and we would put a corporate team in and they would plan the job, order the materials, set up an office, just like a turnkey. And the operators could continue doing what they were doing. I spent about five years with American Cable Systems. Then it just seemed like every time you turned around, somebody was selling, or Times Mirror, I mean. In 1994, I think, Times Mirror sold to Cox Communications. And Alex Best and Dick Mueller flew to Orange County and met with the team, and they decided they wanted to continue that model, but they wanted to do it in Atlanta. They also said they didn’t want to move the entire operation to Atlanta, they wanted to rebuild it. So the only folks they picked up from Times Mirror were Rick Guerrero, me, and a guy by the name of Dave Jones, who ran the design department. Then we kept the California director, a guy by the name of Mike Sorens, and we kept the Phoenix director, a guy by the name of Jerry Nowicki, and I did everything else.
Schley: I had forgotten that it was Cox that absorbed Times Mirror…
Healey: It was similar to Charter acquiring Time Warner. It was kind of like the minnow swallowing the whale.
Schley: Because Times Mirror was a big cable company.
Healey: Times Mirror was a huge company. It was much bigger than Cox. So I moved to Atlanta and spent 3, 4, 5 years with Cox doing the same thing we did at Times Mirror. And they decided to bring that model in-house. And Alex Best, another mentor of mine I have tremendous respect for—we’re running out of time, but real quick story. I used to live out at Roswell, Georgia, and our office was down in downtown Atlanta. Or actually Dunwoody and the traffic was so bad, if I left my house at 7:00, I would get to the office at 9-9:30. Two hours, 17 miles. If you left at a quarter to seven, you could be at the office at 7:00. And the same thing in the afternoon. If you left at 5, you wouldn’t get home till 7.
Schley: Timing is everything.
Healey: So you either left at quarter to seven to get to work and stayed till 6 or 7 to leave, or you waited till 9 and left at 4. We obviously elected to start at 7 and work till 7 so we started calling it half-days. We started working half-days at Cox. And I worked at Cox for a while and then they decided to bring that model in-house. And spread the construction out. And I helped with that transition, then Alex asked me if I would take a job corporately doing FCC testing, because that was the year that the FCC mandated 24-hour testing. It was a huge deal.
Schley: What was the purpose?
Healey: They wanted more eyes on performance. There were a lot of customer complaints, cascade issues. We didn’t have fiber back then. We just started coming out with fiber, so there were a lot of outages, a lot of customer complaints. So the FCC came out and set, as the government likes to do, set a series of tests that had to be done on a monthly basis, and a series of tests that had to be done every 24 hours.
Schley: Every cable company?
Healey: Every cable company, certain test points—it was a huge initiative. And it wasn’t something that really interested me. I was sitting in my office one day and the phone rang and it was—not Glenn Jones—but it was Wayne Davis, who worked with Glenn. And Wayne asked me if I would come to Denver to talk to them about an initiative that Jones had to launch high-speed data. Because now here’s the next big thing, right?
Healey: We went from 12 channels to 36 channels, and now we’re offering 50 channels and life is good and we’re 860. Now all of a sudden, high-speed data. What’s that? Got to figure that out. Now I've got this opportunity to launch high-speed data with Jones Intercable. So I fly to Denver. And you talk about an interesting guy. I walk into his office, and he and I talk for a while. I had known Glenn through the years and we’re sitting there, and finally he says, “You want to have dinner?” I said, “Sure, where are we going?” And I go to get my coat and all of a sudden, this curtain opens up in his office. And there's a table set—
Schley: This does not surprise me.
Healey: And there's a waiter there with a cloth on his arm.
Schley: Welcome to Glenn’s Diner.
Healey: We walk in and sit down. And start having dinner. I took the job. I moved to Savannah, Georgia, with my family, and we launched the—actually, we spent a year designing and building contractor-standards and project standards that they launched across—I actually got what Glenn called “The Knowledge Award,” or something he had. I was one of the few guys to get it for the work that we did establishing the architecture. And some of the work that we did—and I can't take all the credit—Pam Nobles was with the SCTE for a while. She was my partner on that, and Socona Blair. We actually built a contractor process, an RFP process, contractor specification processes, project management processes, design through engineering through construction. We used Savannah, Georgia, as an archetype. To this day, guys that I meet that worked with me on that team, they walk up to me and they say, “Andy, that was the best project I ever worked on.” To this day.
Schley: Can you talk about that, the cable industry in its massive construction phases, has had to depend on contractors much of the time. Because you just don’t have the workforce.
Healey: Most of the time.
Schley: Most of the time. Really?
Healey: Contractors. And I can't speak for the MSOs; I'm a unique kind of a guy in that I've done pretty much everything. I've done installs, I've done service, I've done maintenance. I've been a manager, I've done sales, I've done franchising. So I've got a pretty good feel for all aspects of the industry. My experience has been that 70% of the installation work is done by contractors because of the variation in the workload. You know, you don’t have to buy the equipment, the rental, the HR exposure. So it’s easier to get a good contracting firm and contract that stuff out.
Schley: But you had to be very careful about putting into place…
Healey: Proper contractors. Proper controls. Proper background checks. I mean, if you remember years back how many contracting firms had various crimes taking place from the installers entering homes. The cable companies and the phone companies have to be very careful…
Schley: They’re an extension of your workforce.
Healey: They're an extension of your workforce. They're the first face that the customer sees. And then on the construction side, if you go out and build 1,000 miles, 1,200 miles, in Providence, Rhode Island, and it takes you two years, the trucks, the people, the tools, the lashers, the equipment you have to buy to get that done. When you're done, what do you do with it? So they hire a contracting firm to come in and do it.
I would have to say that 90% of the construction, outside plant construction, is done by contractors. And then they hire their own in-house construction teams for new builds, extensions, maintenance, things like that.
Schley: Andy, did you get, did you perceive the enormity of the high-speed Internet transformation when you were deep into planning for it?
Healey: You know, again, there’s a lot of guys out there much smarter than I am, I'm busy trying to get it done. And I was looking at high-speed data and the installation of the CMTS’s in the headend more from accessing the Internet and email perspective. But back then I never personally, Andy Healey, had any indication of the enormous impact it would have from a bandwidth perspective to this day. I mean, who knew about gaming, and who knew about cellphones and who knew about this huge need, streaming video, over-the-top, cord cutters—all of this requires bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth. Video, in my opinion—and I've got to keep saying that because, again, there’s a lot more people smarter than me—video is actually going to be the bottom of the scale. Cable ONE isn’t even focusing on there. I can say that, because I know Cable ONE.
Schley: I'm aware of that.
Healey: Cable ONE is not even focusing on their video business.
Schley: They're a connectivity company.
Healey: They're focusing on commercial. They want to get fiber out there and they want to sell bandwidth. If you look at Comcast Fiber Deep, they want fiber out there. They want bandwidth. Look at Cox NT 2.0. Two gigahertz of bandwidth. That’s not for video channels. That’s the cell bandwidth.
Schley: When you began to work with fiber, did it change the requirements for the people in the field, craftspeople? How did it affect the business of planning for and constructing cable plant? Fiber itself.
Healey: You know, that transition was an interesting one. First of all, coax will never go away.
Schley: It’s still out there.
Healey: It’s still out there. The last mile hasn’t even been addressed. They talk about it. But we’re doing node segmentation, we’re doing fiber to the premise, we’re doing fiber to the curb, but there’s very few people—Altice is the only firm I know that’s 100% committed. Fiber directly to the home, right to the inside of the home to a gateway, and then wireless provisioning through the home. I do a lot of work for Altice. But when fiber first came in, it was a whole different skill set. All of a sudden, you couldn’t bring them down to the warehouse and hand them a piece of coax and a coring tool, and in a half hour or an hour, teach them and put them out in the field. Now you’ve got $10-15-20,000 splicing units. You have intricate pieces of glass, and they have to be cleaned off and they have to be put in and shielded and sealed. It has to be in a controlled environment. All of a sudden now you have to have labs. You can't just climb up the pole anymore. So it’s a whole new ballgame.
Schley: So it was an adjustment.
Healey: It was an adjustment that everybody adjusted to. Over the years the fiber splicers got smaller, they got more economical, they got easier to use. I mean, if you look at sweeping of cable systems, which is almost extinct, the one impact that happens is that people move from one technology to another, but the old technology is still out there. All the sweep techs have gotten into fiber. Try to find a tech that can sweep. When I started sweeping cable systems in 1975, we used to have to use a detector and an oscilloscope. And then all of a sudden, they came out with the Avantek and then all of sudden they came out with—sweep mechanisms now that you put a transmitter in a headend, and the receiver, and it’s much easier—
Schley: Is sweeping a test and measurement practice, or what are you doing when you sweep?
Healey: They're testing the overall response. So if you look at the response of the system, each channel has a specific space in that bandwidth. You want to make sure that the system is performing evenly across the entire bandwidth. You don’t want to have dips and valleys in the system. So you send a sweep system that goes through the system very rapidly, and then you look at that response on an analyzer. And then you can find out where the suckouts are, where the reflections are. And you can fix those problems. All the guys that knew how to sweep got into fiber. Try to find a sweep tech. Nobody wants to sweep anymore. Try to find a coax splicer today. Because all the coax splicers say, there’s more money in fiber, so they're all out splicing fiber. So as these people transition to the new technology, you can go into any of the MSOs—and I'll probably get a phone call if anybody sees it—but there is such a shortage of HFC techs out there right now…
Healey: Because if you look at 10 years ago, the big push was for hiring IP guys. You’ve got to have computer guys. We have got to have IP guys. We have got to have guys that know data. And all of a sudden, these MSOs, they don’t have a lot of guys that have our experience, HFC [hybrid fiber coax] experience.
Schley: That’s so ironic though, right? Because this is an industry rooted in RF…
Healey: I'm not saying that there aren’t any, I'm just saying that we don’t have a lot. A lot of those guys—I looked at the cable industry kind of when I was with Cablevision in New York City. And I was looking at what was going on, and I've been doing this for 20, 25 years now, and everybody keeps selling, everybody was consolidating, and all the good jobs are going away. Because when we had 300 MSOs, you have 300 vice-presidents. You had 300 directors. If not more—600 directors. Now all of a sudden, you’ve got 150 MSOs. And then all of a sudden, you’ve got 50 MSOs. So I see this job pool shrinking. And I realized back then, in 2001, you know what’s really going to be needed, is skill set on the outside because—
Schley: I agree.
Healey: And I decided to get into contracting and it was the best decision I ever made. Because the work is just—there's more work than you can handle.
Schley: What I think is interesting is that you now have a perspective on the entirety of the telecommunications industry and you talk about the overarching trend probably is extending fiber deeper into these networks, right…?
Healey: Extending fiber is the big thing now.
Schley: Through it all, you’ve been very much aligned—you mentioned Pam Nobles with the SCTE. Can you just talk about the contribution that SCTE has made to your world and to the industry at large, the way you see it?
Healey: There’s a lot of us out there, but I'm one of those guys that thinks this industry wouldn’t be where it was today if it was not for the SCTE. The amount of knowledge transfer, networking, new technology that is exhibited, explained and taught at the various SCTE functions, the SCTE chapters, the Expos. If you look at that whole transition over the last 30-35 years, I mean, back in 1980, there used to be 10 or 15-20 shows a year. The Atlantic Show, the Mid-Atlantic Show, the California Show, the this show, the that show. Then we basically cut down to the Expo and the NCTA, and now the NCTA show is gone. So really the only show—I mean, there’s other telco shows out there, but the cable show that is really of significance today is the Expo. I'm one of the few guys—they had a stand-up two years ago of everybody who had ever been to every Expo since they came out.
Schley: Have you?
Healey: Absolutely. Ron Hranac was in the group. And there was a group of about 10 or 15 people that stood up and we had all been at every single Expo. So the SCTE has played a huge role, a huge role, in my life.
Schley: There are two other subjects I can't not ask you about while you're here. One is, there's an organization called the Loyal Order of the 704. Can you talk about what the 704 is and why it has a loyal order?
Healey: So the Loyal Order of the 704 started back in—and Rex Porter, if you’re watching, I believe it was 1996, at a cable show, I believe in San Francisco, but I'm not sure. But a bunch of guys got together. A 704 is actually the very first field strength meter.
Schley: I think they have one here at the Cable Center.
Healey: We have several of them here. I'm actually co-chair of the 704 now. I co-chair the 704 every year with John Kurpinski. He’s my redoubtable co-chair for the Loyal Order of the 704. So 704 meter was the meter that we all grew up with it. It was the first meter we ever had so we all said, you know what? Everybody that’s having a 704, let's get together after the show. After the Expo, let's get together and the SCTE bought into it. They started giving us a room and getting us refreshments, and then we started getting a little more organized over the years. Now the Cable Center, to their credit, has taken us under their wing. They manage our funds. If we have an Expo here in Denver, they’ve allowed us to host it here, which we've had a couple of the best 704 meetings we’ve ever had in this facility. And I can't thank the Cable Center enough. When we have the 704 receptions at the Expos, we generally have it around 8:00 the midnight of the Expo. The Cable Center sends representatives to come there. We auction off T-shirts, we have a different them each year. We auction off older equipment. We were auctioning 704s for the longest time. I actually—
Schley: Are there a lot of them left?
Healey: There's a few out there. I actually have—there was a guy by the name of Ken Simons, who is really the father of cable TV from a Jerrold perspective. Really the guy that designed and built and manufactured the 704. Several years ago, I can't remember which Expo it was, they actually brought him in. He was 90 years old, in a wheelchair and they auctioned off, at that meeting, the briefcase that he carried the original 704 and all the design paperwork. I bought it all, I think I paid about $3,500, and I donated the meter to the 704. It's here in this building. Next year at the 50th anniversary for the SCTE, I'm going to donate the briefcase with all the paperwork and I'm going to ask them to put that with the meter.
Schley: I love that the organization is built around this iconic device. It was really tied to cable’s formative era.
Healey: And Pinky is our official mascot.
Schley: I'm aware of this.
Healey: The original Pinky is downstairs where he should be. I have a fake Pinky that we bring to the receptions and anybody that’s inducted has to have a couple of traits: they have to have either used a 704, or be able to tell a really good lie. They have to have 30 years in the industry and they have to be voted on by the rest of the committee. If they are inducted, they then have to kiss Pinky on a spot that is picked by the crowd.
Schley: We’ll just kind of leave that for the imagination.
Healey: Leave that for the imagination.
Schley: Andy, what are you most proud of when you look at your career, what you have done as an individual in this world?
Healey: I'm asked that question a lot and I really have to answer it that—and I mean this from my heart—I'm really a very humble person and I've had millions of dollars in the bank and I've had $350,000 withdrawals, deficits, in my bank. Throughout my entire forty-year career, whether I had a million dollars or whether I was in the hole for half a million, I dressed the same, I drove the same car, I had the same work ethic and I did the same things. I feel that I'm only as good as the people around me, and I think the thing I'm the most proud of is to be part of this industry, and to have been fortunate enough to have people like Steve Dodge, Andy Deveraux, Zenus Block, Rick Guerrero, Alex Best—I mean, the list goes on. To have people like that take an interest in just some guy from New York digging fence holes in the rain and turn me into the CEO. I mean, I own my own company; we’re not huge, we’ll probably do $40 million, a blip on the radar to the MasTecs and the Dycoms. But you know what—it's mine. I own it, we do a good job. I believe in my people, I support my people so I'm proud that I was given the opportunity. I'm proud that I was able to capitalize on it, but I'm most proud of the people in the industry that helped me get there.
Schley: Can I get from you, as we close, one prediction for—you talked about your career being divided into five year segments. Five years from now, what might we be seeing in terms of this industry?
Healey: You know, it's funny. I tried retiring twice and I can't do it. We didn’t get an opportunity to talk about Franklin Covey, but I'm a huge proponent of Franklin Covey. My goal was to get to a place where I could consult and provide leadership because I love speaking. I write articles for many magazines.
Schley: On leadership.
Healey: Leadership. On project management. And I wanted to do that. And it's something I do want to do. But again, this three to five year thing. VerTek has been around now going on five years. And I see the next three—and this is Andy Healey—I see the next three to five years in this industry as almost a repeat of what you saw in the mid-80s, the early 90s. If you look at what's going on, AT&T buys DirecTV; they’ve got $50 billion worth of infrastructure to change out. Comcast is driving fiber deeper into the network through their Next Generation Access Networks across the country, generating a huge amount of work. Cox is building out NT 2.0, not a secret, it's public knowledge. Charter acquires Time Warner. The Time Warner systems hadn’t been maintained for years and years. They’ve got all these buildouts committed to the municipalities just creating all this work. You’ve got this huge, huge war going on out there for bandwidth, so the Zayos and the PEG bandwidth and all these CLECs are out there building, building, building. I see the next 3-5 years as an opportunity for me to close my career out with a bang. Just continue to put cable in the ground, continue to build systems, continue to upgrade plant and in 3-5 years, I think it's going to settle down. I think cable operators for the most part—you know who I think had it right?
Healey: I don’t know if it was his idea, but the Telecommunications Act of 1997. When Al Gore used to go around pushing the information superhighway. You know what? He was just twenty years too early. Because what I see at the end of this entire push of fiber, is that people are going to be knocking on your door, asking you if they can connect this cable to your house. And they're just going to get paid for whatever bandwidth you use. And you will just buy whatever content—game, peer to peer, whatever, cellphone. And they’ll sell bandwidth. I think the cable operators and the phone companies will soon become bandwidth providers. Video will just be something that people will just get as part of the play.
Schley: I think we’re starting to see a little bit of that already.
Healey: Starting to see a little bit of that already.
Schley: With some of the companies.
This has been to kind of track your career from the $2.95 an hour TelePrompTer job to where you’ve taken it today with VerTek. It's been fascinating.
Healey: And it's huge, because I now make about $3.50 an hour.
Schley: I'm glad. But you know, just forward momentum is everything. Right.
So it's been a great conversation, Andy. Thank you. Thank you for your time. Thank you for tuning in for the Cable Center and the Hauser Oral History Series. I'm Stewart Schley.
END OF INTERVIEW