Donald Rumsfeld, tech bro

Memory Lane

On a Tuesday of last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he joined Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a press conference in which the two men sought to restore confidence that Taliban militants will be defeated. The press conference was classic Rumsfeld: a crisply formatted affair in which the Secretary’s carefully measured words were delivered with strict tonality and what seems to be a barely contained defiance.

Watching Rumsfeld, one doubts very much that the man charged with managing the nation’s defense infrastructure during wartime pays much attention to the revolution going on in the far less ominous world of digital media. Yet there is a bond that will forever unite Rumsfeld with the pictures and pixels that appear on millions of television screens across the country.

Years before Rumsfeld was sworn in as Secretary of Defense in 2001, the former White House Chief of Staff presided over a different sort of battlefield. As the chairman of General Instrument Corp. from 1990 to 1993, he and a group of corporate lieutenants staged a series of risky maneuvers against what seemed to be an unstoppable international force: a Japanese plan to modify television standards so that viewers could watch high-definition TV pictures.

General Instrument – “GI” was, ironically, the acronym under Rumsfeld’s tenure there – had plenty at stake in the migration toward HDTV. The customers that contributed most of the company’s revenue were cable operators. There was a huge risk that the HD transmission technology devised largely by Japan’s NHK, if adopted by the U.S., would overwhelm the capacity of the cable industry’s infrastructure. That’s partly because NHK’s plan, rather than attempt to pare back the amount of electronic information that constitutes an HDTV picture, would instead have demanded far more carrying capacity to accommodate the larger information streams. It was the equivalent of combating obesity by buying a bigger chair. 

Fearing their biggest customers’ investments in delivery networks could be severely compromised, Rumsfeld and his associates launched a counter-offensive across both political and technological fronts. Playing a sort of national-allegiance card with U.S. regulators, the executives pleaded for consideration of a born-in-the-USA plan championed by, among others, the technology strategist for cable’s Tele-Communications Inc., John Sie. The enabling technology behind their alternative HDTV plan was a video engineering marvel known as digital encoding – a way to transform the electronic information behind traditional TV signals into the binary code that prevailed in computing. 

When Rumsfeld took the helm at General Instrument in 1990, engineers at General Instrument’s M-A/Com division already were deep into experimentation with digital video delivery systems, mainly for purposes of transmitting signals over satellite networks. In May of that year, General Instrument became the first applicant to propose to the Advanced Television Systems Committee a revolutionary all-digital alternative to the NHK system for HDTV. Three years later the idea of an all-digital system won FCC endorsement, and after extensive tests, the ATSC adopted in 1995 a digital TV transmission system that blended features of the General Instrument plan, and others, into a sweeping rewrite of the nation’s television delivery standards. The NHK plan had been turned back, and the most dramatic makeover of the U.S. television system since the debut of color TV in the 1950s was under way. 

Rumsfeld, a former Illinois Congressman and Secretary of Defense under President Gerald Ford, had used his Washington D.C. connections to lobby for consideration of General Instrument’s plan. He had helped the relatively small company – it had less than $2 billion in revenue at the time – derail a plan backed by powerful Japanese consumer electronics companies including Sony Corp., at a time when cable industry re-regulation and a broad financial market downturn had produced a bleak outlook for the company and its then-majority owner, the private equity firm of Forstmann, Little & Co. “If it hadn’t been for Don we probably couldn’t have saved the company,” recounted former General Instrument executive Frank Drendel in an oral history published by The Cable Center. (General Instrument was acquired in 2000 by Motorola for $17 billion.) 

Today, millions of cable and satellite TV customers receive digitally encoded signals at their homes, and TV networks routinely encode their signals before they’re beamed to affiliated stations and cable headend sites. The live coverage of Rumsfeld’s Kabul press conference, in fact, was one of hundreds of recorded news events traveling that day to viewers over a constellation of digital networks employing variations of the sort of digital technology General Instrument pioneered when Rumsfeld was the company’s chairman. That’s what you call coming full circle. 

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