Wilt Hildenbrand lives by a simple philosophy. “It all goes back to basic electronics,” he said. “If you get a good grounding in that, you can figure anything out. That’s one thing I fall back on and rely on a lot because no one has defeated the basics. You take enough things apart and start to realize that’s true.”
Mr. Hildenbrand, who has been taking things apart and putting things together for more than 30 years, will receive the science and technology Vanguard Award at this year’s National Cable Show in San Francisco. The award annually honors someone who played a significant role in product improvement and design and development of engineering techniques.
Mr. Hildenbrand certainly fits that bill, said Dick Green, CEO of the industry’s research consortium CableLabs. He called Mr. Hildenbrand an innovative technical leader and a pioneer.
Robert Zitter, who won the Vanguard in the category last year, agreed. “I’m very pleased to be succeeded by Wilt Hildenbrand,” he said. “He’s done a lot for our industry.”
As the executive VP for engineering and technology at Cablevision, Mr. Hildenbrand has been the architect of that cable operator’s advanced network. He oversaw the rebuild of the plant to accommodate the video, voice and data services Cablevision offers today. Cablevision said its Voice over Internet protocol phone and high-speed services are the most widely penetrated in the cable industry and that its digital cable service was the first to be adopted by more than 50 percent of basic cable subscribers.
At the end of 2004 Cablevision counted 2.96 million video customers. Of those, 1.48 million, or about 50 percent, had digital cable. Cablevision has a 30 percent penetration of homes passed for high-speed service, with 1.35 million high-speed customers. It claims nearly 273,000 VoIP customers, or
6 percent of homes passed.
By late 2003 Cablevision had rolled out VoIP to its entire customer base. Voice was the crowning achievement for an engineer, Mr. Hildenbrand said. “The big accomplishment over the last year was watching this all come together and happen,” he said. “The Mecca for any cable guy is doing voice. It was the one thing the original cable network never took into account and required a very robust interactive network.”
The VoIP work has been Mr. Hildenbrand’s greatest contribution, Mr. Green said. “[Cablevision] has been a leader in demonstrating the technology and the business aspect [of VoIP],” he said.
Mr. Hildenbrand’s not stopping there, because the network is capable of even more, he said. “The next goal is to converge all these things. I have a TV that does TV and a computer that does computer. What if you could cross-leverage, having caller ID on the TV screen, watch TV content on the PC? Since everything is coming into the house, why have it just be funneled into one device? Find a way to share it across devices.”
That process won’t be easy, but it’s doable, he said.
Mr. Hildenbrand started in the cable industry in 1972, working at then-multiple system operator TelePrompter Corp., which had only 12 channels, most of which were broadcast stations. He joined Cablevision in 1976.
One of his first tasks as a cable engineer was to build the equipment needed for the operator’s own weather channel. That included what was known as a flying spot scanner, which contained three little cups, one of which caught the rain. “You wound all these gauges into the scanner, and it created an image of the weather,” he said.
In 1978 Cablevision built its system to 52 channels. “I thought, ‘How will we ever need more than that?'” he said.
Just the Facts
Title: Executive VP, engineering and technology, Cablevision Systems
How long in current position: Since 1987
Year of birth: 1947
Place of birth: New York
Who knew? He makes a mean English muffin pizza with cheese and pepperoni.