The top 5 execs leading cable (very quietly) into wireless

Comcast made the cable industry’s vow of wireless secrecy abundantly clear during its fourth-quarter earnings call last last month, when CEO Brian Reports abruptly cut off analyst Craig Moffett’s question about Comcast’s upcoming wireless launch. Image: Jennie Park Photography/CC BY SA

While Comcast and Charter Communications are currently doing plenty of work, both engineering and otherwise, on upcoming wireless products based on MVNO relationships with Verizon, the cable industry isn’t talking much about who specifically is leading it into the wireless business.

In fact, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts made his industry’s vow of wireless secrecy abundantly clear during his company’s fourth-quarter earnings call last last month, when he abruptly cut off analyst Craig Moffett’s question about Comcast’s upcoming wireless launch. 

“I'm going to stop there and say stay tuned,” Roberts said. “We'll clarify things.”

As of now, things are pretty unclear. And the core question we have is: Just who is putting this all together? 

With this query in mind, FierceCable took it upon itself to identify five key executives on the front lines of assembling the cable industry’s wireless businesses. Collecting hard-to-pry info from the operators themselves, as well as from sources like LinkedIn, we compiled the following capsules on these execs, as well as some of the team members they manage. 

Senior VP of wireless technology at Charter Communications

Craig Cowden
Who he is: The former Sprint exec spent the previous eight years at Bright House Networks, operating most recently as chief network officer and senior VP of enterprise solutions. Following Charter’s acquisition of Bright House, he has now taken the role of senior VP of wireless technology, heading a number of key Charter wireless initiatives—including a product based on the company’s Verizon MVNO deal—out of the MSO’s Englewood, Colorado, offices.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Cowden left Sprint for Bright House in December 2008. In his last role at the wireless company, he oversaw a team of more than 2,100 as VP of network service delivery and access management. Cowden directly reports to Charter’s top tech executive, Jim Blackley, executive VP of engineering and IT. 

What he’s doing: Charter doesn’t talk much about the work Cowden and his team are doing. But an individual close to the company told FierceCable that part of the assignment involves executing the MSO’s stated plans regarding its MVNO deal. Working under the former Sprint executive is former Time Warner Cable operative Ahmed Bencheikh, who serves as GVP of wireless engineering.

Bencheikh’s LinkedIn profile perhaps best describes what his Charter wireless team is working on: “Senior executive leading the wireless engineering and technology development organization responsible for end-to-end architecture, engineering design and development of mobile and wireless products and solutions for new Charter. Also responsible for developing new technology solutions in the mobile/wireless space, technology and platforms selection, qualifying and selecting vendors, contractors negotiations and vendors management.”

President of Comcast Mobile

Greg Butz
Who he is: While Comcast has been fairly secretive about a wireless product that, by the company’s own stated timeline, is less than six months away from launch, the cable operator has nonetheless been transparent about who is overseeing the initiative. Butz, who joined Comcast back in 1993 as director of business development for the erstwhile Comcast Cellular Communications, and who had been in working in various sales and marketing roles since that time, was named to the newly created position of Comcast Mobile president last July. Butz is known for having spearheaded the creation of Comcast’s Xfinity Store chain. He reports to Neil Smit, CEO of Comcast Cable. 

What he’s doing: Butz leads a team of around 100 Comcast Mobile employees, shaping a wireless product that will be bundled into the MSO’s existing video, internet and landline offerings. The mobile product will combine usage of Verizon’s network via an MVNO deal signed back in 2011 with Comcast’s network of around 14 million Wi-Fi hotspots.

So who’s on Butz's team? Tough to say, since Comcast has kept information about the unit closely guarded. Notable though is Eric Schaefer, who serves senior VP and general manager of communications, data and mobility.

Senior VP and general manager of communications, data and mobility at Comcast

Eric Schaefer
Who he is: According to his Comcast bio, the former Verizon executive is responsible for leading the Xfinity internet, voice and consumer wireless businesses. Schaefer’s team “also manages the growing number of Xfinity Wi-Fi hotpots, the partnership with Verizon Wireless and the company’s groundbreaking Internet Essentials program, which provides low-cost internet service to low income families.” Schaefer joined Comcast in 2001, but according to his LinkedIn profile, he worked at the VP and general manager level at Verizon in the ‘90s.

What he’s doing: Since Schaefer controls the 14 million Wi-Fi hotspots and Verizon MVNO deal Butz’s work is based on, how do their respective teams collaborate? Again, Comcast is less than forthcoming in regard to this intersection.

Notable employees reporting to Schaefer include Cole Reinwand, a former EarthLink executive who serves as VP of Xfinity Wi-Fi. According to his online profile, he sits on the board of directors of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, an industry consortium of global wireless and Wi-Fi carriers focused on specifications, resources and standards to guide carrier-grade Wi-Fi deployment and interoperability.

VP of core innovation at CableLabs

Peter Smyth
Who he his: Formerly head of mobility and wireless research for British Telecom, Smyth is one of several VP-level engineers developing wireless technologies for CableLabs. In fact, his last title at the industry consortium was VP of wireless, where he was responsible for all wireless R&D and broadband projects, roadmaps and project execution. In his own profile, he said his new, broader purview covers “project execution and strategy related to all aspects of wireless and DOCSIS with an event horizon of 3-8 years.” Smyth reports to Ike Elliott, chief strategy officer and head of innovation for CableLabs.

What he’s doing: In his relatively brief tenure at CableLabs—he joined the consortium in August 2015—Smyth has emerged as one of group’s most outspoken engineering authorities on 5G. He told FierceCable last year that cable operators could provide the high-speed small cells to wireless operators that would support connections up to 40 Gbps.

"Cable operators are currently deploying public Wi-Fi access points, so it's not unreasonable for CableLabs to think about upgrading those Wi-Fi locations to 5G technologies either in the licensed bands or in the unlicensed bands," he said.

To be clear, Smyth is but one of several CableLabs engineers intersecting with wireless. Notable are former Intel technologist Belal Hamzeh, VP of wireless technologies, and Rob Alderfer, VP of tech policy for CableLabs, but formerly chief data officer for the FCC’s Wireless Bureau. Also notable is Mitch Ashley, president and GM of CableLabs’ for-profit Kyrio subsidiary, which is in the process of developing Wi-Fi roaming services for nine cable clients. 

Co-founder and CTO of Casa Systems

Weidong Chen
Who he is: While cable operators and their industry consortium quietly work to converge their industry into wireless, the vendor community is making moves, too. Chen, a  former Bell Labs and Motorola engineer, has positioned his company to get on the ground floor of cable’s transition into the wireless business.

What he’s doing: At CableLabs’ Winter Conference in Orlando, Florida, last week, Casa demonstrated a new, virtualized fixed mobile convergence solution specifically for cable operators. Casa entered the wireless market a year ago with the launch of its Axyom and Apex network edge solutions. Casa said its new platform, which is based on its Axyom virtualized software platform, will enable cable operators to accelerate their move to mobile and offer integrated Wi-Fi/cellular services like Wi-Fi-First to their customers.

“It is exciting to see that the convergence of wireless and wireline end user access is well underway,” said Dan Rodriguez, VP of data center group and general manager of Intel’s Network Platforms Group, Communications Infrastructure division, in the statement. That division supplies chips and other technology to the Casa fixed mobile convergence product.