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Meet the Mentors: The Past, Present, and Future of Connectivity with Ike Elliott

by Leah Oppenheimer | Apr 18, 2018 | Meet the Mentors |

Welcome to this edition of UpRamp’s ‘Meet the Mentors’ series. In this series, we’re showcasing the wealth of resources available to Fiterator teams throughout their journeys with UpRamp via the mentors available to them.

Ike Elliott has been working on and leading technology, product management, strategy, and innovation teams in the communications industry for over 30 years, including executive stints at MCI [now Verizon] and Level 3 Communications [now CenturyLink]. He joined CableLabs in 2010, and became Chief Strategy Officer and SVP of Strategy and Innovation in 2015.

Ike, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and for being such a valuable mentor for the Fiterator teams. I know you were one of the first employees at Level 3 Communications. What was that like?

Ike:I was one of the first 35 employees at Level 3 - so I joined when it was really still a startup. I led the team that created the industry’s first softswitch [a software-only implementation of circuit switch control software], a brand-new technology that cut costs of circuit switching [used to connect phone lines] by 80%. I was fortunate to lead this amazing team that grew the business from zero to $350 million a year. It was like a startup within a startup.

The cool thing was that we were doing what is now called DevOps (before it was cool) – we were able to do as many software releases as we wanted on our own because we wrote the software - so we could rewrite it as well.  And we were changing it daily, sometimes more than once a day. We were not dependent on a vendor product cycle, and being able to move that fast provided more value for customers.

You’ve also had other startup experiences. Care to share?

Ike: I was one of the first three people in a startup here in the Denver area that was a small service provider for voice and data communications over leased circuits. I didn’t work full-time with them, but sometimes it felt like it!

Startups definitely don’t work traditional hours. What if you were to become a founder today? What issue would you tackle?

Ike: The short answer is that I’d build out a network operator that provides more value to its customers by using new technology to constantly increase efficiency and performance.

I think that a lot of network operators aren’t being run as efficiently as they could be. They could create more value for their customers by doing so, especially since communications are a necessary good. The problem is that we take communications for granted, but it requires construction, engineering, and operations.

New technology comes along, and one of the biggest issues to adoption is sheer cultural resistance within network operators - the preference to stick to the way things have always been done. My background is in developing better communications technologies, so this is a battle I feel strongly about - adopting new technologies.

Let’s talk about lessons learned in your career. Have you had any ideas that you regret not taking to market?

Ike: I had a buddy in college that I used to go golfing with. One day on the golf course we were talking about music - we both loved music - and about how cool it would be to record music digitally and download to people’s devices so they could play it. We should have patented that thing right then and there. Sadly, we were before our time - we would have needed the internet, which didn’t exist at that point.  I also don’t think we were imaginative enough to realize what it would become. We just wanted the music - and we could see it coming, but we couldn’t see how big it would really be.

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Ike was a mentor for Teltoo in cohort 2

What about a product or an idea that didn’t quite go to plan?

Ike: As I mentioned, I was brought onto Level 3 to build the softswitch. I led the team that designed it, but when we tried to build it, it turns out that there were no vendors yet who had what we needed. We wound up buying a company for $165M that had an incomplete prototype. They had planned on using it for Voice over IP (VoIP) services, but also for this other little thing called dial-up internet.  We were mostly interested in the VoIP part. 

At the time, local voice operators had to pay each other for inbound calls - that is, each time a person called someone outside of their network, their network would pay the receiving network to complete the call. To get paid, an operator had to use circuit switches to receive the calls. Through our softswitches, we figured out a way to mimic circuit switches with general purpose computers (without buying expensive circuit switches), still receive calls, and get paid by other networks anyway. 

So we acquired this company and finished developing the software and began collecting fees from all of the inbound calls created by dial-up internet access, which we sold wholesale to AOL, NetZero, Earthlink, and the like. Every time you connected to one of those services, you were actually on a Level 3 modem.  And Level 3 was getting paid by both AOL and by your local phone company. 

That one dial-up Internet access product made a ton of money for Level 3.  But our original idea was to get into the voice business, not the dial-up internet access business.  It took years for the IP voice market to develop the way we thought it would.  

After Level 3, you retired for a while before going back into consulting and eventually joining CableLabs, and you’ve been in the cable industry since 2010. What excites you about this industry?

Ike: A couple things. I'm excited by the way industry’s converging, particularly in mobile and wireless. It creates better opportunities for cost efficiency on the operator end, but also new bundles and efficiency for consumers.

I’m also excited that the industry is using so many of the technologies that have been developed here at CableLabs. There was a Level 3 ad from 20 years ago that shows kids going “virtual camping,” using technology that CableLabs is now on the cusp of delivering back when it was a ‘someday’ for us - that’s really exciting to me. It really shows how far we’ve come.

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In cohort 1, Ike was a mentor for Velocidata

So that was 20 years ago, and it’s about to happen now. What’s going to happen 10 years from now?

Ike: The consumer decision will be different. Today, we have a wireless bill and a broadband bill and a video bill and a voice bill. Ten years from now, they’re going to converge as one big connectivity bill. We won’t have these distinctions between wired and wireless, voice and video. That convergence already happening in Europe - we’re getting there.

It’s exciting to me because it takes a burden off the consumer. For example, the consumer won’t be responsible for knowing if they’re connected to WiFi or LTE and switching between the two.

Let’s talk about your role as a mentor with UpRamp. What’s your mentor superpower?

Ike: Coaching, like a coach of a baseball team, who’s putting his players in the best position to win. It's the players who are out there actually performing and shining, but somebody needs to recognize the skills of the player in order to understand how best they can succeed.

The teams will be joining us in just 4 short months. What’s your one-liner of advice for them?

Ike: You get out of it what you put into it. Also, the team and I are all in. We're there to help them. Don’t be afraid to ask for anything.

And finally, most technological advances of the past decades can be attributed to coffee. How do you take yours?

Ike: I don’t drink coffee. I’m more of a tea kinda guy.

Folks, Ike Elliott built a business to $350M without drinking any coffee. You really want this guy as your mentor.

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