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Cable Moves Toward Faster, Smarter Access

Craig Leddy
Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes
Craig Leddy

For nearly 25 years, cable has relied upon hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) plant to deliver a wealth of digital television, Internet and telephone services. But the HFC transport system is essentially a dumb pipe passing through signals that are managed by the brains at the headend. And it's a pipe that could become clogged by the increasing surge in Internet usage and the prospect of more robust applications to come.

Now the industry is embarking on its boldest effort yet to transform the access network into a smart network that supports higher speeds, greater efficiency and more intelligent routing. A new Heavy Reading report presents cable's "Ten Steps to a Fast, Smart Cable Access Network."

The strategy involves making changes in last-mile plant that will push more functionality to the network edge. This next-generation architecture is designed to meet the ever-increasing demand for broadband capacity and the proliferation of more IP devices and interactive applications in homes and businesses.

The report analyzes ten technologies that cable providers are adopting, including:

  • DOCSIS 3.1, the foundation for multi-gigabit broadband speeds

  • Deep Fiber, pulling fiber-optic cable closer to the home

  • Distributed access architecture (DAA), to strengthen the edge network

  • Remote PHY, moving circuitry to the node level

  • Full-Duplex DOCSIS (FDX), for gigabit speeds upstream

  • Passive networks, removing amplifiers between the network node and the home

  • Wireless, to extend wired services

  • Gateways, in-home devices to manage television and Internet services

  • Big data analytics, for intelligent traffic routing and performance management

  • Virtualization, to automate processes through software

The greatest presentation of this next-generation strategy occurred during the recent Light Reading Cable Next-Gen Technologies & Strategies conference in Denver, where speakers and panelists discussed the fundamental building blocks. While there remains plenty of debate over the exact tactics to employ, plus countless technological details to sort out, together the speakers laid out the most significant upgrade in cable's network since the industry first adopted fiber optics and digital technology.

These technologies support cable's ongoing migration to an all-IP cloud delivery network, the report says. While a primary focus is to increase overall bandwidth capacity, the next-generation architecture is designed to support more efficient routing by tailoring capacity to meet high-density usage and peak traffic demands, a concept similar to cable's earlier development of switched digital video.

The smart network supports the convergence of traditional quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) video and IP at the headend, largely through the converged cable access platform (CCAP), and a similar merger in the home, through cable-supplied IP gateways and consumers' owned IP devices. Augmented by big data analytics and virtualized automation technologies, the cable network of the future promises to be able to micro-serve individual technology demands and personal usage requirements, while achieving significant cost savings for cable providers, largely through a reduced need for equipment and electrical power.

But there is much work to be done and many implementation costs to calculate, Heavy Reading says. While Altice USA is taking the bold step of replacing HFC with a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network, other cable providers remain steadfast in their belief that they can get more out of their HFC plant for many years to come. The ten technologies discussed in this report represent the newest tools in their toolkit.

— Craig Leddy, Contributing Analyst, Heavy Reading

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