Broadband Crystal Ball

LOS ANGELES -- SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies -- While consumers are using high-speed connections to consumer video, even some hi-def fare, at an alarming rate, cable operators (and telcos, too) are faced with the challenge of providing enough capacity for today's needs -- and a strategy that ensures they aren't caught off guard when tomorrow arrives.

While the first part is easy to figure out using today's usage figures, the latter requires a crystal ball, or at least some good math coupled with a dose of intuition based on historical patterns.

Speaking here Monday at the "QAM Before the Storm" sessions ahead of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Conference on Emerging Technologies, Tom Cloonan, the CTO of Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS), took a stab at predicting what cable's plant -- in the downstream and upstream direction -- will need to support in the 2012-2016 era.

For starters, cable will need to define a new platform for high-speed data transport, and that debate needs to happen before the industry can enter the development phase. In fact, a good portion of this week's conference will be dedicated to "proposals" for that next-gen platform, whether it ends up being called Docsis 4.0 or something else. (See Docsis 4.0.)

But before looking ahead, Cloonan looked back, recalling how peak modem bandwidths increased from the days of dialup to the wide introduction of cable modem services circa 1997. While 56 kbit/s was more than enough 10 years ago, present broadband services offer on the order of 12 Mbit/s or more, translating to an average subscriber bandwidth of about 100 kbit/s (this refers to the amount of bandwidth an operator has to assign to an individual customer over a given period of time).

Cloonan, using a mix of modeling and math, estimates that peak modem throughputs could reach 200 Mbit/s by 2016, with average sub bandwidth jumping to 11 Mbit/s.

Boiled down further, he says capacity requirements rise about 1.75 times per year.

So how can cable prepare for that without breaking the bank? There's no one answer… another theme that will be common here at ET all week. Vendors and MSOs will be discussing every option under the sun, including spectrum overlays, adding switched digital video, reclaiming analog bandwidth, enlisting upstream "mid-splits," splitting nodes, migrating to MPEG-4, and perhaps (gasp!) even driving fiber all the way to the home.

But, using a mix short of bandwidth expansion, Cloonan presented a scenario in which cable will still have capacity left with plant that's built out to at least 750 MHz. All in, he says cable will need about 2.6 Gbit/s (61 channels of a total of 116 channels available) for the downstream alone.

That will leave operators with 55 spare downstream channels for legacy MPEG 2 support, some analog video, or even for a mid-split that reassigns existing downstream spectrum for upstream use.

So will 750 MHz be enough? "We think so… if we tweak things enough," Cloonan says.

And that assumes every (or at least most) of the assumptions are true. "I'm not going to be thousands of dollars on that," Cloonan jokes.

So, bottom line, it sounds like a big "maybe" to me. But does that answer give cable operators enough confidence to tweak what they've got or to bite the bullet and move to 1 GHz or more? Part of that answer seems to be strongly associated with whether the MSO in question is public or private. (See Cox Makes 1 GHz Moves .)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to Docsis 3.0 Strategies: From Product Development to Service Deployment, a conference that will take a comprehensive look at the cable industry's plans to roll out its next-generation architecture around the world. To be staged in Denver, March 19, admission is free for attendees meeting our prequalification criteria. For more information, or to register, click here.

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