FPI on navigating network upgrades, prepping for BEAD and avoiding 'regrettable' spend

First Principles Innovations, a small company with a deep telecom background, has unleashed tools that help operators get the most out of their network upgrades and develop plans for greenfield deployments.

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

April 5, 2023

7 Min Read
FPI on navigating network upgrades, prepping for BEAD and avoiding 'regrettable' spend

With hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) network upgrades picking up steam, and multi-billion-dollar government subsidy programs like BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment) on the horizon, it's clear that some good times are ahead for access network suppliers.

But this combo of network activity is also poised to benefit companies that specialize in network planning, including evolution/upgrade projects, edge-outs into adjacent areas and potentially larger greenfield opportunities for buildouts covering swaths of unserved and underserved areas.

One company that is seeing activity perk up across all of those areas is First Principles Innovations (FPI), a small, North Carolina-based outfit with a deep telecom industry background. FPI has built a set of semi-automated tools that help cable operators, telcos and other types of broadband service operators get the most bang for their buck on network upgrades, develop plans for greenfield buildouts and, in general, avoid "regrettable investments."

Figure 1: FPI says its AP Jibe tool can provide node-level access decisions in 'minutes.' That analysis includes elements such as transformation activities and their impact during the planned period, cost estimates and custom planning ranges. Click here for a larger version of this image. (Source: First Principles Innovations) FPI says its AP Jibe tool can provide node-level access decisions in "minutes." That analysis includes elements such as transformation activities and their impact during the planned period, cost estimates and custom planning ranges.
Click here for a larger version of this image.
(Source: First Principles Innovations)

In addition to helping operators forge the right path, FPI's tools are designed to help operators understand how those decisions will impact them several years down the road.

And those decisions, particularly for upgrades or enhancements to existing cable networks, are not as straightforward as they used to be. Cable operators now have a multitude of options at hand. They can go with an enhanced form of DOCSIS 3.1 that uses a "mid-split" or "high-split" to beef up upstream capacity, pursue a full DOCSIS 4.0 upgrade or bite the bullet and overbuild themselves with PON. They'll also need to consider how high to raise their spectrum ceilings – is 1GHz enough, or will the demands of the future require a jump to 1.2GHz or 1.8GHz?

In still other cases, some operators are flirting with fixed wireless access (FWA) to extend services into an area where wired buildouts are deemed cost-prohibitive.

But any analysis first requires an in-depth view of the current state of the network, what demands are expected to be put on the network in coming years and what the competitive situation looks like – or is expected to look like – later on.

"That presents a planning nightmare," Sudheer Dharanikota, FPI's CEO, explains. Operators, he said, need to understand how today's network decisions will impact them ten years down the road.

If the wrong decision is made, it could result in a "huge set of regretful investment," said Dharanikota, an exec late of Alcatel-Lucent and Avici Systems with experience managing their interactions with major telecom companies such as AT&T, Bell Canada, Telefonica and Verizon.

In addition to running an associated consultancy business, FPI's products focus on tools that help operators evaluate the current state of their network and determine the best path forward based on customized criteria. To help with the special challenges associated with government-backed programs like BEAD, FPI has also developed a relatively new module called the Broadband Equity Transformation Toolset (BETT).

Charter's use of FPI's planning tool

Among FPI's marquee customers is Charter Communications, which used an access network planning tool from FPI called Access Planning Jibe (AP Jibe) to evaluate an evolution strategy for its widely deployed HFC network. Charter's use of AP Jibe played a role in the operator's development of a multi-phased upgrade plan that will deliver multi-gigabit downstream speeds and 1-Gig upstream speeds on its HFC networks at a cost of about $100 per household passed in the coming years. While the majority of Charter's plant will employ a distributed and virtualized access network, its upgrade plan is anything but one-size-fits-all.

As for its approach, AP Jibe first onboards the current state of an operator's network, including network utilization and a view down to the individual node level. From there, operators use the tool to explore "the art of the possible" for a potential upgrade path, along with the types of services an operator might have in mind for the future and an analysis of the costs, and how those costs fit into an operator's individual budget, explains Luc Absillis, FPI's COO, an industry vet who formerly led Alcatel-Lucent's GPON product line.

FPI has developed configurable templates for AP Jibe. The tool, Absillis said, "will go through that full matrix of upgrade options and come up with the lowest cost or the lowest NPV (net present value) option." For example, a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) upgrade might have a higher immediate cost, but its NPV might be higher than an upgrade of the HFC network.

In their analysis, operators also must consider where and when to add capacity to avoid network congestion.

Generating 'what-if' scenarios

All of those elements and scenarios fit into a broader analysis that more often than not will require input and buy-in from multiple parts of an operator's business. That could span finance, engineering, operations and product development teams that need to be on the same page. The aim here, FTP's execs say, is to provide operators with an integrated, cohesive analysis of their combined resources and turn that into a multi-year transformation plan.

"They [operators] can do a ton of what-if scenarios on the network evolution, but then zoom in on an individual area, market or facility, or [execute] a node-level analysis," Absillis said.

"All of these things become very important when you're making this crucial decision, because around 90% of their investment is in the access network," Dharanikota said.

He estimates that FPI can get an operator started with AP Jibe in less than half a day. The initial big lift involves collecting the status of the network using data from their GIS (geographic information system) database.

Bridging BEAD's 'knowledge gap'

FPI's planning tools go beyond upgrades of legacy HFC networks. Last year, the company added the BETT module for greenfield planning. BETT drills down into Census and FCC data and applies it to the AP Jibe platform.

The company expects BETT to take on a bigger role as operators edge-out their networks to adjacent areas or pursue rural buildouts related to programs like BEAD.

With respect to programs like BEAD, Dharanikota contends that there's a big "knowledge gap" when it comes to the complexity, planning and costs associated with those buildouts.

'Influx of RFPs'

FPI isn't saying who's using or testing BETT, but the group includes access network vendors that are focused on the tier 2/3 market as well as broadband offices that are responsible for how BEAD money is used in each state. The latter piece is picking up as NTIA prepares to announce state-by-state BEAD funding allocations on June 30.

"There is an influx of RFPs [requests for proposals] coming in," Dharanikota said. "They [the states] need to come up with the initial plan."

FPI isn't alone in providing tools to help various segments of the market navigate BEAD. McKinsey's Broadband Lab, for example, has developed a cloud-based tool with integrated analytics to help states and territories maximize their BEAD resources. Additionally, ACA Connects recently issued its latest BEAD Funding Allocation and Project Award Framework based on the FCC's ever-evolving broadband mapping data.

FPI, a company with just a handful of full-time employees, has developed multiple models for its tools. While larger operators might want to license the technology and get trained on it for internal use, smaller operators might prefer a pay-as-you-go model paired with professional services support. In another example, the tools could be employed through FPI's consulting arm.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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