In Europe, fiber's the future, but HFC has a long life ahead

Fiber has clearly become the dominant access technology for the access network in Europe, but operators and suppliers still see HFC and DOCSIS maintaining an important role for years to come.

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

June 7, 2024

5 Min Read
Colorful fiber optic lights
(Source: Samuel Whitton/Alamy Stock Photo)

Much as it is in North America, Europe's wireline future is tied to fiber. However, widely deployed hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) networks will continue to live on and support customers for years to come.

That was one of the big takeaways at Cable Next-Gen Europe 2024, the seventh-annual event on the topic hosted by Light Reading.

Fiber is clearly the fastest-growing access technology in Europe.

At a high level, fiber accounted for almost half of broadband subscribers in 2023, a figure that's expected to rise to 65% by 2028, Julia Schindler, senior analyst for European Markets at Omdia, noted in her broadband outlook for the region.

By comparison, DSL, a technology that accounted for about half of all broadband subs in Europe some five years ago, dropped to about one-third in 2023 and is anticipated to fall to 15% by 2028. Cable's position in the market has been more stable, but is expected to drop to 11% of all broadband subscriptions in Europe by 2028.

Fixed wireless access (FWA), an access technology that has taken the US by storm, is a niche option in Europe. Just 4% of all broadband subscriptions were tied to FWA in 2023, a number that's forecasted by Omdia to rise to 7% in 2028.

Omdia_european_access_network_chart.jpg

In a trend that mirrors some of what's being seen in North America, fiber's rapid rise is being driven by migrations from DSL and cable to fiber and by the use of fiber in networks being built in rural areas as well as in other greenfield scenarios, Schindler explained.

Related:Broadband access networks on path to 1-terabit speeds by 2040 – Chapman

Agnostic in the access network

Meanwhile, "cable" operators are becoming increasingly agnostic when it comes to access technologies.

Liberty Global, for example, is increasingly leaning on fiber in markets such as the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Switzerland while also striking up joint ventures that are focused on fiber network buildouts, Bill Warga, VP of strategy and technology at Liberty Global, explained in a keynote chat with event host Alan Breznick, the cable/video practice leader at Heavy Reading.

That approach, which will include a move to XGS-PON, is driven largely by competition as Liberty Global moves ahead on delivering services that can match up with its rivals.

But Liberty Global will continue to support and, in some cases, upgrade its HFC/DOCSIS networks.

HFC "is still a huge part of our business and a huge part of our networks," Warga said. Liberty Global is currently squeezing all it can out of DOCSIS 3.1, enabling the operator to deliver up to 2.5 Gbit/s in the downstream.

But the operator, he pointed out, plans to conduct DOCSIS 4.0 trials this year in anticipation of targeted deployments of the technology. Liberty Global initially will focus on the Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD) option for D4.0, but Warga said Liberty Global has not ruled out the Full Duplex (FDX) option that Comcast is using. Notably, Liberty Global is among a small group of operators that will have early access to unified D4.0 chips from Broadcom (in collaboration with Comcast) that support both ESD and FDX.

Related:DOCSIS 4.0 interop hits record 9-Gig downstream speeds

Liberty Global is also using FWA, led by Sunrise Telecom's deployment in Switzerland. "It's more of a niche product for us," Warga said.

But the strategy going forward on how to apply resources toward Liberty Global's networks will be targeted and subject to annual reviews based on market conditions, he added.

Long live HFC

Other speakers and panelists agreed that HFC and DOCSIS still have plenty of gas in the tank.

Fiber will ultimately win out, but HFC will stick around for another ten to 20 years and coexist with fiber, John Chapman, a DOCSIS pioneer and former Cisco exec, noted in a keynote. He reiterated a stance that cable operators should take a "fiber first" approach on their network strategies.

That, he stressed, will require a "cultural change" in the industry. "I think a mistake would be to put every single penny we have on upgrading the cable network to the latest version of DOCSIS and chase it," he said. Chapman suggested that operators consider upgrading a small portion of their HFC networks each year.

Related:Broadcom's grip on DOCSIS 4.0 chips remains a concern

"HFC has a lot of gas in the tank," agreed Ryan Nicometo, SVP and GM of video and broadband solutions at Vecima Networks. He also believes that HFC has at least 15 to 20 years of runway.

While cable spending on legacy cable modem termination system (CMTS) products and analog optics will now be limited, Vecima does see operators shifting more spending toward enhanced DOCSIS 3.1 technologies, distributed access architecture (DAA) upgrades, virtual CMTSs and a shift to 1.8GHz technologies.

David Whitehead, senior director of broadband solutions at Harmonic, sees a similar path forward, aided by ongoing node segmentations and a move to "high-split" upgrades that dedicate more spectrum to the upstream.

"There is plenty of steam left" in HFC, said Andres Bloom, senior systems architect, broadband DCT, broadband networks, at Tele2 Sverige.

Kevin Noll, principal architect at CableLabs, said DOCSIS will need to last long enough for operators to eventually build out fiber. Based on AT&T's recent buildout pace (about 60,000 miles built last year), that means ten to 15 years. "We have to make DOCSIS last at least that long," he said.

Meanwhile, discussions continue about what might come after DOCSIS 4.0, including the potential use of 5G on HFC or extending DOCSIS well beyond 1.8GHz. That could put operators in position to offer in the neighborhood of 20 Gbit/s and perhaps 5 Gbit/s or more in the upstream.

The life of coax can be extended using technologies that allow cable operators to deliver services in higher frequencies, perhaps up to 4GHz and 5GHz, Technetix CTO Jan Ariesen said.

Read more about:

Europe

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.

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.
Join 62,000+ members. Yes it's completely free.

You May Also Like