CABLE NEXT-GEN TECHNOLOGIES & STRATEGIES 2022 – The path forward for cable operators is no longer a straight line. Rather than simply advancing toward the next generation of DOCSIS, several operators are instead plowing ahead with plans to overbuild their hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) with fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) networks.
While cost and performance fit into that analysis, rising fiber competition from the telcos is also playing a significant role in that process, John Dickinson, president and founder of Just Digital Transformations, explained last week. Dickinson spoke here on a panel focused on how the cable industry is fitting into a frenzy of fiber buildouts that are underway in the broader telecom industry.
The continued shift to remote workforces and the drive toward cloud-based services underpinned by optical networks are also driving that trend, Dickinson added. "Fiber is really an enabler to that," he said.
But Dickinson also acknowledged that cable operators are in better position than some telcos that are going from twisted pair to fiber. "From that standpoint, cable has more time to get to all-fiber," he noted.
The fiber trend is also skewing rural, as operators look to upgrade networks or to take advantage of government programs focused on underserved or unserved areas.
"A lot of rural areas and providers have never built any [fiber] plant before, and they're starting to do it now. It's a trend we're seeing a lot of," Jack Burton, a principal at Broadband Success Partners, said.
Burton, whose company works with equity firms, banks and other investors exploring the purchase of fiber assets or expanding into the fiber business, said he's also seeing a significant rise in fiber-building activity among fixed wireless companies focused on rural markets.
In addition, Burton said he's seeing an uptick of investors or acquirers of HFC networks that are eager to upgrade them to FTTP rather than enhancing their existing DOCSIS 3.1 platforms or looking to upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 further down the road.
Access network specialist Calix is witnessing the forefront of this trend. Jeff Brown, director of growth segment marketing at Calix, said the supplier is seeing an acceleration of activity among cable operators overlaying their networks with fiber to meet a specific need – to improve the quality of their plant or to service a segment of the business in a "saturated community."
But he noted that some cable operators are also overlaying networks with fiber to sidestep migrations to more advanced cable modem termination systems (CMTS). "I think you'll start to see announcements like that starting to come out in 2022 across cable operators," Brown said.
On cue, Calix last week announced that Blue Ridge Communications is working with the vendor to overbuild about 8,000 miles of existing DOCSIS 3.1 plant with FTTP in rural Pennsylvania. The result will be a fiber network capable of delivering speeds of 10 Gbit/s to an area serving more than 250,000 homes passed.
Getting a bead on BEAD
These fiber trends are also wending their way to the SCTE, the cable industry's standards-setting organization. "We're seeing an uptick in standardized training for fiber," Steve Harris, executive director, education and technical sales at SCTE, said, noting that the organization has launched a working group focused on emerging coherent PON technology.
Wireline optics is also setting up to be a big focus at this fall's SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, set for September 19-22 in Philadelphia, Harris noted.
MTA, a coop focused on southcentral Alaska, is deploying FTTP in all new construction areas. The company is also spinning up a grants department to ensure that MTA can pursue government subsidy opportunities, Jared Lindman, director of commercial solutions at MTA, said.
Brown noted that Calix is also working to help operators navigate the performance and benchmark requirements of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) portion of President Biden's infrastructure law. As opposed to more centralized federal programs, BEAD will be implemented at the local level.
"There are some nuances and intricacies around that," he said. Calix, Brown noted, is encouraging operators not to get overly-fixated on the government metrics, but to also be prepared to back that baseline performance with the right customer experience, which includes solid in-home Wi-Fi connectivity.
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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading