Cable Tech

CommScope takes partnership path to DOCSIS 4.0

CommScope confirmed that it has partnered with a pair of companies on the development of silicon and an underlying network architecture for DOCSIS 4.0, a new set of CableLabs specifications that will bring multi-gigabit speeds, enhanced security and low latencies to hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) networks.

At a high level, that work aims to expand the technology and product ecosystem for the budding DOCSIS 4.0 market. From a narrower standpoint, this initiative, if successful, will also prevent Broadcom from gaining a stranglehold on the market.

"We're developing to accelerate the chip to market," Ric Johnsen, SVP of broadband networks at CommScope, said of the project, noting that CommScope is splitting development costs with one of its tech partners.

CommScope is not yet ready to reveal its DOCSIS 4.0 dance partners. But this coordinated approach is focused on the development of a platform/architecture powered by an ASIC for the PHY engine that will work in tandem with an FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Array), which will handle the MAC (Media Access Control) and coding elements of the DOCSIS 4.0 equation.

The FPGA element will enable CommScope and its partners to modify the architecture as needed, and effectively resolve or fix any issues that aren't known at the outset. That ASIC/FPGA combo will allow for power optimization and flexibility as well as features for DOCSIS 4.0, Johnsen said.

"DOCSIS 4.0 has a lot of unknowns yet. We think that flexibility is going to be needed," he explained.

Non-exclusive agreement

Johnsen said the agreement is not exclusive, as CommScope's tech partners will be free to sell the PHY layer chip to anyone, including other DOCSIS network suppliers and operators that elect to use it.

"Our investment to help them jointly develop it is just to give us a head start. But we want the ability for other people to have access to that chip, both for the viability of [the tech partners] as well as enhancing the ecosystem," Johnsen said.

"We're trying to be a fair player with them to make sure we've got a robust capability. I don't want this to be a one-off."

CommScope isn't identifying its tech partners, but it's clear that Broadcom is not among them. As reported by Light Reading in July, Broadcom has sought to have operators and suppliers sign joint development agreements, along with a desire to lock in high-volume commitments to help protect its investment in the development of new DOCSIS 4.0 technology.

While some industry insiders view this as a bullying tactic, others point out that past bad behavior by operators (such as having vendors spend heavily to develop new technologies and products and then not buy them) has forced Broadcom into such a position.

Meanwhile, Broadcom has been working closely with Comcast on technology that uses the Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX) option for DOCSIS 4.0.

It's not clear if many other operators will follow suit or go with the other D4.0 option: Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD), which is also known as Frequency Division Duplex (FDD). Although FDX and ESD provide optionality, having two approaches has also bifurcated the DOCSIS 4.0 market and caused a level of uncertainty among certain vendors and operators.

With Broadcom obviously not part of CommScope's partnership play, that leaves MaxLinear as one of the logical candidates to work on a D4.0 project that will lead to a potentially important alternative.

In fact, MaxLinear, which acquired Intel's DOCSIS technology last year, has already indicated a desire to partner on D4.0 technology.

"We want something that says we're collaborating," Will Torgerson, VP and GM of MaxLinear's Broadband Group, told Light Reading earlier this year when asked about the company's plans for D4.0.

"We want to have something that says, this is the path we're going down, as far as at least ESD or FDX, to make sure we're not trying to drive a bunch of work that nobody's going to use."

Torgerson also expressed a desire to have certain assurances from operators about the direction they want to head in with DOCSIS 4.0.

Operator involvement

CommScope's approach appears to hit the mark there, too. Johnsen said a handful of major cable operators in the US and abroad are involved, actively monitoring the work and contributing their voices to the development.

"They are privy to the details," Johnsen said.

And while the initial focus is on the ESD/FDD flavor of DOCSIS 4.0, he stressed that the architecture under development will also be made to support FDX. By way of example, a remote PHY device could support either option with a firmware update to the FPGA.

CommScope's not ready to commit to when the new D4.0 tech will be ready for commercial deployment, but the plan is to have a mock-up ready for coming interops at CableLabs by early-to-mid 2022.

"Getting through the interops will set the gates for that," Johnsen said. "If we get through that gate, we'll feel pretty good about talking about availability … But we think it will be ready in plenty of time."

The expectation is that the first system will be rolled out with a DOCSIS 3.1 load and be in position to be upgraded to DOCSIS 4.0 as operators become more comfortable moving to the new architecture.

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To amplify that point, some operators are interested in exploring initial deployments of the new architecture on plant built out to 1.2GHz (the current spectrum limit on DOCSIS 3.1), with an option to pursue a fuller upgrade to 1.8GHz later on.

"They are guiding along their vision of how it's going to be deployed," Johnsen said.

Lifting the veil and providing this level of transparency and involvement by operators is a new approach for the industry. In previous generations of DOCSIS, operators were not as closely involved with product development as the chipmakers and vendors were.

"We're doing things differently, and we think it's going to be beneficial," Johnsen said, noting that uptake and participation from operators on the project was stronger than expected.

But it still comes with some risk.

"We don't know that they'll choose this chip, choose this architecture," Johnsen said. Operators, he added, wanted to be more involved in the development "so they knew it was real and that they would have the ability to influence the outcome to [a product] they could use … We'll understand what they really want this DOCSIS 4.0 performance to be on day one."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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