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Cable Tech

Need for mobile convergence forced cable to 'think differently,' CableLabs CEO says

Apple is not the only entity that has dared to think different.

CableLabs believes it has also been forced to alter its approach as cable operators around the globe wrestle with the complexities of fixed mobile convergence and the need to stitch together services and the overall customer experience across their expanding blend of hybrid fiber/coax (HFC), fiber-to-the-premises and wireless networks.

To that end, CableLabs recently initiated a pair of cross-industry projects focused on those efforts: The Convergence Council, an advisory board made up of suppliers and connectivity vendors; and the Mobile Convergence Committee, a group made up of cable and mobile operators from around the world.

"The driver for this is we know we have to think differently," Phil McKinney, president and CEO of CableLabs, said during a keynote chat during this week's all-digital Anga Com conference.

While CableLabs has largely focused on serving its cable operator members and working on cable-centric technologies such as DOCSIS, mobile convergence requires action and activities that extend well beyond those traditional industry borders.

"When you think about convergence, it's not just about cable infrastructure. It's also mobile, it's also fiber, it's also long-haul, access networks, etc.," McKinney said, estimating that about half of CableLabs' members now operate mobile networks in some shape or form. "We kind of stood back and said … you can't operate in a silo. You can't operate just with people just like you. You've got to create a level of collaboration that hasn't been seen."

These new convergence-focused groups, announced in April, include executives and suppliers that historically haven't been tied all that closely to cable-facing technologies and initiatives, including cloud providers and certain silicon players.

McKinney said it's clear that the cable industry, known for collaborating within the confines of its own industry, won't be able to solve every technological and operational issue tied to mobile convergence on its own.

"We're at a critical juncture. This infrastructure is critical to the economy, it's critical to how we live and how we work and how we live. How do we bring this together?" McKinney noted. "These are wicked problems, not just hard problems. And the only way you're going to solve a wicked problem is through collaboration. If you think you can do it on your own, you're not going to do it on your own. You will not succeed."

McKinney noted that advancements in fiber optics and AI and machine learning are among other major areas of focus for CableLabs.

On the fiber end, cable operators have gotten more aggressive with somewhat surgical deployments of fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) for business services and for greenfield residential opportunities. But fiber is now the major ingredient of the industry's hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) networks, with McKinney estimating that all bits running on HFC spend 93% to 95% of their time on fiber before transitioning to the coax portion of the plant.

He dropped some hints that CableLabs has work underway to push the envelope on the kind of data that can be pushed on fiber.

"In our work in fiber we are looking at fiber speeds that far exceed anything you would even contemplate today for fiber," McKinney said, but didn't elaborate on what kind of speed targets are being pursued.

CableLabs, he said, has also put more resources toward AI and using it to predict where upgrades are needed before they are needed and where maintenance on the network can be applied before problems crop up.

AI and machine learning "will be key to managing the networks and improving not only the customer experience, but delivering products and services," fellow keynoter Mark Dzuban, president and CEO of SCTE (which is now a subsidiary of CableLabs), added.

Dzuban said this year's Cable-Tec Expo, set for October 11-14 in Atlanta, is "still headed toward a hybrid event" that will have an on-site component along with some digital access for people who can't make the trip due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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