Cable Tech

Rapid network evolution requires workforce transformation

Telecommunication networks are constantly in a state of flux. The rapid rate of new services being introduced to telecom customers and the underlying network infrastructure being upgraded to support these services creates a dynamic learning environment for the workforce that operates and maintains the network.

The last year of stay-at-home orders has accelerated both new service introduction and network upgrades. For example, one major network operator relates that they implemented three years' worth of planned network upgrades in a period of three months at the start of the pandemic. These upgrades are not only adding network capacity, but are also ushering in the latest technological innovations.

At the network layer, many cable industry technological changes are in the planning and deployment stages:

  • Network functions virtualization (NFV) – migrating the core CMTS functionality (CCAP core) from the hub site to the datacenter
  • Distributed access architecture (DAA) – migrating PHY or MACPHY functionality from the hub site to the fiber node
  • HFC mid-split/high-split – allocating more HFC spectrum to the upstream
  • Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) on the upstream – providing higher aggregate throughputs and lower latencies
  • Preparing for DOCSIS 4.0
    • Planning to extend the HFC spectrum up to 1.8GHz
    • Implementing echo cancellation and smart scheduling to support full-duplex DOCSIS

Evolution to NFV and DAA.  
(Source: Comcast)
Evolution to NFV and DAA.
(Source: Comcast)

Simultaneously, many new services and technologies are appearing in the home:

  • Wi-Fi 6/6E – the latest Wi-Fi release, providing higher wireless speeds, lower latency and greater security
  • Internet of Things sensors, including remote appliance management, security and smart lighting
  • Applications for supporting work from home, remote learning and telehealth

Functionality which for decades was in one location, is now migrating to a new location. For example, the DOCSIS PHY layer is moving from the hub site to the fiber node. Communication interfaces are changing, too. Two examples are: 1) the communications link from the core to the node is changing from analog to digital; and 2) the upstream from the home to the node is changing from QAM to OFDMA.

All of the above network and service changes lead to training challenges for the telecom workforce. Tens of thousands of personnel are on the "front line," operating and maintaining the 1.7 million miles of fiber and coaxial plant in the US. This workforce possesses unique technical knowledge and skills. When a new technology such as OFDMA is introduced, it is critical that the workforce receives the necessary training and tools to support it.

At the same time, many in the workforce are reaching retirement age. One MSO is reporting 20% of their technician workforce is currently eligible to retire this year. Another MSO is reporting that 70% of their workforce will need significant retraining over the next five years based on the above technology changes. What's more, there is competition for field employees with the appropriate skills. All telecom operators – cable, telco, and satellite – are upgrading their networks at the same time, and this overall workforce has similar skills (i.e. in-home installation), creating competition for the best talent.

Technological change begets personnel change. There are some people who may feel threatened by these technological changes. However, the reality is that technological evolution leads to greater opportunities for the workforce as long as they adapt and learn new skills. Today a technician may be logging into hundreds of individual network elements keystroke by keystroke. With some additional training, they may become the software developer who is writing the automation scripts to provision the entire network. Process automation and modernized tool sets are hand-in-hand with workforce training. The sum of all three – training, automation, and tool sets – forms the foundation for successfully supporting networks and services.

SCTE, a subsidiary of CableLabs, is working with the MSOs to ensure that their employees have the training on these emerging services and technologies. Check out https://www.scte.org/training-courses to learn more. Workforce Transformation papers will be presented at Cable-Tec Expo 2021 in Atlanta from October 11-14, along with papers on DOCSIS 4.0, NFV, DAA, Wi-Fi 6, and more. Go to expo.scte.org to see everything that's planned for this preeminent broadband telecommunications event.

— Chris Bastian is the chief technology officer for SCTE, the not-for-profit membership organization leading the acceleration and deployment of cable technology. For more information, visit www.scte.org.

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