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Cable Tech

When will DOCSIS 4.0 be ready for prime time?

CABLE NEXT-GEN TECHNOLOGIES & STRATEGIES 2022 – DOCSIS 4.0 represents the future of the hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) network, but it's still not exactly clear when the technology will be deployed.

Industry experts peered into their crystal balls at Light Reading's annual cable tech event to predict when DOCSIS 4.0 will be ready for prime time. Their estimates are tempered by the realizations that products are still in development and operators will need to prep their outside plant with a new breed of active and passive components before they can truly usher in the DOCSIS 4.0 era.

The "end points" of the DOCSIS 4.0 network, including the customer premises equipment, could be a reality by 2024, with operators expected to spend about a year on testing, Jay Lee, chief technology and strategy officer of broadband access at ATX Networks, predicted during a panel discussion.

"I think by 2025 or 2026 we could see some serious ramp-up in upgrading HFC networks and deploying DOCSIS 4.0 equipment," Lee said.

Trials underway

Jeff Finkelstein, chief access architect at Cox Communications, noted that some initial DOCSIS 4.0 lab trials involving new silicon have already been conducted. "You can start putting the pieces together and being very opportunistic, very selective and start planning a year or two out," he said.

With that in mind, Finkelstein expects "limited deployments" of DOCSIS 4.0 to commence by 2025, with "full-scale" moves in 2026. In the meantime, he suggested that operators prepare their plant for 1.8GHz upgrades with deployments of new actives and passives and a shift to a distributed access architecture (DAA).

"Then you can just flip the switch and light up [capacity] from 1GHz to 1.8GHz, and almost effectively double our potential bandwidth there," Finkelstein said.

Some suppliers are already seeing that sort of plant activity begin to percolate. Jan Ariesen, chief technology officer at Technetix, noted that his company will participate in a 1.8GHz field trial this year with an unnamed cable operator. Such a move would provide up to 14 Gbit/s downstream and put a cable operator in position to start offering 10-Gig services, he said.

CableLabs is also ready to begin DOCSIS 4.0 interoperability tests when vendors reach that stage. The group is preparing a near-monthly cadence of D4.0 interop events in 2022 and into early 2023, and is set to host a private "10G Showcase" on April 27 which is expected to feature presentations and live demonstrations of DOCSIS 4.0 technology.

Doug Jones, principal architect at CableLabs, said the current challenge is testing and verifying multi-gig speeds. "We are upgrading our infrastructure," he said. "We're doing more fiber connections than copper connections in the labs … The scale and the infrastructure for these speeds are really going up."

Bridging the gap

Though DOCSIS 4.0 won't be ready for commercial deployment for a few years, panelists agreed that existing DOCSIS 3.1 networks and the use of "mid-split" and "high-split" upstream upgrades will provide plenty of capacity to bridge the gap and enable operators to compete with new multi-gig services provided by US telcos.

"We think [DOCSIS 3.1] has quite a bit of runway," Finkelstein said. "But we're doing the long-term strategic planning for DOCSIS 4.0."

GCI, Alaska's largest cable operator, is deploying fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) in new-build areas, but intends to upgrade its HFC network to DOCSIS 4.0. "In our existing HFC environment, we just have far too much invested there not to take advantage of it," said Victor Esposito, vice president of engineering and architecture at GCI.

Meanwhile, Esposito said GCI, which has already introduced 2-Gig downstream services, will get more out of its DOCSIS 3.1. The operator has been seeding its HFC network in preparation of a high-split upgrade that will boost the amount of spectrum available for the upstream, and opening up more OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) blocks that provide downstream capability.

In Anchorage, GCI's largest market, the operator is preparing a 1.2GHz network with a high-split and using plant equipment that will support a module or faceplate change for future upgrades to 1.8GHz and beyond.

"We're looking at DOCSIS 4.0 to get us to that 10-Gig offering," Esposito said. "One of the things that we're doing today that all MSOs should be doing today is preparing your network for DOCSIS 4.0. I feel that we need to work three to five years ahead."

GCI is also looking to reclaim spectrum and squeeze more out of its HFC plant by shutting down its legacy QAM video system and transitioning to IPTV. "It's the most important thing you can do for you network, and it's also the hardest thing you can do," Esposito said, noting that GCI has started that process in Anchorage.

Finkelstein agreed that the cable industry's been paying a "spectrum tax" for years with QAM, and that shifting all video to IP will free up a massive chunk of spectrum.

Solving DOCSIS 4.0's power problem

Panelists also explored the power challenges operators will face with DOCSIS 4.0 and a capacity upgrade to 1.8GHz. With DOCSIS 3.1, operators have between 1 watt and 1.2 watts per home passed inside the network and will see a step up to more than 2 watts per home passed with DOCSIS 4.0/1.8GHz.

"Power consumption is a problem to go to DOCSIS 4.0," Ariesen said.

He noted that operators have ways to handle the issue: going with high-power amplifiers that can compensate for losses at higher frequencies; deploying medium-power booster amplifiers; or relying on more small amplifiers.

Lee said ATX is focused on the use of high-power amplifiers, noting that the SCTE has a working group studying their use for drop-in upgrades.

He said estimates show there will be a 25% to 35% power increase required over the use of legacy amplifiers but added that work is underway with amplifier silicon suppliers that could drop that premium to a range of 10% to 20%.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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