New CableLabs specs to drive access network optionality

Flexible Mac Architecture (FMA) will give operators the ability to stick with HFC and upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0, or pull fiber all the way to the home, and make those decisions on a granular, market-driven basis.

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

June 22, 2021

3 Min Read
New CableLabs specs to drive access network optionality

CABLE NEXT-GEN EUROPE DIGITAL SYMPOSIUM – A new set of CableLabs specs will ensure that cable operators won't be pigeonholed into one access network technology or another, providing optionality as they weigh whether to upgrade their existing hybrid fiber coax (HFC) networks to DOCSIS 4.0 or make a full pivot to fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP).

Those specs, dubbed the Flexible MAC Architecture (FMA), were issued last fall, and are considered a key component of "10G," a cable industry initiative that is focused on delivering symmetrical 10 Gbit/s speeds, along with enhanced security and low latencies, across multiple types of access networks – HFC, FTTP and even wireless. FMA provides a common framework for disaggregated networks for multi-gigabit networks and a path toward fully virtualized access networks.

FMA "plays a critical role in the ability of cable operators to continue to move forward with all of these technology options," Jeff Heynen, vice president, broadband access and home networking, Dell'Oro Group, said here Tuesday during a keynote session at a Light Reading-hosted event that assessed the cable and broadband network situation in Europe.

He said such optionality at the physical layer of the network becomes possible as cable operators start to disaggregate the traditional Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) and begin to introduce software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) principles.

"We'll be looking at FMA on a global basis as an enabling technology for operators to go ahead and compete flexibly with different physical layer technology," Heynen said.

While a pandemic-marked 2020 caused operators to beef up capacity on their existing networks and architectures and backburner some next-gen network projects, Heynen said he's seeing more momentum now shifting toward upstream capacity upgrades and a move to the distributed access architecture (DAA), a requisite for future DOCSIS 4.0 networks. While the overall activity in those areas remains relatively small, Heynen expects it to accelerate further in 2022.

For the near term, Heynen expects operators in the region to focus on enhancing DOCSIS 3.1 networks using "mid-split" or "high-split" upgrades that dedicate more spectrum to the upstream portion of the HFC network.

Generally increased demand on the HFC upstream is playing a role there, but a flurry of new or accelerated fiber competition is also starting to force cable's hand in Europe on DAA and upstream spectrum upgrades, Heynen said. Focusing on the competitive set, he said he's seeing "significant upward swing" in XGS-PON action among telcos that are sizing up plans to deliver multi-gigabit broadband.

Network optionality, aided by FMA, will come in particularly handy in Europe, a complex cable market that is seeing operators weigh both FTTP upgrades and moves out on the HFC network that can lay the groundwork for DOCSIS 4.0.

Options abound

With that in mind, Heynen said cable operators in the region are weighing a set of choices: expanding the HFC network capacity to 1.2GHz or perhaps as high as 1.8GHz and ride DOCSIS 3.1 for all it's worth; starting to prep the network taps and amps for future DOCSIS 4.0 networks; or "biting the bullet" and going with FTTP.

They are "not mutually exclusive options," Heynen said. "It isn't a religious reliance on DOCSIS or HFC ... There's no yes or no."

NOS, a Portuguese operator, illustrates how this optionality is playing out.

"I think there is no correct answer to this question," Paulo Jorge Rosaria, head of fixed-access technology at NOS Portugal, said on a follow-up panel regarding whether it makes sense for operators to prep for DOCSIS 4.0 or upgrade to FTTP. The situation and business cases vary by both operator and region, he said.

NOS, which has an FTTP upgrade plan underway, is considering mid-split upstream upgrades in some service groups on its HFC network, but not uniformly. NOS has no plans to pursue a high-split upgrade on its HFC networks, Rosario said.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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