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Cable/Video

Can DAA upgrades get the right bang for the buck?

CABLE NEXT-GEN EUROPE DIGITAL SYMPOSIUM – For Danish network service provider Stofa, a pivot to a distributed access architecture (DAA) paired with a DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade has generated some helpful operational advantages. But those moves have yet to translate into a big boost in customer satisfaction from the services it delivers over fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) networks.

Stofa operates both types of networks – with a bigger focus on HFC in cities and a heavier use of FTTP in more rural areas – but has so far generated higher consumer ratings in the fiber-based service areas despite the company's relatively recent HFC upgrades, Kjeld Balmer, head of network technology at Stofa, explained during a keynote presentation last week during a Light Reading-hosted event held online.

Thus far, simply providing higher-bandwidth services that compete with services delivered on FTTP alone has not been enough to push the customer satisfaction score needle higher for services delivered on Stofa's HFC plant.

"The fiber products are much more favored by the customers," Balmer said. "At the end of the day, the customer doesn't seem to value what we have invested ... We have to do something more."

Stofa is studying the situation closely to determine what it can do to raise consumer satisfaction for services delivered on its upgraded HFC networks. In the meantime, there's some belief that satisfaction is elevated in FTTP-served areas partly because some of those customers have moved over from much slower DSL services. Balmer said Stofa also believes that improving the in-home Wi-Fi capabilities of its HFC-based broadband products, particularly in dense, urban areas, might increase the company's customer satisfaction scores in the areas served by cable.

However, Stofa has seen the start of some dramatic operational cost improvements resulting from the HFC upgrades, including a reduction in truck rolls, and still believes in DAA's long-term payback.

"At the end of the day, it makes sense to do this," Balmer said. "It provides us with a stronger network in any case."

Stofa, Balmer said, has rebuilt about 60% of its HFC network to a distributed access architecture (DAA) that pushes key electronics toward the edges of the network. That's been paired with a DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade, including an expansion of its upstream spectrum capacity to 200MHz, and the introduction of 1-Gig broadband service. Stofa expects to complete the DAA/DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade, which is being used to defend against fiber-based competition, in 2022.

Next-gen cable network spending expected to rebound
Stofa is one of the few cable operators so far to press ahead with DAA upgrades on a relatively wide scale. The speed at which other cable operators might follow suit has been slowed by the pandemic as they re-prioritize their near-term network needs and upgrade plans, Jaimie Linderman, senior analyst, network infrastructure and software at Omdia, said in a follow-on presentation.

But she expects general next-gen cable network activity to perk up in the years to come. Spending on "next-gen" cable infrastructure, which includes categories such as virtual converged cable access platforms (vCCAPs) and DAA hardware, represented less than 10% of the global pie in 2016. Spending on those next-gen cable network products and technologies should reach at least 60% of all revenues in the overall category later this decade, Linderman predicts.

"We will see a rebound," she said.

And some of the post-pandemic picture is expected to be a bit brighter in Western Europe than in some other regions. Linderman expects cable infrastructure revenues in the EMEA region to grow to $152 million in 2025, the only major region at this point with a positive compound annual growth rate anticipated for the 2020-2025 timeframe. She also expects next-gen cable infrastructure spending to represent more than 50% of the EMEA region's capex by 2025, up from just 14% in 2019.

Broader DAA adoption a matter of when, not if
In a separate session focused on DAA, execs said the shift to a distributed architecture remains important for other operators, but stressed that it won't happen overnight.

"This is a multiyear journey," Jim Walsh, solutions marketing manager for Viavi, said.

DAA will also spur the need for cable operators to digitize their networks, particularly in the upstream, a piece of the cable network that's come under more pressure during the pandemic because of the increased use of apps such as video conferencing.

"I don't see a way to do [that] long term or at scale with an analog upstream," Fernando Villarruel, chief MSO architect at Ciena, said. "We have to deal with the upstream and part of that is moving to digital. Long term, I think everybody is doing the preparation and looking at [DAA] very closely."

And the techno-religious debate about whether to go with a remote PHY or remote MAC/PHY architecture with DAA appears to be settling down. Rather than it being an either/or decision, operators are now more interested in using both approaches, Eddie Motter, commercial technical manager at Hirschmann Digital Access, said.

Very few customers are only considering one over the other, agreed Walsh.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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