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Cable/Video

Cisco shifts next-gen cable amp business to ATX Networks

In a move that alters the competitive landscape of cable access suppliers, ATX Networks confirmed that it has the green light to develop a lineup of next-generation cable amplifiers that are compatible with Cisco Systems' widely deployed GainMaker technology.

Word that ATX is set to build GainMaker-compatible amps later this year comes about four months after Cisco disclosed it would halt the sale of its family of GainMaker cable amplifiers (including 1GHz amps) and certain line extender products, starting in the fall of 2020. Cisco set a deadline of October 15, 2020, as the final day it will take orders for GainMaker amps, though buyers can extend or renew service contracts on those Cisco products through January 13, 2025.

The end-of-life notices were a cause of concern among cable operators. They were left wondering how Cisco's decision would impact access not just to current-gen GainMaker products but whether a next-gen product line for future network upgrades would be forthcoming. ATX's involvement appears to bridge the gap to the next-gen GainMaker-compatible products.

ATX and Cisco have not announced a formal licensing agreement to make this happen, but ATX would certainly need one to build GainMaker-compatible products. Last year, multiple industry sources told Light Reading that Cisco was exploring a licensing option as it made plans to exit the cable amplifier business and cede major elements of it, including R&D, manufacturing and sales, to one or more third parties. ATX appears to be the sole vendor (so far) that will make GainMaker-compatible products.

ATX and Cisco aren't strangers; the two companies have collaborated on tech projects in recent months. Cisco and ATX were part of a small group of vendors that developed a prototype of a Generic Access Platform (GAP) node (with ATX handling the housing and Cisco providing software) based on emerging standards that will result in common node housings and various interchangeable service modules that will snap in like Lego blocks. ATX also added some critical cable access network engineering expertise late last year when it hired several former Cisco HFC engineers based in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

Charlie Vogt, ATX's CEO, said the plan to build Cisco-compatible amps fits with a broader plan already underway at ATX to develop and introduce a broader portfolio of next-gen 1.2GHz amplifiers, taps and passives, with a roadmap to 1.8GHz and possibly 3GHz further out on the horizon.

ATX has plans to make its 1.2GHz line extender products available as early as next month and expects to make available its entire 1.2GHz system amp and line extender product family equipped with next-gen components starting in late Q3. ATX won't start shipping GainMaker-compatible products until after Cisco's end-of-life notice expires this fall. The company expects to start lab testing with customers before that, said Vogt, who joined ATX in February 2018. Vogt's resume includes leadership roles at Imagine Communications/Harris Broadcast, Genband, Taqua and others.

Targeting Cisco's installed base
The initial plan, Vogt said, is to focus on operators and markets with a large, installed base of legacy Cisco amps in DOCSIS networks. That should open up a window of opportunity for ATX in the US, Canada, Taiwan and Australia as well as parts of Latin America.

Most HFC networks are already built out to 750MHz, 860MHz or even 1GHz, but ATX wants to be in position for the next cycle of bandwidth upgrades as MSOs start to think about ways to expand upstream data capacity using Extended Spectrum DOCSIS and networks that raise the bandwidth ceiling to 1.2GHz bandwidth and, eventually, 1.8GHz. Those upgrades will cause operators to make actual, physical changes to the plant and attempt to future-proof the network as much as possible.

Outside the GainMaker footprint, ATX will also size up ways to grab share from other suppliers with legacy amp positions (such as CommScope, Antronix, Lindsay Broadband, Technetix and Teleste) as MSOs explore upgrade paths.

"It's a huge market," Vogt said, estimating that Cisco GainMaker today has about 35% to 40% of the North American cable market. "We're in the midst of an exciting product lifecycle upgrade phase … The upgrade cycle could be pretty significant for us."

Dallas-based ATX is privately held, but Vogt views the GainMaker opportunity as material enough that it could lead the company toward an IPO in the next couple of years.

Jeff Heynen, senior research director at Dell'Oro Group, said DOCSIS 3.1 and coming DOCSIS 4.0 networks will usher in an upgrade cycle for amplifiers and in outside plant in general. ATX's decision to make GainMaker-compatible products could also "engender some goodwill" from cable operators "and create an addressable market for themselves in these upgrade cycles," particularly in North America and Latin America.

While ATX's decision to build GainMaker-compatible products will enable the company to become more firmly entrenched, the arrangement also pulls Cisco further out of the cable hardware market as the entire company puts more emphasis on networking software.

Cisco's decision to end the life of certain amps and line extenders is another signal that the company has backed away from parts of the cable hardware business. Cisco, for example, halted investment in Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX) last summer, and sold its set-top and cable modem business to Technicolor in late 2015.

Cisco's still got some skin in the cable access game, however. The company's software initiatives include technology for new virtualized converged cable access platforms (CCAPs) and new nodes and remote PHY devices for emerging distributed access architectures. Meanwhile, Cisco said the partnership path ensures its technology and products can evolve and support customer transitions even as some cable products reach the end of their lives.

"As part of our end of sale process, we occasionally look for partners in the industry who can continue to build and evolve compatible products with our end of sale products," Sean Welch, VP/GM of Cisco's Cable Access Business, said in a statement. "These arrangements help to ensure a smooth transition for our customers. Our priorities remain locked in place for our Cable Access business. We are focused on areas that are important to our customers and strategically aligned with our broader Cisco portfolio and strategy including helping to enable the roll out of DAA, helping to evolve the CCAP infrastructure to a cloud-native, data center application, and evolving our industry-leading GS7000 node to DOCSIS 4.0 compliancy."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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