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DOCSIS 3.0 -- Not So Fast

Michael Harris
Michael Harris

With telco fiber and video rollouts heating up, MSOs say they are keen to see 160 Mbit/s wideband cable modems. That's what CableLabs' new DOCSIS 3.0 specification will deliver, as well as IPv6 support and other goodies.

CableLabs completed and published the new 3.0 specification on August 7, a few weeks after the R&D group hosted an initial product interop event. Participants included Arris, BigBand Networks, Broadcom Corp., Casa Systems, Cisco Systems (and Scientific Atlanta), Conexant Systems, Filtronic Signal Solutions, and Netgear.

"We will be ready to conduct interoperability, certification and qualification testing on 3.0 products whenever suppliers are ready, as is our normal position," said CableLabs Michelle Kuska in a statement.

So, DOCSIS 3.0 gear should be ready to roll in short order, right? Not so fast.

On the cable modem side, stable DOCSIS 3.0 silicon that will enable manufacturers to move into high-volume production is still likely a year away. MSOs could be waiting even longer for stable, qualified 3.0 cable modem termination systems (CMTSs).

"If history is any indicator of the future, it may take two to two-and-a-half years to get a qualified CMTS out there," said Tom Cloonan, CTO of Arris, during a briefing this summer.

Interestingly, in a recent news release touting a new DOCSIS 3.0 forecast, ABI Research predicted:

"The transition to DOCSIS 3.0 will take place in two phases. Cable Modem Termination System (CMTS) equipment in the network must be replaced before the service can be offered. Later-partly by a process of natural replacement over time-the cable modems and set-top boxes in consumers' homes will also change to DOCSIS 3.0-compatible equipment, often residential gateways supporting triple-play services."

While not untrue, the assessment somewhat misses the mark, at least based on the way DOCSIS gear has been deployed by MSOs following each of the earlier specification releases. With past behavior serving as the likely indicator of future actions, here is a more probable scenario.

MSOs will lean on their DOCSIS modem vendors to incorporate 3.0 as quickly as possible, but real delivery will still take a year. Of course, the primary reason that MSOs want 3.0 yesterday is to avoid the risk of CPE obsolescence. It is a strange obsession, given that DOCSIS modems now sell for under $30, not exactly costly for a device that brings in $40 a month in perpetuity.

Speaking of pricing, modem vendors know that MSOs are unlikely to shell out an extra nickel for a modem that's four times as fast. Even so, they'll deliver. And once they do, MSOs will not widely deploy DOCSIS 3.0 services for at least a year thereafter. Cable operators are not even broadly offering DOCSIS 2.0 services yet.

Yes, CMTSs will be upgraded to 3.0 eventually, but that will come after CPE deployments for three reasons. First, the devices will take longer to qualify for interoperability. Second, MSOs like to seed the market with CPE before shelling out big bucks for big iron upgrades. Third, now that they have their VoIP services running smoothly on DOCSIS 1.1/2.0 CMTSs, they'll be loathe to tinker with their transport architecture.

DOCSIS 3.0 means fast cable modems, but don't expect to see them flying off the shelves too quickly.

- Michael Harris, Chief Analyst, Cable Digital News

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