Consumers are spending more time online than ever before, and that's putting more pressure on the network. How cable operators respond today will dictate much of their future success.
An ever-growing need for faster broadband
According to MIT, the average person spends 24 hours a week researching, shopping and playing on the Internet. And the more time consumers spend online, the more they demand from their service providers.
Since the early 1990s, the cable industry has pioneered many of the advances in consumers' Internet experiences. In Europe, 55% of next-gen Internet users have a cable connection. In the United States, the cable industry has invested over $275 billion to upgrade the nation's broadband backbone over the last 20 years.
This commitment continues today, as Liliane Offredo-Zreik of ACG Research recently outlined in a white paper. To meet the growing demand for speed and bandwidth, cable providers are engaged in a rolling program of investments, designed to get the most out of their existing infrastructure. At the same time, they're preparing for more radical and transformative upgrades designed to make the network fit for the demands of the 21st century.
That's where things get challenging…
Investments made in incremental changes today have the potential to limit the options available to operators tomorrow -- or at the very least, to make some options far more expensive than they would have been.
To reconcile today's needs with an eye towards the future, cable operators are challenged with finding a technology-agnostic approach and a data-driven upgrade strategy that will stand the test of time.
What are cable operators doing today?
Over the last half decade, cable operators have made remarkable advances in maximizing existing infrastructure. This has allowed them to increase the top speeds available to consumers from 16 Mbit/s in 2007 to an incredible 2 Gbit/s today.
Some of the steps taken to achieve this include:
- Reducing the number of subscribers sharing bandwidth
- Increasing the bandwidth on existing assets by making better use of the spectrum
- Bringing fiber closer to the consumer, in preparation for FTTH
- Switching to digital fiber to improve signal quality
- Moving to a simplified "set and forget" infrastructure capable of auto-optimization
By migrating to newer versions of DOCSIS and using customized or even virtualized infrastructure to deliver scalable capacity to where demand is the highest, operators have not only kept up with consumer demand, but have managed to stay ahead of it.
These strategies have allowed cable providers to get the most out of their infrastructure. But looking to the future, operators are investing in a long-term strategy to build the foundation for tomorrow's networks and services.
What should guide their decisions is a detailed understanding of how future consumer demands, commercial pressures and technological developments will influence their business model.
The cable technologies of the future
One of the primary goals with infrastructure investment is making decisions that will support the most efficient and cost-effective upgrade path.
Distributed Access Architecture (DAA) has been and continues to be central to operators' investment. Its evolution involves moving more functions from the head-end to the node. By allowing for the decentralization and, over time, the virtualization of head-end and network functions, DAA enables the adoption of digital fiber with its higher bandwidth.
Alongside DAA, the latest DOCSIS 3.1 standard enables throughputs of up to 10 Gbit/s downstream. Future standards may even allow for both downstream and upstream speeds of 10 Gbit/s -- something that hardware configurations will need to support.
The potential for Full-Duplex DOCSIS (FDX) variants is likely to become more important, with the growth of services such as video sharing, gaming, eSports and virtual reality. To meet the needs of such services, along with the ever-growing demand for video streaming, there is also Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD). This will allow operators to use the spectrum above the standard 1.2GHz range (when it is required), increasing throughput to as high as 100 Gbit/s.
Virtualization, beyond even what is enabled by DAA, is also likely to become increasingly important in the cable infrastructure of tomorrow. Using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) x86 servers, cable operators can replace physical with virtualized infrastructure at almost any point on the network. This cuts time to market with new functions and increases scalability and flexibility.
At the same time, operators are faced with choices about how to modernize the network core. Chief among these decisions is whether to provide Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) capabilities using a hardware chassis in the head-end -- with the benefits of less disruption and lower training needs -- or move to one of the virtualized-core models becoming available.
How operators can prepare for tomorrow, today
Cable operators are simultaneously in an enviable yet complex position. Enviable in the sense that there is an ever-growing range of technologies available to help them ensure that they remain at the forefront of increasing speeds, growing bandwidth and improving the customer experience. Complex, because they need to choose the right technologies, now and in the future, to meet the demands of use-cases and business landscapes that are evolving at ever-faster speeds.
Providers need business analytical capabilities to forecast the long-range impact of changing consumer, regulation and technological environments on their business model and future strategies. They also need access to the widest possible range of cable technologies.
Finally, they need to be able to create an upgrade path with the right mix of technologies to maximize the positive impact now, but also to meet future needs in the most cost-effective manner.
The battle for tomorrow's broadband leadership begins today.
— Tom Cloonan, CTO of Network Solutions, CommScope