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Cisco Prepares to Unplug Its Cable Amps

In another signal that Cisco Systems is de-emphasizing its cable hardware strategy, the vendor recently alerted customers that it will halt the sale of its family of GainMaker cable amplifiers starting next fall.

While Cisco's decision to end-of-life those products is cause for concern for cable operators that rely on those products, speculation is circulating that Cisco is also exploring a plan to license its GainMaker technology to a third party that, in turn, could take on the heavy lifting for those products, including R&D, manufacturing and sales.

Cisco announced the end-of-sale and end-of-life for select products for hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) networks on October 15.

Cisco has set a deadline of Oct. 15, 2020, as the final day it will take orders for GainMaker amps. However, Cisco will allow operators and other purchasers to extend or renew service contracts on GainMaker amps through Jan. 13, 2025. Cisco also posted a similar EOL alert for its line of Gainstar amplifiers in mid-October. Cisco discontinued the Gainstar amps previously, but said it is now moving to discontinue the remaining accessories for those Gainstar amplifiers.

Those notices followed similar alerts issued by Cisco earlier in 2019 involving more specific models, including the vendor's 1GHz GainMaker amps and certain line extender products.

"This action was mainly driven by certain components going End of Life that are critical to the affected products," a Cisco official said via email.

Cisco has not announced if or when it will develop next-gen amps that use newer components (the company has yet to respond to that question as of this writing), but it did say it will continue to develop, market, sell and support its GainMaker fiber nodes (analog and digital versions) and its Prisma-branded analog and digital optical systems.

Shifting cable network focus
Cisco's decision to phase out its GainMaker amplifiers is the latest one that affects the vendor's cable hardware strategy. Cisco sold its set-top and cable modem business to Technicolor in 2015 and, earlier this year, confirmed that it had halted investment in Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX) technology citing uncertainty about market timing and adoption by cable operators. FDX is one option now being baked into DOCSIS 4.0, a spec-in-development at CableLabs that will enable symmetrical 10Gbit/s speeds alongside new network security and low-latency capabilities.

Despite some back-tracking, Cisco is still in the cable node and cable modem termination system (CMTS) hardware business, remains a key player in the new distributed access architecture (DAA) market, and is continuing to develop software for virtualized forms of the CMTS.

Jeff Heynen, senior research director at Dell'Oro, said Cisco appears to be refining where it will focus its cable technology and product efforts. "They're picking their areas of growth and going forward with those," he said.

At the same time, Cisco's cable amplifier decision could open up opportunities for other suppliers, including CommScope, Technetix and Teleste, among others.

Partnership rumors
As cable hardware becomes a smaller focus for Cisco, there's speculation that Cisco could attempt to keep its hand in the cable amplifier game, at least to a degree.

Rather than selling and making the hardware, Cisco could instead decide to license GainMaker to a third-party vendor partner that could handle sales, manufacturing and even R&D on next-gen amp products that use GainMaker tech as a baseline. There are also rumblings that suppliers in the cable amplifier market or those seeking a way to enter it would be willing to buy that piece of Cisco's business should it be put on the block.

But the partnership angle is the primary source of industry chatter. A licensing structure for GainMaker could enable a profit profile that fits better with the rest of Cisco's business, which has become more software-centric, an industry source familiar with Cisco's thinking said.

"A license with every shipment looks better on the books," the person added.

Cisco declined to comment on speculation that it is exploring a licensing business model for its GainMaker amplifier product line. But the clock is ticking if Cisco is considering such a move. If Cisco sticks with the EOL date on GainMaker, there's not much time for a partner to spool up the manufacturing capability. Even if it's put on a fast track, that move could take six to nine months, not to mention the other transition work involved.

But who might team up with Cisco on such an effort?

Possible, logical candidates include two suppliers that are already teaming up with Cisco -- ATX and Applied Optoelectronics (AOI).

AOI already serves in an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) role for select Cisco products, including Remote PHY Devices (RPDs) for nodes that play a primary role in new distributed access architectures.

Meanwhile, ATX recently hired several Cisco engineering developers in Lawrenceville, Ga., to help ATX accelerate the development of products tied to its DAA cable access networking portfolio.

AOI, ATX and Cisco are also among the vendors collaborating on the Generic Access Platform (GAP), an SCTE-led initiative focused on standardized nodes that can accommodate individual GAP-compliant compute, power and service modules.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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Re: And/Or... Amplifiers might be far from dead. Amplifieres with echo cancellation technology could be the new future. Cisco sees a 3 GHz future where (small) amplifiers are built into the taps...
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And/Or... Could it be that with MSOs pursuing fiber-deep and N+0 architectures, the market for amplifiers has shrunk to insignificance?
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CATV Amplifiers Companies such as Lindsay Broadband still offer both HFC Line Expender and MDU Amps, supporting up to 1.22GHz.
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