Don't Bet on Full Duplex Yet

Don't get too excited about Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 just yet.

Despite all the attention that it's received since CableLabs first announced the exploratory initiative last month, and the industry excitement that it's generated since then, Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 is still far from becoming the latest and greatest version of the cable industry's tried-and-true DOCSIS standard. And, even if it succeeds in that daunting quest, it likely won't become a reality for the industry before the end of this decade at the very earliest because of the years it will probably take to craft a new spec or addendum and bring it to market. (See What If Cable Does the Full Duplex? and CableLabs Makes Symmetrical Multi-Gig Push .)

That's because CableLabs unveiled the proposed fully symmetrical, multi-gigabit version of DOCSIS 3.1 unusually early in the spec-crafting process. Instead of waiting for the promising new technology to emerge successfully from the preliminary "innovation" phase, CableLabs executives brought it out for view at their winter meetings in Orlando before submitting it to key MSO members and vendors for critical analysis, vetting, and validation. So, like numerous other "innovation" projects that CableLabs is now working on, Full Duplex has not yet advanced to the more concrete R & D phase, which typically takes three to four years.

In contrast, CableLabs did not announce its DOCSIS 3.1 spec effort in Oct. 2012 until after the proposed technology had cleared the innovation, or exploratory, phase and proven its preliminary promise. Similarly, the industry R & D group took the same tack with the previous versions of DOCSIS.

So why would CableLabs jump the gun this time with Full Duplex? After speaking to several senior cable technologists at our Cable Next-Gen Technologies & Strategies conference in Denver last week, my hunch is that group executives were seeking to burnish their organization's reputation as an innovative trend-setter, and possibly even justify its continuing existence at a time when they might be feeling vulnerable. Both concerns are understandable. After all, just a month earlier, CableLabs carried out the first set of mass layoffs in the group's history, letting loose 27 employees, or about 15% of its total workforce. Plus, with all the industry consolidation now going on, CableLabs officials could be worried that such giant MSO members as Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Liberty Global Inc. (Nasdaq: LBTY), Altice and the proposed new Charter Communications Inc. might decide that they don't need the organization any more. (See CableLabs Shifts Focus, Cuts Staff and What's Next for CableLabs .)

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CableLabs officials have insisted that they're not feeling at all vulnerable about the organization's mission or future. But the fact remains that they spread the word about Full Duplex unusually early in the process, breaking with their past practice. Then they uncharacteristically clammed up about the subject, declining to send a speaker about Full Duplex to our conference last week because, as a CableLabs spokesman said, they're "not ready to discuss Full Duplex DOCSIS at industry events." So go figure.

No matter what its reason for doing so, CableLabs is taking a couple of sizable risks by going public with Full Duplex this early. First, the group risks ending up with egg on its face if the technology fails to pan out over the next few months and advance to the full-blown R & D stage. What will it tell its members then?

Second, CableLabs is running the risk of letting cable's rivals know what the industry is planning next sooner than necessary. So all the telcos and fiber providers out there now have at least a few extra months to figure out ways to respond to Full Duplex's potential.

Over time, we'll see if these risks were worth taking. But right now I can't help but wonder.

— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

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