Smaller MSOs Prep for DOCSIS 3.1 & PON

PHOENIX -- Struggling to keep up with surging customer demand for more bandwidth, small and midsized cable operators are planning to leverage both DOCSIS 3.1 and PON technologies to boost broadband speeds.

Speaking on panels at National Cable Television Cooperative Inc. (NCTC) 's Winter Educational Conference here earlier this week, senior technologists of a number of small and midsized MSOs said they intend to start rolling out the cable industry's new DOCSIS 3.1 spec either later this year or early next year. That means they will be quickly following the leads of such major MSOs as Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Liberty Global Inc. (Nasdaq: LBTY), which have already started introducing DOCSIS 3.1 equipment in their cable systems, so they can offer multi-gigabit speeds over their hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) plant. (See Comcast Reveals First D3.1 Gigabit Cities.)

"I really expect us to be a fast follower with DOCSIS 3.1, as we were with DOCSIS 3.0," said Joe Jensen, EVP & CTO of Block Communications Inc. , a midsized Ohio-based cable operator. "I really see 2016 and 2017 as [the years for] testing and evaluation."

Frankly hedging their bets, though, several of the technology executives said they intend to introduce or expand PON service on their networks as well. While excited about the arrival of DOCSIS 3.1, they are not convinced that the new spec will be the total answer to their prayers this time around. "DOCSIS 3.1 really isn't enough," said Frank Miller, a former cable technologist who's now chief architect and VP of Architecture & Roadmaps at CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL)

That's especially true as cable operators lay down more fiber lines, which can support both GPON and EPON technologies, and seek to boost upstream as well as downstream speeds. Although DOCSIS 3.1 enables operators to raise upstream speeds as high as 2 Gbit/s over HFC networks, they will have to perform painful and potentially costly spectrum mid-splits or high-splits to clear more upstream capacity. Given that prospect, some smaller operators wonder whether it might just make more sense to upgrade to FTTH now rather than later and be done with it.

"We have to do both DOCSIS 3.1 and PON," said Ken Paker, CTO & VP of Network Services for TDS Telecom , a midsized provider that operates both HFC and FFTH networks. "I don't see a world where you can just do one or the other… We can never say no to any particular technology."

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Several panelists suggested that cable operators could use "deep fiber" extensions in their networks to split fiber nodes, cut the size of the service group and remove more amplifiers and other "active devices" from their networks. By upgrading from the "node plus three" or "node plus two" architectures common today to "node plus one" or "node plus zero," they said, operators could both improve DOCSIS 3.1 performance and prepare for the ultimate shift to FTTH. "If you push fiber deeper, DOCSIS 3.1 gets better," said Matt Schmitt, VP of Lab Services at CableLabs , who led the development of the DOCSIS 3.1 spec.

The MSO technologists debated which approach would cost more to implement -- DOCSIS 3.1 or FTTH. The consensus that emerged was that while all-fiber networks would still cost more to build, they would be much cheaper to run because of the removal of active electronics. But it's not clear whether the lower opex would cancel out the higher capex or vice versa.

What is clear is that DOCSIS 3.1 will cost more than DOCSIS 3.0 to roll out, at least initially. David Hoffer, COO of MCTV, estimated that basic DOCSIS 3.1 modems will about $30 more than their DOCSIS 3.0 counterparts, at least in the early going. He expects the average DOCSIS 3.1-capable cable modem termination system (CMTS) to cost $300,000 to $500,000.

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

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