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Where Cable Stands With Fiber

Alan Breznick
11/18/2019

Like staunch health food advocates, cable operators are increasingly adopting high-fiber diets for their own good.

Even if they haven't yet embraced FTTH or Fiber Deep strategies yet, cablecos are steadily pumping more fiber into their access networks even while they carry out such other key network upgrades as rolling out the latest versions of DOCSIS, tinkering with distributed access architecture (DAA) and experimenting with virtualizing network functions. Similar to the telcos and other rival service providers, they are fortifying themselves with fiber to add more capacity, deliver more advanced services, slash operational costs and boost service performance and reliability, among other things.

Yet, even while they fancy fiber more than ever, operators are not exactly abandoning their large legacy, coaxial plant or kissing DOCSIS and other cable-specific technologies goodbye. Instead, they are increasingly becoming hybrid service providers, relying on a growing mix of coax, fiber and wireless networks to serve their customers.

These trends and more come through clearly in the latest Heavy Reading survey of cable operators about their fiber use, plans, prospects and challenges. This second annual survey -- conducted over the summer in tandem with SCTE-ISBE and five major cable tech vendors (Adtran, Ciena, Corning, Incognito, and Viavi) -- found that cablecos are embracing fiber more tightly even as they continue to rely heavily on coax and other types of network upgrades to remain competitive as a new decade dawns.

HFC, DOCSIS upgrades remain a near-term key
In one key finding, for example, the global study revealed that HFC will remain a viable connection for cable for at least the next five years. Survey respondents indicated that they expect nearly half (or 46%) of their residential and business subscribers to still be coaxial-based in 2024, both with DOCSIS 3.1 (D3.1) connections and without them.

In particular, North American cablecos, who have taken the lead with DOCSIS 3.1, are enthusiastic about using DOCSIS technologies to reach the industry's ambitious "10G" goal over the next few years. That explains the industry's current push to develop and deploy DOCSIS 4.0, a planned next-gen set of DOCSIS specs aimed at enabling symmetrical broadband speeds as high as 25 Gbit/s.

Fiber also taking a more significant role
At the same time, though, fiber will play an increasingly bigger role in the cable HFC plant as well. Survey respondents said they also expect to connect almost one third (30%) of their customers with FTTx/FTTP lines over the next five years.

Moreover, about three quarters of cable respondents (75%) reported that their company expects to pass at least 250,000 more homes in its footprint with FTTP networks within the next three years. Further, over two fifths of respondents (43%) said their company expects to pass at least 500,000 more homes with all-fiber lines by then.

As previous surveys have also shown, cable operators are turning to fiber for a variety of reasons. But the two leading factors cited for this move are the need to reduce aging infrastructure, and the impetus to match or stay ahead of the competition.

Of course, there remain major hurdles for cable operators to switch to a high-fiber diet. More than four fifths (81%) of respondents cite the cost of fiber as a significant or moderate challenge to installing more fiber in their plant while an identical amount named high construction and labor costs.

As for DAA, cablecos appear to be making some progress with this promising but complex technology after years of dragging their feet while weighing their various options. In the Heavy Reading survey, over a half of respondents (52%) said their company is now working on a DAA strategy but has not completed it yet. Another 35% said they have a DAA strategy in place but are still evaluating either the digital endpoints or the digital network itself.

For a free copy of this comprehensive report, please click here to download it now.

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

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