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Cisco folds cable access into mobility unit

Cisco has put cable and mobile under one roof.

The network supplier confirmed that it has merged its cable access unit with its mobility business. The newly combined entity is now led by Masum Mir, VP and GM of Cisco's cable and mobile business unit.

The formation of that internal merger arrives soon after Cisco effectively exited the cable amplifier business (through a licensing agreement with ATX Networks) and a few years after Cisco sold its set-top and cable modem/gateway business to Technicolor.

Cisco also confirmed that Sean Welch, the former VP and GM of Cisco's cable service provider unit, recently retired. George Kajos, who was heading up the software engineering architecture for Cisco's virtual converged cable access platform (vCCAP) and involved in the vendor's remote PHY product line, was also among the cable access unit execs and long-time RF engineers at Cisco that has opted for early retirement packages.

That string of activities, along with Harmonic's big vCCAP win at Comcast and Cisco's decision to halt investment in Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX), have led to questions about Cisco's long-term commitment to the cable access market.

The company says it remains in the cable network game with its flagship CCAP chassis, the CBR-8, its new virtual CCAP platform, along with analog and digital nodes, including remote PHY products that fit into emerging distributed access architectures for hybrid coax/fiber (HFC) networks.

Ties to network convergence

But Cisco also reasons that the time is right to combine its cable and mobility efforts as cable operators and other types of service providers move ahead with converged network and service strategies.

The merging of the cable and mobility units also links back to a broader vision from Jonathan Davidson, SVP and GM of Cisco's mass-scale infrastructure group, that included a plan to centralize Cisco's engineering organization, said Tom Kennedy, Cisco's head of product management for cable and mobility.

"Our focus has really been to continue to grow and maintain our existing business and evolve as the specs evolve toward DOCSIS 4.0 and the architectures evolve toward the cloud," Kennedy said. "That's the same dynamic that's been happening in the mobility space."

He said the bulk of this activity and strategy, centered on the combination of Cisco's cable access and mobility units, goes back more than two years and includes changes that well underway before Welch retired.

"This phase was an opportunity to take the two groups together … and really tie our roadmaps and strategy together," Kennedy said.

As another reflection of this change, John Chapman, a DOCSIS pioneer and former CTO of Cisco's cable access unit, is now CTO of broadband technologies. In an expanded role that will still include DOCSIS, Chapman will focus on all access technologies that apply to cable operators, including 5G RAN, fixed wireless access, PON and network convergence, according to the company.

Kennedy said the CBR-8 will remain Cisco's lead product for the cable access network and that the vendor will continue to invest in its vCCAP and its node products to support DOCSIS 4.0, a new set of CableLabs specs that will support symmetrical multi-gigabit speeds, advanced security and low latency capabilities. DOCSIS 4.0 also fits in with cable operator plans to expand the spectrum allocated to the HFC network's upstream and downstream.

Kennedy also acknowledged that the cable industry's migration toward the cloud is a "big step" that presents significant operational hurdles. "It's very different than today's CCAP," he said.

Though Cisco's decision to combine its cable and mobile units follow the evolutionary path of network convergence, some industry vets wonder if Cisco will be able to retain its focus on next-gen cable products, or if that piece of the market will even be big enough to warrant long-term attention and investment.

Evolving cable access vendor landscape

The next two to five years will determine how Cisco fares as it looks to expand (or at least retain) its presence in the cable access market ahead of DOCSIS 4.0 and the cable industry's broader, multi-access "10G" initiative.

Meanwhile, a major shift is underway in the cable access supplier market.

Though CommScope remains the sector's top dog, Harmonic is making progress with its vCCAP among Tier 1 operators such as Comcast and Vodafone, and Vecima Networks is getting more aggressive following its recent acquisition of Nokia's cable access assets. Meanwhile, ATX Networks and Technetix are trying to take over Cisco's cable amplifier business. Casa Systems has also centered itself on a network convergence play as its mobile/wireless business continues to encroach upon its legacy cable access network business.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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