Comcast sizing up Plan to syndicate a virtual CMTS – sources

Syndication viewed as a 'tall order'
Even if Comcast ultimately pursues a syndication model with its vCMTS/vCCAP, it could still be many months and possibly years before that part of the project is ready to go, according to people familiar with the concept.

"It's a pretty tall order," said an engineer with knowledge of Comcast's plan to deploy a virtual platform on its own networks and later attempt to license it. "It's a good thought; but it's a while away from becoming a sellable product."

The same source added that Comcast has the resources and engineering wherewithal to pull it off, but believes it could be 2021 or 2022 before a syndicated version of the product would be ready for prime time.

Looking back, Comcast spent a good deal of time developing, deploying and refining X1 before it began to gear up syndication activities for that product. Comcast introduced X1 in Boston back in 2012 and the licensing discussions for X1 didn't heat up until 2014.

Although syndicating X1 wasn't an easy task for Comcast, applying that model to a virtual CMTS is a much larger, more complicated undertaking since it deals with the access network and many more moving parts, sources said. In addition to the software and the COTS servers, there also needs to be an end-to-end network to run them on, as well as critical and stringent latency and jitter requirements.

Operating and supporting a virtual CMTS product is a "far cry" from designing a system like X1 and providing support for it 24/7 to other cable operators, an MSO source said. "A different level of support is needed. The bigger question is: Does Comcast really want to be in that game?"

Only Comcast knows for sure. But syndication has clearly become an important piece of the puzzle for Comcast as it attempts to boost financial returns and drive more economic scale into the technologies, products and services it develops. "The best way to do that is to own it," says a long-time exec with a top cable network supplier who has worked with Comcast and other major MSOs.

In addition to X1, the Comcast Technology Solutions unit of the company syndicates voice services, as well as the "Xmeter," a network troubleshooting tool for field techs. Comcast showed off a couple of its portable meter products, both running RDK-B open source software, at last year's SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Atlanta.

Another big question is whether MSOs, including existing X1 syndication partners, would buy in, because they are already working with their own CCAP suppliers and some are moving downstream on trials and deployments of next-gen access network strategies and distributed architectures that differ from Comcast's focus on N+0.

"It's hard to imagine anyone else in cable even thinking of attempting this, except for maybe Liberty Global," said Alan Breznick, cable/video practice leader of Light Reading. "Who else would risk upsetting all their long-term vendor relationships to pursue such a costly quest, even if it pays off in the long term?"

Given the still-lengthy timelines on deployment and the potential for Comcast to offer virtual CCAP products under a syndication model, it's difficult to gauge how (or how soon) this could have a material effect on the existing crop of CCAP vendors. At the very least it seems that it could, at some point, make it more difficult for Comcast's current CCAP suppliers, such as Arris and Cisco, to serve as key cogs in the MSO's future plans. Likewise, it could make it even more difficult for a vendor like Casa to break in at Comcast. That situation would, of course, be amplified if any other cable operators opted to syndicate Comcast's platform.

By the same token, this could be a big boon for Harmonic if its partnership with Comcast is successful. And if that work does turn into scaled deployments at Comcast and possibly other cable operators, Heynen wonders if that could, in turn, force other suppliers to consider integrating CableOS into their hardware.

So, it doesn't necessarily all add up to spell doom for other CCAP suppliers. But it certainly could diminish their role in the future Comcast network in the years ahead and likewise weaken their position to a level not seen since the DOCSIS era got underway in the mid-1990s.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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