DOCSIS 3.1's runway is shorter in Europe, Liberty Global's CEO says

SCTE/ISBE CABLE-TEC EXPO – CEOs of some of the world's top cable operators agree that DOCSIS 3.1 provides plenty of capacity runway in the near-term, but the length of that runway could vary by geographic region.

There's enormous capacity to be mined from DOCSIS 3.1, and perhaps more capacity to be drawn out than many might realize, Tom Rutledge, chairman and CEO of Charter Communications, said Monday during a CEO roundtable that helped kick off an all-virtual form of the annual cable-tech fest. For example, cable operators can continue to augment the amount of spectrum dedicated to the upstream using "mid-split" and "high-split" upgrades, Rutledge points out.

Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global, agreed that DOCSIS 3.1 does provide operators with lots of utility, but stressed that "the runways are a lot shorter in Europe," due to the level of all-fiber competition faced there. In Switzerland, for example, Liberty Global is already dealing with multiple operators that are selling 10-Gig products at similar prices to the cable op's top broadband services.

That scenario, Fries added, is causing Liberty Global to focus on how quickly and cost-effectively it can get to "10G," the industry's initiative to get to multi-gig speeds using a mix of access network technologies – hybrid fiber/coax (HFC), fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) and even wireless – along with enhanced security and low-latency capabilities.

With respect to HFC, that means a look at the emerging DOCSIS 4.0 platform and a potential spectrum upgrade to 1.8GHz.

Liberty Global is "totally behind 4.0" and will typically represent the "default approach," Fries said. But he also acknowledged that the company's wireline network future will center on a hybrid approach that will increasingly include FTTP where it makes economic sense. XG-PON "is starting to creep in" to the discussion, he added.

Rutledge agreed that DOCSIS 4.0 is the next big step on HFC, but when Charter will need to ramp up to 10G capabilities – and when to operationalize those upgrades – is a question to be answered. "It will require a lot of planning," he said.

Recent activities and developments around DOCSIS 4.0 and the broader 10G initiative arrive about 18 months after the cable industry announced its 10G vision and roadmap.

10G is important to the industry's story and vision and how cable's story is portrayed to policymakers, Michael Powell, president and CEO of the NCTA – The Internet and Television Association, explained in a one-on-one talk with Tony Werner, Comcast's president of technology and product for Xperience.

"10G ... is essential to our relationship with the government," Powell said.

[Ed. note: In an ironic twist, Werner's connection to the show's live stream glitched temporarily, with the exec noting that he happened to be on an LTE network.]

Network investments pay off during pandemic

The morning discussion and CEO roundtable also focused on how and why cable's networks held up in a pandemic despite a spike in residential network usage as millions shifted to work and school from home. Boiled down, they all said that ongoing investments helped to keep networks ahead of the capacity curve during the initial surge.

"There's no question that the cable industry's network met the moment," said Dave Watson, president and CEO of Comcast Cable. "But I'd start to say our people met the moment ... It required a lot of immediate attention."

While new AI technologies and network management tools helped to keep networks ahead of the data demand curve, consistent investments in the network also played a critical role, Watson said, noting that Comcast has spent $12 billion in network investment and capacity over the past three years.

Charter's DOCSIS 3.1 network deployment put the MSO in a good spot, but Rutledge admits that "not every place was perfect," as Charter still had to go out and augment the sizes of some nodes and accelerate the rollout of D3.1 modems in some areas that could take advantage of the spectrum being used for that platform.

"The bigger story is the network had capacity available ... because we invested in the network," Rutledge said.

Liberty Global, like other cable operators, was forced to manage a big spike in upstream utilization during the early parts of the pandemic as stay-at-home orders proliferated.

"We had a bigger uptick in six weeks than we had seen in six years on the upstream," Fries said. "The investments we've made over the past ten years obviously paid off, inadvertently... Over-investing in capacity paid off."

As for changes caused by the pandemic, Fries believes it will accelerate Liberty Global's new-build network projects as well as its migration to IP video.

"A lot of things moved up," including Comcast's adoption of digital apps and tools and the use of self-install kits, as a result of the pandemic, Watson said.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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