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DOCSIS

MaxLinear, Broadcom set to bring silicon stability to DOCSIS 4.0

Maybe this DOCSIS 4.0 thing is going to happen after all.

After months of posturing and uncertainty, it appears that the two primary suppliers of DOCSIS silicon – MaxLinear and Broadcom – are committed to developing chipsets for DOCSIS 4.0, a new generation of CableLabs specs that puts cable operators on a path toward multi-gigabit speeds and lower latencies on their widely deployed hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) networks.

MaxLinear made it clear that new DOCSIS chips are on its roadmap after it recently clinched the acquisition of Intel's home gateway business (which includes both DOCSIS and Wi-Fi technology), but didn't offer a specific timeline on product availability.

"We've accelerated the path to productization of 10G DOCSIS CPE with the acquisition of Intel's CHD business and have all pieces in place for a compelling DOCSIS 4.0 silicon offering spanning CPE and Infrastructure," the company said in a statement. "We continue our engagement with key MSOs and industry stakeholders for a mutually beneficial deployment strategy."

Some CPE suppliers view the MaxLinear/Intel combo as good news, as the deal represents a good strategic fit for MaxLinear, a smaller company that's in position to focus on the task at hand.

"I think [MaxLinear] will do a better job of executing the product strategy than Intel did," an exec said. The home gateway unit "was sort of a lost child inside a company as big as Intel."

Broadcom commitment draws sighs of relief
Dissolving a big question mark that was looming over DOCSIS 4.0, Broadcom, multiple industry sources confirmed, has locked in the financial backing and broader industry commitments the chipmaker insisted upon before investing further in D4.0 product development.

Broadcom's participation in DOCSIS 4.0 had been up in the air as the vendor sought a non-recurring engineering (NRE) model that calls on operators and others to help foot some of the R&D costs, commit to volume purchases and otherwise mitigate some of the financial risk.

Industry sources said Broadcom's recent DOCSIS 4.0-related NRE signoffs include silicon that will support both flavors of D4.0 – Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX), a technique favored by Comcast that allows upstream and downstream traffic to move over the same block of spectrum, and Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD), an approach favored by most other cable operators that will continue to use separate, dedicated spectrum for upstream and downstream traffic.

Broadcom, a source said, has received financial commitments from operators on both sides – ESD and FDX – though the terms remain a secret.

Although other chipmakers might give DOCSIS 4.0 a look, Broadcom's vow sent ripples of relief across the cable industry, even if the chatter about Broadcom's possible lack of commitment to D4.0 ultimately was about posturing and gaining leverage with cable operators.

"Everybody was waiting for Broadcom to make that commitment," another industry source said.

Broadcom didn't respond to questions about its plans for DOCSIS 4.0 silicon and if securing those NRE deals was the trigger point to push ahead with development. However, both Intel and MaxLinear had previously worked on FDX-based products, so that part of it won't require a monster leap.

Two SKUs for DOCSIS 4.0 CPE?
While the idea of integrating FDX and ESD on the same chipset is technically possible but would likely carry a premium price, it's now expected that the first wave of DOCSIS 4.0 CPE silicon will feature discrete D4.0 chipsets for FDX and ESD. It's also not clear if Broadcom's NRE agreements for FDX and ESD even allow for the vendor to develop a fully integrated chipset that uses both technologies. But the general vision for future DOCSIS 4.0 silicon that could support one mode or the other remains intact.

"At the end of the day, there will be two SKUs" for DOCSIS 4.0 customer premises equipment, a source familiar with the situation said. "That's just the way it is."

"The bottom line is we're going to have both," agreed another industry source with knowledge of DOCSIS 4.0 developments happening behind the scenes.

Having two sets of DOCSIS 4.0 silicon could temporarily complicate the retail market for cable gateways and modems, but it does provide a path for operators that were considering ESD or FDX, or even a blend of both depending on the market and situation.

The good news is that, despite FDX's engineering and development lead going back to DOCSIS 3.1 (FDX was originally an annex for D3.1), DOCSIS 4.0 chips that run FDX or ESD are expected to be ready around the same time. FDX, which currently requires a more expensive "node+0" fiber deep network, is considered more complicated than ESD, which relies on traditional upstream/downstream splits used in previous generations of DOCSIS.

Timing on availability is still hazy. But expectations are that DOCSIS 4.0 products supporting ESD and FDX will surface in late 2022 to mid-2023, followed by more time before everything is fully integrated and ready for deployment.

While that seems far out in the future, the need for DOCSIS 4.0 is not imminent as DOCSIS 3.1 network deployments achieve scale among major operators such as Comcast and Charter Communications as well as a mix of tier 1, midsized and small operators around the globe. And DOCSIS 3.1 should provide plenty of runway (in the range of five to ten years, depending on the operator, according to some industry insiders) for the capacity needed to handle data demands on the HFC network until D4.0 is ready for prime time.

Meanwhile, the development on ESD and FDX technologies for DOCSIS 4.0 does provide a higher level of certainty for cable operators on how to proceed with next-gen networks without being forced down a path (such as FDX) that might not fit them.

Among MSOs, Vodafone Germany has already begun to chat up DOCSIS 4.0. In announcing it now provides gigabit speeds to about 21 million households late last month, the company noted that it intends to start initial field tests as soon as the first DOCSIS 4.0 prototypes become available.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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