Getting Smart on Docsis 3.0?

Has the cable industry lowered the cone of silence over Docsis 3.0?

With the latest version of the 1960s sitcom Get Smart about to hit the theaters, cable operators are acting like bungling CONTROL secret agent Maxwell Smart. Instead of shouting their Docsis 3.0 deployment plans from every rooftop, they've gone strangely mute, talking about the "wideband" platform in furtive whispers, if at all.

In fact, with the notable exception of Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), the big North American MSOs have gone almost completely silent about what's supposed to be the industry's surefire weapon to beat the dreaded FiOS and U-verse initiatives of Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T). Some 14 months after Comcast CEO Brian Roberts demonstrated Docsis 3.0's blazing speeds on stage at the 2007 Cable Show, only Comcast has made a solid commitment to the new spec, introducing service in Minneapolis in April and pledging to cover as much as 20 percent of its footprint by year's end.

Even the usually aggressive Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), which just announced that it would start testing Docsis 3.0 in New York "later this year," has not exactly leaped to launch wideband. In an interview with financial analysts, Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt said his company likely won't roll out Docsis 3.0 more widely until 2009 or 2010, and then only "in response to demand." Given that it's hard for consumers to demand something they haven't seen, smelled, tasted, or touched, that hardly seems like a sweeping endorsement.

So what gives here? Over the past few months, cable operators have put much of the blame on the lack of approved Docsis 3.0 equipment. CableLabs seemed to resolve that problem early last month, when it gave the nod to six Docsis 3.0 cable modems and three cable modem termination systems (CMTSs), just a week before this year's Cable Show. Yet the subject hardly came up during the three-day event, and not a single show panel focused on it. Instead, MSO execs dwelt mainly on tru2way TV sets and set-top boxes.

Since the show, CableLabs has certified a seventh cable modem. But, except for the trickle of news from Time Warner, no MSO has announced fresh deployment plans.

Could it be that cable operators aren't so afraid of FiOS and U-verse after all? Are they turned off by the high initial costs of Docsis 3.0 modems? Are they distracted by the new wars with DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV), Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH), and Verizon over HD programming? Are they really waiting for customers to cry out for higher broadband speeds? Would you believe they're moving ahead stealthily, using the cone of silence better than Agent 86 and The Chief ever managed to?

I'm not sure. But the Docsis 3.0 era is definitely starting in slow motion.

— Alan Breznick, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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