Cable access hardware revenues to dip as virtualization takes hold – analyst
The cable broadband market will deliver a mix of bad news and good news over the next five years, according to a new forecast from Dell'Oro Group.
Even as cable operator deployments of virtualized infrastructures start to ramp up (the good news in the scenario), the compound average growth rate (CAGR) for cable broadband access equipment revenues will drop 2% from 2019 to 2024, the research firm said. The cable broadband category includes both network infrastructure and consumer premises equipment.
That expected decline will be driven by multiple factors, including a saturating broadband services market in regions such as North America and Europe. Another key factor is the lack of a near-term need for many cable operators to move ahead with big access network upgrades following their recent migrations to DOCSIS 3.1, a technology that gives cablecos the ability to deliver 1-Gig services, Jeff Heynen, senior research director at Dell'Oro Group, said.
"For the North American cable operators, there isn't a competitive incentive for them to really force upgrades at this point," Heynen said, noting that DOCSIS 3.1 provides plenty of pop for MSOs to compete with FTTP providers.
Although AT&T is pushing FTTP and having some success in upgrading some of its existing customers, that has not had much of an impact on major US cable operators such as Comcast and Charter Communication, which added 424,000 and 313,000 broadband subs, respectively, in Q4 2019.
"There has to be a driver for them to spend, and I really don't see it," Heynen said.
The cable industry is fast at work on DOCSIS 4.0, a next-gen specification that will support multi-gigabit speeds alongside lower latency capabilities and a higher level of network security. An even longer-term target being pursued is "10G," a cable industry initiative that's aiming for 10-Gig symmetrical speeds on multiple types of access networks, including hybrid fiber/coax (HFC), FTTP and even wireless.
Speaking on the company's Q4 earnings 2019 call last week, Tom Rutledge, Charter's chairman and CEO, made it clear that these are longer-term initiatives that include features and capabilities that can be added on an incremental basis. "There's no immediate need to deploy a new upgrade to the marketplace today," Rutledge said. Charter wrapped up its D3.1 network upgrade in late 2018.
That scenario also gives operators time to push ahead with related projects, including migrations to distributed access architectures and network virtualization.
Even as the move to D4.0 is still out on cable's horizon, virtualization efforts are expected to ramp up in the next few years. Dell'Oro expects virtual cable modem termination system (CMTS) and converged cable access platform (CCAP) revenues to climb from just $90 million in 2019 to $418 million worldwide in 2024. Heynen said the 2019 total represents about 12% of the total for the CMTS/CCAP core market.
Comcast, along with some small and midsize operators in the US and Western Europe, has begun to deploy virtualized access networks. Harmonic, a lead partner for Comcast's virtual CMTS rollout, is set to announce Q4 2019 results later today and is expected to offer an update on its vCCAP business.
The bigger broadband picture
And cable isn't the only market feeling some pain. Dell'Oro projects that revenues for the broader access equipment market, including DSL and PON technologies, will decline from $13 billion in 2019, to $11 billion in 2024.
A big culprit there is the ongoing decline of DSL spending, Heynen said. Another contributor to the decline in hardware revenues will come as the PON market starts to virtualize the OLT (optical line terminal), he added.
Dell'Oro's forecast currently does not include opportunities around fixed wireless. Fixed wireless will have a role in the broadband market, but "I'm still reluctant that fixed wireless will be as big as others predicted it to be," Heynen said.
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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading