DOCSIS 3.1: Nothing Like a Little Competition to Speed Innovation

Carl Weinschenk

The cable television industry held its annual technology conference, Cable-Tec Expo, last week. One of the big issues, as it has been for some time, is the progress the industry is making on the rollout of the latest iteration of the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS).

The cable industry has always been in a unique position. It grew from its modest roots to its current near-utility stature on the back of the hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) systems that it has universally deployed.

This legacy infrastructure has two problems, however: The “last-mile” coaxial cable into the home is limiting and the upstream – from the premise to the headend – tends to have insufficient capacity.

Both of those problems essentially were papered over until the Internet exploded and other providers – big and small telephone companies, Google and others – began using symmetrical (equal upstream and downstream) all-fiber or fiber-dominated approaches.

This puts more pressure on the DOCSIS program, which is an existing cable initiative aimed at making IP-based communications flow smoothly over HFC networks. The latest version, 3.1, features a theoretical capacity of 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) downstream and 1 Gbps upstream.

The theme at the Denver conference was that actual DOCSIS 3.1 products are coming close to release and planning is entering its final stages. At Lightreading, Alan Breznick reports that certification of DOCSIS 3.1 modems and broadband gateways will begin during the second quarter of 2015. Lab trials likely will occur at the end of 2014.

Breznick quotes Jorge Salinger, the vice president of Access Architecture for Comcast, on the aggressive nature of the development effort:

Salinger also stressed that cable vendors and operators are racing to bring the new spec to market in record time. "There hasn’t been any DOCSIS spec that was conceived and developed so fast" as DOCSIS 3.1, he said, predicting that it will take the industry even less time to start deploying DOCSIS 3.1 gear than it took to write the new specs. "DOCSIS 3.1 is being developed very, very fast."

The changes in how MSOs operate will be interesting to watch. It’s easy to say that DOCSIS 3.1 is being pushed by competition. However, there still must be a business plan in place that will generate revenue to justify expenditures on the core technology, tangential back-office elements, training and associated costs.

Craig Kuhl takes a look at these issues at Multichannel News. The sense is that much work must still be done and money must be spent. Confidence is high that demand will fill the available bandwidth but, as always, the lion’s share of expense will be upfront. So we should expect drama, especially if initial use of the extra bandwidth is disappointing.

At the end of the day, HFC will give way to fiber. Cable operators are using fiber-based approaches in new builds and their commercial services initiatives. Eventually, they likely will transition their core consumer business to fiber as well. Joan Engebretson at TechZone360 sees the pendulum swinging:

There is also a possibility that we may see cable companies making some level of investment in FTTP. Several of the cable companies that plan to offer gigabit service -- including Cox, Bright House, and Grande – said they will rely, at least in part, on FTTP infrastructure. But Suddenlink, which recently announced plans to upgrade nearly all of its networks to gigabit speeds, reportedly plans to use DOCSIS 3.1. And Time Warner Cable specified DOCSIS 3.1 in its bid to deploy gigabit service in Los Angeles.

That likely will happen, but far in the future. In the near term, cable operators are rushing to market with DOCSIS 3.1, which they are confident will extend the life of HFC for many years.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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