It’s Still Cable Versus Telco as DOCSIS 3.1 and G.fast Advance

Carl Weinschenk
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The telephone and cable industries need to fight against their legacies as much as against each other.

The telcos perhaps faced an even more fundamental challenge: The very substance that the industry is built upon, copper, is hard pressed to operate at the great speeds necessary to support the intense traffic surging through today’s networks.

That is changing. The industry long ago replaced the copper in the core of its network and in business areas with fiber. The stickier issue is the last leg approaching residential areas. In its FiOS project, Verizon used fiber in this sector as well. Others, such as AT&T and its U-Verse project, took the less expensive route and retained the last mile copper. The rationale is pretty simple: Enough money was on the table to inspire the ecosystem, from the carrier to vendors and smart entrepreneurs, to find ways to incrementally increase the speed that data can be carried over copper.

That effort has produced results. Digital subscriber line (DSL), despite not being as powerful as cable companies’ coaxial cable-based modem services, kept the telcos in the game.

The real future for the telephone industry’s copper has arrived. In mid-December, The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) approved G.fast, a standard that transports data at 500 Megabits per second (Mbps) within 250 meters of a distribution point, according to Ars Technica. Some uncertainty has arisen, though, on the precise speed and range of the technology in both the lab and under real-world conditions.

The next step is for the standard to go from the initial to complete approval. That, according to Computerworld UK, will take place this spring:

The standardisation of G.fast started in 2011, and has now reached what is known as first-stage approval or consent. That means the technical specification is ready to become standard. Next up is a comment period, and the standard is expected to be final by April next year, according to ITU.

G.fast is designed to work only over short distances. That is a drawback, but only a limited one. The main use of the technology will be for the last mile. The bulk of the telcos’ infrastructure already utilizes fiber. In essence, G.fast replaces the coaxial cable element of the cable industry’s approach.

In the case of the cable industry, which was founded on the idea that virtually all traffic would move in the downstream direction, the challenge is increasing upstream capacity.

The cable industry is not sitting idly. It is constantly increasing its flexibility through the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS). Version 3.1 of the DOCSIS standard, which represents a significant advance despite the incremental number, was promulgated in late October. Lab tests, vendor development and some field trials are on tap for 2014.

On one level, the industries are both keeping wary eyes on Google Fiber and its extravagant speeds. DOCSIS 3.1 and G.fast will help in that battle. But, in a very real sense, the benefits of both advances will manifest themselves in the great majority of mid-speed systems, such as Comcast and FiOS.

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