Technology

New Realities, Hard Truths in Cable Tech

With bandwidth needs ballooning, engineers say older, hardware-driven models won’t cut it anymore 10/03/2016 8:00 AM Eastern
Comcast's Tony Werner
TakeAway

A shift to distributed, virtualized networks is more than just a technological leap forward for cable — it’s a business necessity, top industry technologists said at SCTE/ISBE Cable-Tec Expo in Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA — The old axiom that the only constant is change was in play at last week’s annual SCTE/ISBE Cable-Tec Expo, as operators keyed on new technologies and platforms that will drive the industry forward in the years ahead.

 

And many of those discussions and new products aren’t emerging just to help technology take a leap forward for technology’s sake, but because MSOs will need them to keep their future business models from breaking.

 

With that as the backdrop, workshops, panels and keynotes spanned cable’s engineering gamut, but there was a particular emphasis this year around areas such as network virtualization and distributed access architectures, multiyear power savings and reduction initiatives, as well as next-generation, speedy platforms like DOCSIS3.1, and a new annex for D3.1 in the works called Full- Duplex DOCSIS.

 

THE FUTURE WILL BE VIRTUALIZED

The industry’s shift to distributed and virtualized networks is one that is not just filling a technology gap, but one that apparently will be necessary from a business perspective as MSOs are required to tack on capacity to keep up with the bandwidth demands of consumers and business customers alike.

 

An opening session panel featuring top industry engineering executives offered some hard truths on why distributed architectures and the virtualization of network functions have rapidly moved to the forefront of cable’s tech agenda.

 

Boiled down: Older, legacy models, driven by purpose-built hardware, simply won’t work anymore.

 

There’s a huge “disconnect” between the data that people are consuming and what cable operators must spend to keep up with that demand, Balan Nair, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Liberty Global, said in a wide-ranging panel session that was moderated by Bob Stanzione, executive chairman and board chairman of Arris.

 

In terms of network capacity planning, Liberty Global is already allocating enough bandwidth to deliver an average of about 1 Mbps per sub. With annual capacity growth in the range of 30% to 40% per year, it won’t be long before that hits 2 Mbps per subscriber.

 

For Liberty Global, that would equate to about 25 8-MHz-wide channels, or “like half of our whole plant,” Nair said. This trend causes MSOs to keep “feeding this beast” with capital just to expand capacity to stay ahead, he said.

 

“That’s a problem for all of us,” he said. “That’s not sustainable.” And it doesn’t add up with a business that grows revenue at 4% to 5% per year. “Eventually, it breaks,” Nair said. “The math will never work.”

 

The historic practice of buying specialized devices from traditional suppliers that cost a lot to build and buy won’t work anymore. “That model has to change,” Nair said.

 

The shift is toward cheap, commodity hardware running on very specialized software.

 

“So, we’re going to ask our vendors to think about the software and to run it on some cheap hardware because, at the current rate, it’s not sustainable,” he said.

 

Vendors appear to have gotten that message loud and clear. Last week, Nokia, Casa Systems and Harmonic all announced virtualized versions of Converged Cable Access Platforms that can work in tandem with distributed architectures that move away from traditional monolithic access devices.

 

Fellow panelist Jim Blackley, executive vice president of engineering and IT at Charter Communications, called Nair’s characterization of the situation “spot on and accurate.”

 

He added that, when it comes to capital, “you can’t spend it everywhere. … You can’t spend it in the home and spend it in the network and spend it on content and all of the other things we need to deal with.”

 

It’s also important to think about virtualizing the functions of the consumer premisesequipment (CPE) and move the compute, storage, encryption, and packaging into cloud-based centralized systems, he said.

 

Charter is moving in that direction with ActiveVideo (a vendor it owns as part of a joint venture with Arris). Virtualizing the CPE means “you can put out devices that will last longer,” Blackley said. “The reality of our business is, the day you [deploy] something, it’s legacy.”

 

He said Charter is a “huge fan” of network virtualization and separating out the MAC and PHY elements.

 

Zoran Stakic, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Shaw Communications, said he’s also keying on these trends and listening to partners on “how the future is going to land.”

 

But when it comes to a move toward virtualization, “the starting point becomes remote PHY,” he said. “The old model is not sustainable. It’s not a choice really, anymore.”

 

Nair said the migration to software-driven models is one of his top worries. “It requires a skill-set change in all of our businesses,” he said. “The change is not just the skill sets in our employee base, but the skill sets of our vendor base as well.”

 

Vendors, meanwhile, prefer to innovate on their own platforms. The interests of the two sides might not match up, and that could become a source of tension.

 

Nair thinks it’s best to solve that problem, “or else you’re going to see more and more operators building their own stuff, and that won’t be very good for the industry.”

 

The industry is starting to see MSOs exert influence on products and product road maps in other creative ways. Last week, Harmonic joined a growing group of vendors to ink warrant agreements with Comcast that give the MSO an opportunity to buy shares in those suppliers based on product sales and deployment milestones.

 

The warrants agreement is based on specific sales to Comcast and other “deployment milestones” involving products such as Harmonic’s new CableOS virtual CCAP platform.

 

Comcast has similar warrants deals with key suppliers such as Arris and Universal Electronics, a key supplier for Comcast’s voice remote for the X1 platform.

 

FILLING NEED FOR MORE SPEED

The panel also focused on the turn toward Gigabit-level billboard broadband speeds — something that is seemingly morphing into an option cable operators must make available for consumers, whether the vast majority of them actually need it.

 

Still, Nair doesn’t see 1-Gig going “mainstream” until 2018 or 2019. By that, he means it won’t become a “bullseye” product for Liberty Global that is backed heavily by marketing and promotion. Today, that’s relegated to the operator’s 250-Mbps product, he said.

 

“We’re looking at increasing it,” Nair said, noting that MSOs have the luxury to press two levers with broadband — price and speed — while competitors with less robust networks can only fiddle with price. “Speed wins.”

 

Blackley said Charter is already getting positioned for the 1-Gig future. Its all-digital migration is freeing up capacity and Charter is also plunging fiber deeper into the network.

 

He added, “It’s not just about speeds; it’s about latency, and it’s not just about inhome; it’s out of home.”

 

Blackley hesitated to say when consumers will actually need 1-Gig speeds, but said he won’t be surprised to see it happen eventually. “Like your garage, if you build it, it will get filled,” he said.

 

Stakic, meanwhile, warned against “irrational behaviors” occurring in the United States, largely “triggered by Google,” that might cause MSOs to rush prematurely to 1-Gig.

 

He questioned if adoption rates will be high enough to justify the returns, noting that there aren’t many apps now that require three-digit megabit speeds at this point, let alone 1-Gig.

 

DOCSIS 3.1: BELIEVE THE HYPE

The DOCSIS 3.1 era is in its early days, but the results so far indicate that the new multi-Gigabit platform for HFC networks is delivering on its promises, particularity when it comes to producing gigabit-class speeds alongside improved bandwidth-efficiency.

 

All 3.1-based modems have shown they can support a Gigabit-class service, initially in the downstream path, no matter the modulation profile the device is using, Jorge Salinger, vice president of access architecture at Comcast, explained during a workshop that offered a status report on DOCSIS 3.1’s deployment progress.

 

As a quick recap, DOCSIS 3.1 is designed to be 50% more bandwidth efficient (from a bits-per-hertz-per-second perspective) than DOCSIS 3.0 via the use of blocks of tiny OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) subcarriers in tandem with an improved forward error correction scheme called Low-Density Parity Check (LDPC).

 

Comcast now has “hundreds” of customers online with DOCSIS 3.1 in markets such as Nashville, Chicago and Atlanta, where Comcast is conducting advanced market trials-of the technology, he said.

 

Those initial, solid performance results are important, because DOCSIS 3.1 modems and cable modem termination systems (CMTSs) can dynamically tap into multiple “modulation profiles” (up to 4086 QAM) depending on the condition of the spectrum they’re using. The use of OFDM subcarriers for DOCSIS 3.1 enables operators to shift to different modulation profiles depending on the signal-to-noise ratio that’s present in the spectrum.

 

Operators will be able to set up multiple profiles that can be adjusted “multiple times per day” as new automated tools to manage them enter the market, Salinger said, noting that 3.1 modems are set up for five modulation profiles (four, plus one for testing), while CMTSs can handle 16 modulation profiles per downstream per service group.

 

Midco has also seen promising results from its early D3.1 trial work in Fargo, N.D., the first of many as the MSO looks to offer gigabit speeds to all subscribers by the end of 2017.

 

DOCSIS 3.1 “worked well in the lab, it worked well in the field,” Jason Miller, technical marketing engineer at Cisco Systems, which has been working with Midco on the trial, said.

 

In the Fargo trial, Midco used a 144-MHz block of OFDM combined with eight DOCSIS 3.0 single-carrier QAM channels and produced sustained downstream speeds of about 1.57 Gbps.

 

Jay Rolls, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Charter Communications and session moderator, wondered if operators would need a legion of gurus to operationalize DOCSIS 3.1, which is still a relatively new technology for the industry.

 

Salinger stressed that MSOs will need to adjust their operations for DOCSIS 3.1, particularly in areas such as installation and maintenance.

 

He also acknowledged that setting up multiple modulation profiles is a “daunting task,” noting that it takes time — sometimes a week — to do that by hand, “and we’re good at it.”

 

However, he said, tools are being created to automate that process on a continual basis, and he expects them to be ready for deployment this quarter.

 

Further out on the horizon is Full Duplex, a coming annex to DOCSIS 3.1 that will create a “dual use” band that will help cable operators deliver multi-Gigabit symmetrical speeds. Under the current spectrum model, spectrum for the upstream and downstream are split; Full Duplex will allow upstream and downstream traffic to travel in the same block of spectrum.

 

CableLabs announced that project, called “Full Duplex” (FDX) DOCSIS, in February. If all goes to plan, FDX is poised to become an extension to the DOCSIS 3.1 specs sometime next year, Belal Hamzeh, vice president of wireless technology at CableLabs, said in a recent interview.

 

There’s an expectation that existing DOCSIS 3.0 bands will not overlap with the FDX band, but those implementations will vary from one operator to another and perhaps even within the same operator, Hamzeh said.

 

Tom Cloonan, chief technology of network solutions at Arris, said spectrum allocation for an eventual migration to FDX is still an active discussion among MSOs and vendors.

 

However, a possible deployment scenario could see an MSO set aside a band for the legacy DOCSISupstream (at 5-85 MHz or 5-100 MHz), another band for the legacy downstream (perhaps at 700 MHz to 1.2 GHz), with a band sandwiched in the middle (say, 100 MHz to 700 MHz) that’s dedicated to the FDX operation.

 

“There might be some variations there, but at a high level, that’s the kind of spectrum some people are talking about,” Cloonan said, noting that FDX could be initially targeted to plant that has already deployed N+0 along with a move to remote/distributed architectures that move the PHY or the MAC and PHY closer to the edge.

 

Though the specs for FDX are still in f lux, Cloonan said there’s some optimism that the technology could be ready by as early as 2018, but sees 2019 as the year when it sees its true heyday.

 

“There’s a force-function to make it happen quickly,” he said. “At a very high level, there’s an awful lot of interest in Full-Duplex DOCSIS among the MSO community.”

 

Cisco Systems is also placing bets on FDX. Last month, Cisco introduced a silicon reference design for Full-Duplex DOCSIS alongside a pledge to contribute the design on a royalty-free basis to the cable industry to accelerate the speed of the technology’s development and eventual deployment.

 

Nokia, meanwhile, has also been keeping its fingers on the pulse of FDX. It demonstrated a prototype of the concept, calling it “XG-CABLE,” in May at the INTX show in Boston.

 

Denver On Deck

 

Cable-Tec Expo 2017 is set to run Oct. 17-20 in Denver, and carry the theme, “The Big Deal,” with a focus on new technologies that can power next-gen services.

 

SCTE/ISBE has tapped Terry Cordova, executive vice president and chief technology officer of AlticeUSA, and Charter’s Jim Blackley to co-chair the program committee for next year’s show.

 

SIDEBAR: Werner Calls for Industry Innovation, Collaboration

PHILADELPHIA — Calling 2016 a “foundational year” for the industry, 2017 is poised to be the year of “innovation and collaboration,” Tony Werner, president, technology and product for Comcast Cable, said in opening remarks at the show.

 

On the foundational side, he noted examples such as the closing of the Charter Communications- Time Warner Cable merger, with Charter now pushing ahead with a cohesive technology and service plan that covers the combined company’s new, broader footprint.

 

“I think the industry has got a very solid year under [its] belt,” Werner said, pointing to cable’s continued broadband growth, with accelerated rollouts of multi-Gigabit DOCSIS 3.1 technology on the horizon.

 

2017 is “the year that we can seize as an industry,” added Werner, who last week was re-elected as chairman of the SCTE/ISBE board for the 2016-2017 term. “The wind is at our back as we go into 2017, and I think it’s the time for us to really capitalize as an industry and as a society. … The industry has gotten knocked a few years back that we couldn’t innovate. I think we’re showing everyone that’s not true.”

 

Reiterating next year’s anticipated theme for MSOs, Werner said the industry’s “secret weapon” is its ability to work together.

 

“We collaborate, we work across,” he said. “We are not competitors, at present … It allows us to punch above our weight, which I think is so absolutely critical.”

 

He also presented what he said are key ingredients for the industry’s future success.

 

Chief among them, again, was collaboration, with Werner giving some credit to X1, Comcast’s cloud-based platform, which relies on agile and DevOps models, attracting top engineering talent and creating a culture and environment “where people like to show up and work…and build great products on top of powerful platforms.”

 

And Comcast is collaborating outside of its ecosystem, Werner reminded the crowd, pointing to syndication deals it has with Cox Communications and Shaw Communications.

 

“The collaboration back and forth [with those partners] is powerful,” Werner said.

— Jeff Baumgartner

 

SIDEBAR: Energy2020 in ‘Show Me the Money’ Phase

PHILADELPHIA — The Energy2020 community met on Tuesday at Cable- Tec Expo for its third annual progress report, saying that in “show me the money” terms, the initiative is working. But with only three years or so until the “2020” part of Energy2020, there’s still a ton to do.

 

“What the SCTE has done with Energy2020 is extremely critical,” said Balan Nair, CTO of Liberty Global and a co-founder of the program. “If we can hit the goals stated, it will make a huge difference — to us, to our management teams, to our customers.”

 

The initiative’s four stated goals: To reduce power consumption by 20% (on a per unit basis), cut energy costs by 25% (also on a per unit basis), optimize tech facilities and data centers by 20%, and reduce grid dependency by 10%. All of that, by 2020.

 

“We’re the engineers … and like any good engineer, you don’t build something for waste,” Nair said.

 

So far, the savings are small, but poised to grow. Dan Cooper, chair of the SCTE’s Sustainability Management Subcommittee, noted $12.5 million in energy savings since last year, ”which, compared to what we all spend on energy, isn’t a big number, but it’s a start.”

 

Cooper highlighted two new Charter-initiated efforts since the last E2020 update, both solar: A partnership with two utility companies in upstate New York to provide 12 Megawatts of renewable energy, estimated to save $5-plus million over the life of the project, and a new national data center in Charlotte, N.C., where the use of solar energy will offset 10% of annual energy costs.

 

“The key is that it’s not always capital intensive to move the bar” on energy efficiency, he said.

 

Sam Khola, senior manager of sustainability for Liberty Global, and the recipient of this year’s Energy2020 award, noted that energy costs are “already colossal, and they’re not staying level — year over year, they grow.” That’s what prompted Liberty’s work with Phase Changing Materials (PCMs) — a sort of thermal battery that works by capturing and storing a structure’s heat (in this case, hub sites) during the day, then discharging it at night.

 

“When we talked here last year, it was a tiny implementation in one of the 14 countries we serve,” Khola said. But after Liberty saw a 33% reduction in TCO, and a 43% improvement in energy efficiency, an expansion plan was evident. “The plan is to expand both geographically [beyond the Netherlands, to Ireland and the U.K.], and technologically,” Khola said.

 

Comcast, which typically experiences 4% growth in annual energy costs, kicked off an overhaul of its utility bill management and energy procurement processes, said Daniel Marut, director of national sustainability. “With over 200,000 utility accounts, it can be a little overwhelming for an accounts payable team, whose role is to pay the bill,” he said.

 

That’s what prompted a systematic way of auditing outside plant, to get an accurate count of power supplies, to start. “The idea is to systemically eliminate costs that are incurred by just basic mistakes in utility bill processing,” Marut said.

— Leslie Ellis

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!