News

Vendors Warily Visit CableLabs To Recertify Some DOCSIS Gear

9/05/1999 8:00 PM Eastern

As the cable industry gives the interoperability nod to
more standards-based cable modems, some already-approved manufacturers are being forced to
dip into the certification pool again.

The process of getting recertified under the Data Over
Cable Service Interface Specification protocols is becoming more prevalent as vendors
tweak software for their certified modems to tailor them for new systems or to add new
features.

Four vendors applied to Cable Television Laboratories Inc.
to recertify their DOCSIS modems or to requalify cable-modem-termination systems during
the latest testing wave, along with 12 modems that were submitted for initial
certification.

CableLabs last week recertified new versions of DOCSIS
modems from Thomson Consumer Electronics and Toshiba America Consumer Products -- both of
which won the first DOCSIS certifications earlier this year -- and it awarded initial
certification to Terayon Communication Systems.

"We have customers that absolutely want to have the
latest in qualified or certified products," said Oscar Rodriguez, vice president and
general manager of Nortel Networks' broadband-technology division. "What we have
found is that the recertification process -- at least for the things we have resubmitted
-- is really no different from the original process."

Along with equipment from Arris Interactive LLC -- the
cable-modem partnership between Nortel and Antec Corp. -- CableLabs was asked to recertify
or requalify products from 3Com Corp., Thomson and Toshiba.

Donna Brune, 3Com's director of global operator
marketing, said the company's "CMX" modem needed recertification to reflect
software tweaks made partly to reflect the addition of qualified CMTS equipment since the
modem got its nod.

When the CMX was first certified, only Cisco Systems
Inc.'s headend had been qualified. Now, with CMTS equipment from Motorola Inc. and
Arris DOCSIS-qualified, "Interoperability really means a lot more than it did early
on," Brune said.

"We could continue to ship the CMX with the certified
code in it," she added. "We decided to recertify because we think we have some
code that improves performance and manageability."

In creating the process for testing the interoperability of
cable modems and CMTS equipment from different vendors, CableLabs mandated that products
certified as meeting DOCSIS standards must get recertified or requalified if any changes
are made to the hardware or software that won initial approval.

Vendors submit detailed information about product changes
and operating-performance data, and the CableLabs certification board uses the information
to determine whether the product should submit to full certification testing, undergo a
subset of the full test or simply be summarily recertified, according to DOCSIS project
director Rouzbeh Yassini.

CableLabs eventually wants the vendor community to take
full charge of ensuring that changes to certified products do not affect interoperability.
But for now, the organization needs to ensure that, in the still-early stages of DOCSIS
deployments, products are not released as certified if there are unintended bugs due to
seemingly minor changes or upgrades in software.

"The process is aimed at securing the confidence of
the board members and MSOs that there is a process to guarantee the integrity of
DOCSIS," Yassini said. "We're really a year away from walking away from
recertification and letting the vendor community take responsibility for these
changes."

Some customers are willing to buy upgraded DOCSIS products
that have not yet won recertification, assuming that the vendor will resubmit the gear and
actually get recertified for the changes in question.

Rodriguez said that because of ongoing interoperability
testing among the companies themselves -- as well as a track record of
DOCSIS-certification success -- some customers were willing to buy not-yet-qualified
product, rather than waiting out its passage through the testing process again.

Also, because the changes have been limited to software
fixes, customers figure that the likelihood of recertification is high.

"Some customers are very adamant about getting product
that is qualified," Rodriguez said. "Even if you deliver a product that is not
qualified because you've added features, they expect us to very quickly resubmit when
the next wave comes around. Then there are some customers who say, 'We trust
you.' They feel that we police ourselves very well as a vendor."

Rodriguez said software changes that required Arris to
requalify its CMTS included the addition of command-line interfaces and an advanced
ingress-avoidance feature.

Other upcoming changes that will mandate further DOCSIS
testing include software upgrades to add such features as those required for "Level
2" interoperability approval by Excite@Home Corp. and a major enhancement supporting
the 8-megahertz European spectrum, enabling interoperability with several set-top boxes
for the Continental European market.

For vendors, the headache of recertification is
increasingly outweighed by indications that the demand for standards-based cable-modem
systems is set to boom.

Cable operators have pushed for modem interoperability as a
means of creating a direct retail market for the product, instead of having to carry modem
costs on their own books.

New, yet-unpublished forecasts by Kinetic Strategies Inc.
show the significance of both the broader availability of retail and
original-equipment-manufactured modems and the resulting shrinkage for cable operators of
customer acquisition costs, modem-related capital expenditures and installation expenses.

Kinetic estimates that as cable operators widely adopt
DOCSIS-based systems and the related retail model for modem sales, over the next five
years, the percentage of customers buying modems, rather than leasing them, could rise to
nearly 80 percent.

The firm estimated that customer-acquisition costs, which
currently average more than $100 per subscriber, could drop to less than $20 in five years
as DOCSIS systems become virtually ubiquitous.

The resulting growth could be explosive: Kinetic estimates
3.4 million subscribers by the end of next year, compared with roughly 1.1 million
currently, rising to 15 million by 2003 -- creating service revenue alone of $11 billion
over the next five years.

Some 15 million DOCSIS modems could be sold in the next
five years, including an estimated 1.6 million in the coming year, representing $2 billion
in sales revenue.

"That number could go higher if you see a PC OEM-modem
market really take effect," Kinetic president Michael Harris said.

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