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Tools of the Trade

3/21/2016 8:00 AM Eastern

It’s a question that has been posed for as many years as I’ve been covering this industry: When will cable operators take fiber all the way to the home?

 

The answer has always been something like: Someday, but not any day soon.

 

I don’t see that answer changing much after listening to Tom Cloonan, the chief technology officer of Arris’s Cloud & Networks unit, speak last week at the company’s Investor Day.

 

Cloonan has been tracking bandwidth trends since “broadband” entered the lexicon, having joined Arris in 2002 via its acquisition of Cadent, then a pioneer in the world of DOCSIS-powered network equipment. His track record in this area, and many others, has been spot-on as the cable industry continues to stay ahead of the voracious demand for bandwidth, which continues to grow at an annual rate of about 50%.

 

Sure, cable operators are using fiber-to-the- premises technologies today, but in a limited form. Comcast, for example, uses FTTP for Gigabit Pro, its new symmetrical 2 Gigabits-per-second residential service, but that is being targeted only to a sliver of the market that actually wants or needs such a service. Cox Communications is using it for the early phase of its 1-Gbps residential service deployment. MSOs are also going all-fiber in greenfield and new-build scenarios.

 

But, again, these are limited, targeted deployments. Thanks to technologies like DOCSIS 3.0, widely deployed today, and DOCSIS 3.1, cable’s new multi-Gigabit platform, there still’s plenty of gas left in the tank of the hybrid fiber-coax network.

 

Back to Cloonan. He readily acknowledges that bandwidth demands have never been greater, thanks to the popularity of over-the-top video, the emergence of higher-resolution 4K video, the Internet of Things and the coming wave of virtual reality.

 

High-speed data over DOCSIS, Cloonan said, “is a monster.” Also on the horizon is a “simulcast bubble” that will apply significant bandwidth pressure as MSOs deliver their pay TV service simultaneously in QAM and in IP during a transition that will likely span many years.

 

In his current model, Cloonan sees today’s HFC plant getting overwhelmed — perhaps by 2018 — if cable operators sit on their hands and do nothing.

 

While the obvious answer to this dilemma is to boost the spectrum range, cable has many other tools in the toolbox — including bandwidth-efficient DOCSIS 3.1 technologies — to keep ahead of the curve before it comes to that.

 

Longer-term, it’s possible that MSOs could raise the ceiling well above 860 Megahertz or even 1 Gigahertz. One proposal Arris is working on is pushing spectrum to 2 GHz or even 6 GHz or higher — enough to enable DOCSIS plant to support capacities of 50 Gbps or more.

 

But make no mistake that cable will pull fiber closer and closer to the home. Cloonan also believes a major inflection point is coming with respect to node splits, which increase the amount of bandwidth that’s delivered to smaller and smaller groups of homes.

 

If all of these tools and options turn out to be technically feasible (while also being cost-efficient), it would seem that an en masse shift to FTTP by MSOs is still very far out on the horizon.

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