DOCSIS 1.1 Modem Engine Starts Purring

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As Cable Television Laboratories Inc. gears up to certify the next generation of cable modems under version 1.1 of the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, cable operators are getting excited about generating new-service revenues from this new product class.

New cable-modem vendors are spilling into the market at a surprising rate. But after these vendors deliver their high-performance products, operators will have to execute the various Internet-access strategies they have on their drawing boards.

Cable operators may jump at the chance to move past the DOCSIS 1.0 bandwidth-available-only services to the differentiated service classes DOCSIS 1.1 makes possible via a quality-of-service dimension, according to Michael Pula, director of product management at Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based 3Com Corp.

"DOCSIS 1.1 is not going to manifest itself in the same way DOCSIS 1.0 did. We are going to see a series of steps on a pathway where what makes sense dictates the sequence beyond managed bandwidth," Pula said.

"We have to get cable-modem customers signed up. That's the top priority right now in order for cable modems to reap the enormous benefits that come with word-of-mouth reviews by the end-users themselves," he added.

The pace is picking up considerably, especially on the cable-telephony side. And operators are quickly filling in the blanks, said Malay Thaker, general manager for broadband customer-premises equipment products at Com21 Inc. in Milpitas, Calif.

Com21 produces the "DOXport" line of cable modems, including the "1010 "and the "111," the latter of which is designed for DOCSIS 1.1.

"The higher-value services are becoming important and defined. Quite a lot of progress is being made by operators as they determine how to roll out and charge for such things as virtual LANs [local-area networks], virtual-private networks, guaranteed services and security-based services," Thaker said.

In addition to Internet-protocol telephony, Michael Knudsen, vice president and general manager at Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.'s Toshiba Network Products Division, predicted a growing demand for tiered bandwidth services for commercial and municipal customers.

"Our MSO customers are preparing to offer different levels of bandwidth for different types of data customers. These include large business customers, SOHOs [small office/home office] and municipalities in the form of school districts and government networks," Knudsen said. "Cable-modem technology provides a more cost-effective solution than telco-based offerings for these customers."

At CableLabs, there are two major DOCSIS 1.1-related priorities.

"We want to help the vendors get their 1.1-based equipment out as fast as possible, and we want to help identify any DOCSIS 1.1-related incompatibility and interpretation errors," vice president of broadband services and technology David Bukovinsky said. "Thus far, we see no patterns emerging with respect to cable-modem-termination systems and cable-modem vendors. This is becoming a matter of routine choreography-a process well understood by the vendors."

NOT RUNNING LATE

Bukovinsky dismissed any notion that the certification timetable for DOCSIS 1.1 at CableLabs is running behind schedule.

CableLabs has conducted several interoperability events. Beginning last September, at the first such event, CableLabs verified that the DOCSIS 1.0 products currently shipping are fully software-upgradeable to DOCSIS 1.1.

"Based on the level of maturity we have seen in the product to date, we are anticipating that commercial-grade DOCSIS 1.1 equipment will be submitted in [the third quarter] for certification," Bukovinsky said. "CableLabs will be fully equipped to begin certifying DOCSIS 1.1 equipment in June. But it remains up to the vendor community to continue driving the development of DOCSIS 1.1 products, with CableLabs assisting via any interoperability opportunities."

Bukovinsky added that modem vendors must have DOCSIS 1.1 products ready and submitted for certification in the July-to-September time frame in order for initial deployments of DOCSIS 1.1-certified modems to begin by the fourth quarter.

He described "a healthy overlap" between PacketCable and DOCSIS suppliers, and said those dual-certification programs are adequately synchronized. Several operators are currently participating in pre-PacketCable trials using media-terminal adaptors.

"We are seeing a lot of innovation among vendors when it comes to innovative applications using DOCSIS protocols. Everyone is starting to get an idea of what DOCSIS looks like in anything other than cable modems," Bukovinsky said.

Com21 vice president of technology John Pickens credited efforts by CableLabs to bring together two separate working groups that had focused on cable-telephony-related issues for PacketCable 1.0 QoS and DOCSIS 1.1.

"We saw synergy rather than challenges. The net effect is that we have been able to get the PacketCable layer of functionality and the DOCSIS 1.1 functionality synched up. We have added one more parameter to the DOCSIS MAC [media-access control] layer because we had to communicate back through the DOCSIS MAC layer to the call-management server," Pickens said.

"The result is that when there is network congestion, we will always have IP-telephony call-setup messages set at a higher priority than the rest of the media stream on DOCSIS 1.1," he added.

Industrywide deployment of DOCSIS 1.1 modems will move ahead as quickly as vendors can deploy MTAs and soft-switch equipment, Pickens said, adding that it will be up to the operators to determine which soft-switch architecture works best for them. DOCSIS 1.1 supports both Media Gateway Control Protocol and Session Initiation Protocol.

"Neither SIP nor MGCP impact in any material way on DOCSIS 1.1," Pickens said. "The first-generation PacketCable 1.0 IP telephony is going to use MGCP between the call-management server and the MTA, while we are concurrently working on SIP. SIP is more scalable, with the call processing distributed out to the periphery of the network. MGCP offers the advantage of no requirement for any ongoing software upgrades at the client. Instead, all of the feature intelligence resides in the servers."

SELF-CERTIFICATION: FEASIBLE OR NOT?

Though he sees the DOCSIS-certification process working effectively with incremental changes when necessary, John Burke, vice president of marketing for IP-network systems at Motorola Broadband Communications Sector, said now may be the ideal time to move to the next level.

"In the cable-modem space, given the number of certification waves that have taken place, the process has evolved such that it has achieved a level of maturity. Perhaps now, we can move up to self-certification. It would allow vendors to be more responsive to their customers and to deal more efficiently and effectively with time-to-market issues," Burke said.

Self-certification does not appeal to Jay Rolls, vice president of network engineering at Excite@Home Corp. and a member of the DOCSIS-certification board at CableLabs since 1997. He indicated that his company's "Level 2" approval testing is an open and interactive process that differs from CableLabs' blind-certification process, adding that the two frequently yield wide variances in test results.

"Based on our experience with this approval process, I can tell you that this industry is not ready for self-certification," Rolls said. "Calling this sophisticated device a cable modem is almost a misnomer. It is part modem, part router, part forwarding system and part online encryption device."

Rate limiting, for example, is where many cable modems fall short of Level 2 approval. Rolls said upstream rate limits are often not achieved in a uniform fashion, and generating a packet-loss rate of 5 percent to 10 percent is often used as a kind of shortcut, as opposed to any algorithm-based queuing mechanism.

Troy Wendt, director of cable products and solutions at Cisco Systems Inc., also does not support the self-certification model-at least not yet. He indicated that Cisco has been an ongoing participant in all of the recent interoperability sessions at CableLabs.

"Cisco wants to keep the high quality and interoperability emphasis intact," Wendt said. "This industry is now in control of its own destiny. We are starting to see the hockey stick on the chart. For the basic Web surfer, the industry can go right on deploying 1.0 modems, and this will keep that segment of the market happy for a long time to come."

He added, "Do I think cable operators are really concerned about the exact launch date for 1.1? No, I am not sure there is much concern about this aspect of the 1.1 implementation. Right now, the cable operators have their hands full. They cannot install basic cable modems fast enough."

ACCELERATING SALES, EASING INSTALLS

Until now, the retail connection has been a bit shaky for a variety of reasons. In many instances, a fundamental business relationship involving consumer-electronics retailers and cable operators has simply not developed quickly enough.

So while DOCSIS 1.0 products have evolved quickly, there are areas of concern that still warrant scrutiny.

For retail to really kick off, several things need to happen, according to Tony Watters, director of marketing at Thomson Consumer Electronics' RCA Broadband Cable. For one thing, retailers really want universal-serial-bus cable modems in large quantities.

In March, RCA Broadband, Arris Interactive LLC and Motorola Broadband became the first three cable-modem vendors to have USB products certified by CableLabs. RCA Broadband remains focused on basic cable modems designed for residential deployments, and both of its new cable modems that are replacing the "DCM205" -the "DCM215" and "DCM225" -are fully upgradeable to DOCSIS 1.1.

"This dovetails with the retailers' plans to move quickly into the realm of home networking in general with a strong emphasis on plug-and-play peripherals. The availability of USB cable modems simplifies the sales process by substantially reducing, if not eliminating entirely, the need for sales personnel to qualify customers as to their computer-connection options," Watters said.

"Self-provisioning is another key element. Getting a self-installed, user-friendly [cable modem] into the hands of customers means fewer truck rolls, " he added. "Ethernet 10/100BASE-T installs have kept things a bit clunky thus far for consumers. Now the pace should pick up considerably."

Bukovinsky said USB cable modems are helping to eliminate the need to crack open PCs-a complicated and time-consuming process. Also, the emergence of new internal modem cards currently being tested in this certification wave "will further enable the OEM [original-equipment manufacturer] market by allowing PCs to be shipped preconfigured with an internal cable modem," he added.

Pricing and what constitutes an affordable mix of hardware and service are still up in the air, according to Watters, who said the cycle for cable-modem products is much more accelerated than that for typical consumer electronics.

"Is price going to be an issue? That remains to be seen. Thus far, anyway, it is apparent that we have not seen all of the early adopters jump on board," Watters said.

"We are expecting a very good year for this market," added Mark Amshoff, RCA Broadband's director of product management for voice and data. "We have been leading the pack thus far because everyone is quickly realizing that all cable modems are not created equal."

At Motorola, the stage is set to introduce the "SB 4100," its next-generation cable modem, later this year. The newcomer replaces the "SB 3100 SURFBoard."

Burke said that while the physical packaging will remain the same, the SB 4100 will include a USB port, hooks to support both HomePNA (Home Phoneline Networking Alliance) and RF wireless home networking and a standby feature that disconnects the USB or Ethernet connection to the PC.

"We are also developing enhanced diagnostic features," Burke said. These include user interfaces to ease the serviceability of the modem and to provide data on relevant network characteristics for both the end-user and the operator. More native HyperText Markup Language pages are coded into the firmware, as well, although with the same lights and functionality.

The new service-enabling features of DOCSIS 1.1 already appear in Cisco's "uBR924" integrated cable modem and router under the guise of its so-called DOCSIS 1.0 PLUS.

Since its introduction in April 1999, the uBR924 has been beefed up substantially with such features as 3DES (Data Encryption Standard) IPsec (Internet-protocol security), Firewall 2 and an HTTP-based Web interface that can be seen from the LAN or the subscriber side, or at the headend for operator convenience.

"We are providing an easier-to-manage, one-box solution equipped with such things as SNMP [Simple Network Management Protocol] interfaces. It is ideal for virtual-private-network deployments. It offers toll-quality voice out of two voice ports using SGCP [Single-Gateway Control Protocol] and MGCP [Multimedia Gateway Control Protocol], along with H.323," Wendt said. "This is a differentiated service opportunity, a VPN-based telecommuting service, which is preceding the industry's formal DOCSIS 1.1 rollout."

Arris director of marketing Michael Horton sees from DOCSIS 1.1 a lot of new appliances with a lot of bandwidth available. Arris started shipping its new "Cornerstone CM 200" DOCSIS 1.1-based cable modem in March.

"Our new CM 200 is 50 percent smaller, and it supports up to 32 users. It includes a USB port, which reduces the operator's cost because USB cable is much cheaper than the $20 [per month] cable operators have been providing their customers," Horton said. "It is easier to install, and it includes easy-to-read LED [light-emitting diode] diagnostics. Add these up, and it means that there are fewer truck rolls for the operators."

CUSTOMERS AREN'T LOCKED IN YET

As the new differentiated services that DOCSIS 1.1 makes possible start to emerge, the range of home-networking solutions is broadening, as well. But Horton emphasized that customers are not locked in yet.

"Which way are people going to move? Who is going to come up with the winner in the RF sector? Does RF offer the most flexibility? Given these unanswered questions, I think the jury is still out on the home-networking side. We support a flexible strategy through USB, Ethernet and RF," Horton said.

3Com is rolling out its "HomeConnect" DOCSIS 1.1-based cable modem as part of what Pula described as its shift to a solutions-based approach. This entails, among other things, the merging of 3Com's home-network group with its cable-modem team.

While the emphasis is on giving service providers tools to enable faster ways to initiate service and install cable modems, Pula sees total cable-system and home-network management combining into one entity-a la DOCSIS 1.1.

"We have a lot of strength on the support side and, as the market heats up, we are going to see a growing emphasis on linking customer-support centers together and doing so seamlessly. As the customer evolves and as he or she sees that multiple choices exist in terms of interactions with the [cable modem], total network management will become an issue," Pula said.

"As customers start to explore the home-networking space between video cameras and other appliances, end-users will want to know that they can turn either to retailers, service providers or e-commerce sites with satisfactory results," he added.

Many savvy companies are actively engaged in the cable-modem arena, and the list continues to grow. For example, Toshiba added new 1.7 firmware to its "PCX1100," which is both DOCSIS 1.1-capable and Excite@Home Level 2-approved. This cable modem includes Toshiba's implementation of the Baseline Privacy Plus security solution.

Toshiba's customer list includes deployments for Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc., Adelphia Communications Corp., Comcast Corp., Charter Communications Inc. and MediaOne Group Inc.

Toshiba Network Products marketing communications manager Christopher Boring said Toshiba is committed to expanding its retail presence "by adding to our existing national brick-and-mortar storefront partner list." He added that Toshiba's PCX1100 modems will soon be available through an electronic-commerce storefront.

"Toshiba will also continue to work closely with our MSO partners to coordinate any retail modem deployments in their respective markets," Boring said.

Regardless of what happens later on, Bukovinsky is quite amazed that it was only one year ago when the first DOCSIS 1.0 modems were certified. Today, these units are shipping in volume. "Now, we are focused on DOCSIS 1.1, and everyone is taking DOCSIS 1.0 for granted," he added.

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