Cable operators hoping to deploy standards-compliant modemsthis year will have to switch to plan B, following the latest word on certification fromCable Television Laboratories Inc.
The prospects for certification of any modems by theWestern Show in early December are nil, with only a "glimmer of a chance" thatsome vendors' modems might be certified later in December, CableLabs spokesman MichaelSchwartz said.
"We're getting close, but we're keeping the bar rigid,as promised, to ensure that these devices will be truly interoperable when they go intothe field," Schwartz added.
Now, it's looking like no DOCSIS certification will happenuntil January, according to one source close to the process, who asked not to be named.The next certification round is set for later this month, followed quickly by the WesternShow, and then the holidays.
"The issue for MSOs is: Do they keep waiting andhoping, or do they tell the manufacturers to go ahead and ramp up for shipment of productahead of certification?" the source added.
The latter would be a difficult step, potentially puttingtens of thousands of uncertified modems into subscriber households and creating theheadache of having to upgrade them to meet certification requirements later. Whilemanufacturers said they could handle upgrades with downloadable software, no one expectsthe process to be easy or trouble-free.
Plus, without certification, every MSO deploying a specificvendor's headend system must conduct its own interoperability testing and adjustments ifit wants to use other vendors' modems in the field. Any retail distribution of equipmentunder that scenario would be limited to modems chosen and tested by the MSO, assuming thatretailers would be willing to stock uncertified modems.
The remaining issues have to do with working outincompatibilities in software, rather than hardware implementations of the DOCSIS (DataOver Cable Service/Interoperability Specification) protocols. No one can say for sure howquickly the 10 vendors currently undergoing certification will get through the process. Afew will either be certified in late December or early in the first quarter of next year.
"Whether there will be others in early '99, we'll justhave to wait and see," Schwartz said.
MSOs are adjusting to the problem in various ways. Some areputting rollouts on hold until certification is complete. Others are moving forward withdeployment of pre-certified equipment or going with proprietary systems in markets wherethey had intended to use DOCSIS.
But no matter how they're adjusting, the delays arebeginning to hurt most companies that are committed to launching new markets with DOCSIS.
"The situation has certainly caused some delays in ourplans," said Bill Haggarty, executive director for data services at InterMediaPartners. The MSO has deployed DOCSIS headends -- also known as "CMTS"(cable-modem-termination system) gear -- from Cisco Systems Inc. in several markets inanticipation of moving forward with service rollouts.
InterMedia is testing modems from Cisco, 3Com Corp. andSamsung Telecommunications America Inc., Haggarty said. Plus, it will test additionalmodems in those markets to ensure interoperability apart from the CableLabs process.
And there still isn't enough product available to supportcommercial rollouts at this point, even if InterMedia wanted to move ahead without waitingfor certification, Haggarty said.
"We don't expect to see a huge quantity of modemsuntil certification is complete," he added.
But some markets can't wait. As a result, MSOs are findingways to meet their strategic needs with as little disruption as possible to their ultimategoal: deploying certified modems. A case in point is Comcast Corp., which has deployedCisco's headend gear in its Richmond, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; and Atlanta suburban markets,and which is using Cisco modems to serve early demand in controlled rollouts.
"We were motivated to move forward in those marketsbecause we wanted to be sure that we have a competitive suite of products to offer ourcustomers, but we didn't want to perpetuate the use of non-DOCSIS systems," saidRichard Rasmus, vice president of Comcast Online Communications.
Atlanta is one of BellSouth Corp.'s first ADSL(asymmetrical-digital-subscriber-line) markets, and Comcast faces high-speed-datacompetition from overbuilder Knology Holdings Inc. in the other two areas.
With no certified modems to work with, Comcast had to useCisco modems built for the small-office/home-office market, Rasmus said. The good news, headded, is that the Cisco iteration of DOCSIS is performing very well under fieldcommercial conditions.
MediaOne, another MSO with big plans for new DOCSISlaunches, is holding off as long as possible, rather than moving to interim solutions,spokesman Dave Wood said.
"It's a gnarly situation," he added.
MediaOne wants to launch new markets using DOCSIS systemsin conjunction with retail distribution of the modems, Wood noted. The company issued arequest for proposals for DOCSIS modems earlier this year, and it has already evaluatedthe responses. MediaOne will not make a final selection until certification is complete,he said.
But it now appears likely that some MSOs will go the routethat Comcast has taken, choosing to move ahead with uncertified DOCSIS systems, ratherthan incurring further delays if the certification process drags into the January/Februarytime frame.
"There are mixed emotions among MSOs about what to donow," said Russell Grahame, sales and marketing director for cable modems at GeneralInstrument Corp. "[MSOs] are committed to the CableLabs process, but as time passesand they have commitments to meet, some are having to make deployment decisions based onthe modems that they have in front of them right now."
Grahame said GI is "very committed to DOCSISstandards," but it will also gear up to sell pre-certified product if MSOs want it.
Nortel's shipment of DOCSIS-based headends spans NorthAmerica and Europe, where operators are "champing at the bit" to launchservices, said Karl May, vice president and general manager of broadband technology atNortel.
Many operators are moving ahead with launches on Nortel'sand others' proprietary platforms, rather than waiting for DOCSIS, he said.
"Visibility of the cable modem is at a fever pitch,and people want to get out there and begin capturing market share," May noted.