SCTE: The Business of DOCSIS 3.1

MSOs Must Look Beyond Capacity, Speed to Weigh Platform’s Benefits
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Preparing an already sophisticated network for the migration to the multi-Gigabit-capable DOCSIS 3.1 platform requires new technology and training strategies, but just as crucial to the eventual deployment of 3.1 are the business-side elements. Does it make dollars and sense?

Getting DOCSIS 3.1 ready to reach its full potential of increased capacities and spectrum efficiencies — all in the name of speedier connections, an enhanced ability to acquire and retain customers and to keep revenue growth stoked — goes beyond lasers, modems and cable-modem termination systems.  Operators must also consider what kind of bang they’ll get for the buck as they shift gears toward the new platform and which kinds of services will require those upgrades.

At this juncture, it’s not perfectly clear to some industry observers.

MORE THAN A BUILDOUT

“We haven’t heard about new, innovative services that could be supported by DOCSIS 3.1, so more thought needs to be put into the business plans and new services like wearable technology products,” Mike Paxton, senior analyst for research firm SNL Kagan, said. “It’s not just build it and they will come.”

But before cable is ready to make its first 3.1-powered product pitch, there’s prep work to be done on both the technology and business side.

“The action won’t kick in until the first field trials,” Paxton said. “Now, the time is better spent in preparing for marketing the services, and [making] them different, better and cheaper than the competition,” Paxton said.

And just what do the returns on 3.1 investments look like?

“It’s tricky. The ROI [return on investment] for easy hookups is one year or less, but for the enterprise-type users, it could be three to seven years, depending on network infrastructure and customer demand,” Paxton said.

For Cox Communications and other service providers that are looking at DOCSIS 3.1 to deliver speeds of 1 Gigabit per second or more, the action is already heating up.

SALES, MARKETING PUSH

That’s evidenced by “Gig Life,” a consumer campaign Cox is running in select markets as the operator moves ahead with a plan to start deployments of Gigabit speeds to all markets by the end of 2016.

“Our sales, marketing and customer service [components are] in motion and, currently, we are executing all of our digital plans for 3.1 technology, investing in fiber deeper with nodes and tightening network management, while grooming our network for 3.1” Kevin Hart, Cox’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, said.  “We’re accelerating the pace towards 3.1.”

And the execution isn’t just about the technology. There are business- and operations-facing implications that must also be factored in.

 “We’re investing in back-office capabilities, a new provisioning and activation system that will enable a better Web presence and internal reporting,” Hart said. “It’s all according to a plan we put in play years ago to increase speed, enable business products and move to an all-IP/deeper fiber network.”

Preparing for 3.1 requires also serious prep work on the tech side. In a perfect world, those technology aspects would sync up with business preparations.

“The technology vendors are building product and we are looking at the training aspect of 3.1, which is different than DOCSIS 3.0,” Dan Rice, senior vice president of network technology at CableLabs, said. “Vendor equipment is scheduled for testing next year, and then the equipment certifications stage [will follow]. Once equipment is mature enough, we’ll do lab tests in late 2015 and early 2016.”

It’s at that point that operators will be in a position to trial 3.1 on real networks, but Rice is optimistic that trials might happen sooner.

He also has no illusions about the challenges that are ahead for 3.1.

“It is the highest-capacity system ever — very cutting-edge, and on a much higher, broader scale than wireless. And there are business and marketing challenges. Once those challenges are met, there will be a strong pull for 3.1 technology,” Rice said, noting that he expects the new platform to take root in international cable markets, including Asia.

In the U.S., service providers such as Denver-based WideOpenWest are also preparing for the new, speedier platform.

A ‘GAME-CHANGER’

“For us, 3.1 is a game-changer with its ability to increase downstream and upstream speeds. That’s the initial driver for us,” Cash Hagen, WOW’s chief technology officer, said.

Hagen said WOW is already spending time and energy on its in-house prep work in advance of 3.1. While the underlying OSS won’t see a huge change, there will be challenges ahead with respect to integrating new software stacks, managing spectrum and providing service-level agreements to wholesale customers, he said.

But WOW is looking forward to facing and solving those challenges, Hagen said. “We’re not waiting for final specs and are working with suppliers while getting our underlying infrastructure 3.1-capable, configurable and licensable,” he said. “By 2016, we plan to be 100% 3.1-capable.”

Vendors in the DOCSIS 3.1 market, such as Cisco Systems, hope to rise with the tide as MSOs tap it to deliver fiber-like performance without having to pull fiber all the way to the home.

 “The challenge is expanding plant. We started from the ground up with the 3.1 team and built in full spectrum analysis set up to compete with fiber,” Cisco CTO and engineering fellow John Chapman said. “Now, 3.1 becomes the tool of choice.”

And a tool that still remains somewhat of an enigma, Chapman said.

“The brutal reality is that no one can figure out why we need so much bandwidth,” he said. “But it sure sells. I love it.”

But before D3.1 technology is ready for primetime, expect the industry to pour efforts into preparing the network for the new platform and forming business strategies on how to sell and market new types of services that will help MSOs match up with expanding all-fiber competition.

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