As the world of cable technology rapidly transforms, operators are at a crossroads. The rising demands of the digital age are pushing for infrastructure overhauls, equipment replacements, and significant considerations around network reliability, scalability, and looming costs.
It's no surprise the topic is top of mind at SCTE's Cable-Tec Expo 2023 in Denver, Colorado – kicking off with the session, "Maxing Out the Cable HFC Network," where a team of industry experts dissected and discussed the obstacles operators face in upgrading, the solutions they're testing, and the lessons they're learning in the lab and the field.
As a company working at the heart of this issue, we at Incognito are pleased to share our take, informed by what we've seen and heard here in Denver.
DOCSIS vs Fiber: The dilemma
DOCSIS, the underlying technology supporting cable services, has evolved significantly. And the latest leap – from DOCSIS 3.1 to the emerging 4.0 – is a big one, meant to expand capabilities to keep pace with increasing internet demands and give operators the tools to stay competitive with fiber.
But here's the catch: upgrading comes at a cost – and not a small one. The move to DOCSIS 4.0 could require some, or all, of the following investments:
- Hardware and infrastructure upgrades – Replacement or enhancement of core CMTS/CCAP equipment, modem upgrades at the customer's premises, upgrades to network amplifiers, repeaters, and other transmission components, and potential enhancements to the fiber backbone and segmentation or node splits for increased traffic management.
- Operational and training costs – Training for technical staff on the new DOCSIS 4.0 standard and its associated equipment, costs associated with physical installations, equipment swaps, and extensive network testing, and potential revenue loss from any downtime and expenses related to contingency planning.
- Software, communication, and consultancy – Licensing for new or updated network management, provisioning, and diagnostic tools, marketing and communication efforts to subscribers, engagement of external experts or consultants for upgrade guidance.
This leaves operators grappling with a pivotal choice:
- Upgrade their existing DOCSIS networks, which extends their life span and allows them to compete with fiber, or
- Make the switch to fiber entirely, a move that involves substantial infrastructure and financial commitments.
The decision isn't one-size-fits-all. Some operators might see the business case for overbuilding with fiber in certain areas, especially where the connection logistics are more straightforward, like multi-dwelling units or apartments. In contrast, in areas where single-family homes dominate, and laying new fiber up to each house can be costly, sticking with DOCSIS might still make sense.
The realities of DOCSIS 4.0 and fiber capabilities
While 1G is considered a high-end service today, the move toward 10G is in sight. This is an area where DOCSIS 4.0 is competitive with today's fiber, offering capabilities including 10G delivery of services to homes.
To date, DOCSIS has done a good job of keeping pace with consumer needs – evolving over the last 25 years from one-way video to triple play: video, voice, and data.
But with future possibilities like medical monitoring, enhanced gaming, remote educational services, and more we probably haven't even contemplated, bandwidth demands are likely to soar. Which prompts the looming question: what happens when fiber evolves to deliver 30G or 40G service? Can DOCSIS respond?
The unpredictable nature of technology and user demands makes this a difficult question to answer, but it's something that's certainly on the minds of operators considering their future moves.
The evolution of service delivery
Beyond just infrastructure, operators are also reevaluating their service models. The high cost of content delivery, coupled with evolving consumer preferences, is pushing some to consider transitioning from traditional tiered packages to a more à la carte style.
This was illustrated earlier this fall when, driven by cord-cutting trends and rising rights fees, tensions between Charter Communications and Disney led to a temporary black-out by Charter of Disney channels. While this dispute was resolved, it does raise questions about the future of such agreements –perhaps if operators can focus on providing the best internet connection and let consumers choose their content sources, it might be a win-win.
Still, exiting the content market isn't simple. It requires a meticulous approach to ensure business continuity, customer satisfaction, and financial stability – another complicated decision for operators to consider.
While larger players might have the resources to be more aggressive with fiber investments, others are taking a measured approach. The path forward is anything but linear, with each operator evaluating their unique circumstances, consumer base, and financial implications.
The good news is, whatever your decision, Incognito has the solutions and expertise to move you forward in an any-access, any-platform world. Contact us today to help shape your decisions for tomorrow.