Cable grows as FTTH slows

No one really came out and said it at last week's SCTE Cable Tec Expo in Orlando--at least not publicly--but cable's move to DOCSIS 3.1 while the DOCSIS 3.0 rollout is still nascent could happen only because the competition has either given up or gone away.

For those who missed it or don't care about cable, Cable Tec Expo hosted a technical session that was more like a press conference to explain how and why the industry is moving ahead to DOCSIS 3.1 while the ink is still drying on the 3.0 specs. Participants from CableLabs, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and the SCTE laid out a way to tweak and tighten an existing HFC network to deliver 10 Gbps of downstream data and 1 Gbps up.

This being a technical conference and these guys being technical executives, the conversation was, well, a little technical. Terms like OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) and LDPC (low Density Parity Check) were tossed around like candy pitched into a kid's Halloween bag. The techs on the panel dished it out and the techs in the audience ate it up.

"We want this to work on the existing HFC plant," said Matt Schmitt, director of DOCSIS specifications at CableLabs, sounding more like a CFO when he insisted that DOCSIS 3.1 will require "zero plant investment," then trying out his marketing chops by telling the audience that the industry's technical leaders are "trying to take the long view and think about where we're going to be in the future."

That future starts in 2013, incidentally, when the spec should be completed, and becomes the present in 2014, when vendors are expected to start building DOCSIS 3.1-capable equipment.

"You don't have to change your plant to deploy DOCSIS 3.1," Schmitt added, because, probably, there was one guy in the room playing Angry Birds on his smartphone who missed it the first time around.

What none of these technical masters said--either through deliberate omission or probably because they figured everyone already knows--is that none of this would be happening if cable had any real competition.

There was a time, ever so briefly, when cable operators were a bit worried about Verizon FiOS. FTTH, no matter how the cable guys downplayed it, had the potential to be disruptive. Of course, Verizon long ago determined that FiOS is too expensive and that it won't be built out beyond areas where it's already being deployed.

AT&T, the other big cable competitor, was never seen as much of a threat because it used copper for its U-verse IPTV service, and the coax guys have as much regard for copper as they do for a cash bar.

Neither Verizon nor AT&T did anything to reignite cable fears last week, either. Verizon, in announcing third quarter earnings, admitted it hadn't attracted as many FiOS subs as it thought it would--and promised the situation would improve in the fourth quarter. And AT&T said it might just use LTE--and if you think copper's got limited bandwidth, just go wireless--to finish out its U-verse build.

This week is TelcoTV, and the guys who are supposed to compete with cable will have the spotlight. Maybe they'll hold their own technical panel and talk about how much more bandwidth they can squeeze from existing copper plant. Maybe they'll talk about how they're ready and willing to continue the battle for the hearts and souls of so many disgruntled cable customers.

Or maybe, just like the elephant that strode around that whole press conference, er, technical panel at Cable Tec Expo, they'll just ignore any mention of the competition because everyone knows--or thinks they know--where that whole thing is going. -Jim