Year in Review: Cable splits between Full Duplex DOCSIS and fiber

Nokia core networks (Nokia)

FierceCable is wrapping up an eventful 2016 by taking a hard look at five of the most important trends and developments that emerged in the market this year. Today we look at the long-term network plans of top cable operators.

The news: Comcast, Midco and others began deploying DOCSIS 3.1 network technology throughout 2016. However, cable operators this year also began planning for their next network upgrade.

For its part, CableLabs began trumpeting its “Full Duplex” 10-gig symmetrical enhancements to DOCSIS. CableLabs said trials of the Full Duplex enhancement to DOCSIS 3.1 are still a year away, and actual deployments of the technology are even further down the road. And it’s still only theoretical as to whether Full Duplex will deliver symmetrical 10-gig performance.

But Comcast and Charter are already making plans.

“In a couple of years' time, we'll have the next-generation DOCSIS, which will allow for a multigig symmetrical,” Comcast CEO Mike Cavanagh told investors earlier this month. “So, that's our roadmap. Nothing changes about that roadmap. And, of course, we preserve the ability to take fiber directly all the way anywhere where it makes sense.”

“We’re going to get there by taking electronics out of the HFC, and by taking fiber deeper,” echoed Charter Chairman and CEO Tom Rutledge at the same UBS media and telecom conference.  “We think we can get to 10-gig symmetrical, which is a very rich architecture, without a compete network rebuild.”

But maverick operator Altice USA said it will go in a different direction. The company signaled in late-November an ambitious five-year plan to take fiber-to-the-home across its acquired Cablevision footprint, bypassing HFC network technologies all together

“Today, we have a best-in-class network with incredibly fast speeds and quality service, and by taking immediate steps to create the fastest next-generation network, we will be positioned to support our customers’ needs well into the future,” Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei said in a statement

Why it’s important: Altice’s decision to move away from DOCSIS is notable, considering the network technology has long sustained the cable industry. But the voices of support for Full Duplex DOCSIS from Comcast and Charter come as little surprise since the companies have long relied on CableLabs to navigate next-generation networks.

Indeed, cable industry heavyweights across the spectrum continue to rally around DOCSIS on HFC. At NCTA last spring, Arris’ Tom Cloonan, CTO of the vendor’s network and cloud business, presented a scenario in which the life of the HFC network is extended another two or three decades.

“One of the big questions MSOs ask is what will their networks look like in 2030, and will they be able to support their subscribers,” Cloonan said to FierceCable in an interview conducted before an NCTA presentation in May. “The answer has been to take fiber deeper and deeper, stretching it out further and further towards the subscriber,” he added. “That’s been an ongoing activity for the last 15 years.”

So what happens when operators reach what Cloonan calls “node zero” — that point at which fiber can be extended no further, unless it’s to the premises itself?

“What can you do when you reach node zero?” he asked. “Well, obviously a lot of things.”