Editor’s Corner—Cable gets serious about network transformation

Arris was one of many vendors at SCTE showing off technology aimed at upgrading cable networks.

DENVER—Here at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, there was a definite sense that the cable industry is shaking off some of its malaise, and that MSOs and vendors alike are slowly but surely taking steps to push their networks forward.

Examples of this movement were everywhere at SCTE this year, from the unexpectedly strong interest in Remote PHY, to progress toward SDN and NFV, to cable operators’ actions on the wireless front. The general tone was that cable executives are acknowledging the growth of broadband and OTT video, they’re making efforts to meet that demand and that they want to get ahead of it.

As a result, “there is absolutely going to be a [network] transformation,” affirmed Craig Cowden, Charter Communications’ wireless technology chief, during an SCTE session on the convergence of fixed and mobile networks.

That said, the cable industry still faces obstacles, of course. As Multichannel News noted, turnout at this year’s SCTE show was lower than the previous two years, which is particularly noteworthy given NCTA’s decision last year to discontinue its own INTX cable show. And cable continues to tackle the rise of cord cutting and emergence of heavyweight streaming rivals like Netflix and Hulu.

But it’s exactly those trends that are driving cable’s interest in network evolution; MSOs need to be able to meet customers’ increasing demands for data, whether that’s through DOCSIS 3.1 connections, fiber or, potentially, through 4G and 5G wireless connections.

Along these lines, perhaps the most noteworthy statistic from last week’s show was SCTE’s day-one seminar on Remote PHY that drew roughly 400 people, more than double what was expected. The situation forced show organizers to open not one but two standing-room-only overflow rooms for the seminar.

WideOpenWest, the nation’s sixth largest cable operator, seems to have sparked the industry’s interest in Remote PHY with its announcement the week before SCTE that it is using Nokia to embark on a Distributed Access Architecture (DAA) initiative. Nokia argued that WOW!’s move to push its access layer functions from its headend and hub sites to its access nodes will allow it to handle more traffic without stuffing more power-hungry boxes into its crowded headend and hub sites.

Work on the effort is starting in Chicago and Cleveland this year, and expanding to WOW!’s wider network next year through a “cap and grow” strategy where the MSO will begin replacing those nodes that are reaching their maximum capacity.

Blue Stream, a cable operator in Florida, added to the Remote PHY momentum last week by announcing it too would deploy the technology with vendor Cisco.

SDN, NFV and virtualization

The move toward Remote PHY indicates a definitive step by the industry to embrace a fairly substantial change in the design of a cable network. It also potentially paves the way for the introduction of virtualized network functions like a virtualized CCAP.

As highlighted by AT&T, Telefonica and other operators, virtualized functions promise to create a more manageable and flexible network design. And that kind of flexibility may have extra appeal to cable operators that bought CCAPs with the idea of converging both broadband and video through the box, only to discover that video has stagnated while broadband has exploded.

A number of vendors on the SCTE show floor acknowledged that few operators have actually plugged both their video and broadband services into their CCAP, and instead are routing only broadband through the device.

Indeed, cable operators generally argued they are embracing the move toward SDN, NFV and virtualization, albeit through a decidedly pragmatic lens. Instead of a wholesale embrace of virtualization, like the blanket “percent virtualized” approach that AT&T has taken, leading cable operators appear to be applying the technology to specific, discrete functions and services.

“Everyone is doing virtualization to some degree,” said Jeff Finkelstein, Cox’s executive director of advanced technology, at a Light Reading event. Finkelstein said his company is working to virtualize some video encoders alongside its CCAP, as well as other operations, but is working in a window of roughly 2-3 years.

Cox isn’t alone. Charter’s John Dickinson, VP of the MSO’s advanced commercial engineering, said the company is working to virtualize operations including cloud DVR services, firewalls and CPEs as early as next year.

And, separately, Eric Prosner from Comcast Business explained that the company’s new ActiveCore platform is a specific effort by the company to deploy SDN and NFV, and its SD-WAN product will be the first of many such virtualized services.

Action on the virtualization front is also getting a boost from cable’s R&D consortium CableLabs, which this year took the wraps off its SNAPS platform. The effort, developed as a way for the cable industry to organize and unify around distributed architectures and virtualization, is intended to “make it much easier for NFV vendors to onboard their applications, provide transparent APIs for various kinds of infrastructure and reduce the complexity of integration testing,” according to CableLabs.

Wireless and 5G

But distributed, virtualized networks are only part of cable’s network story. At SCTE, wireless played a relatively small but noteworthy role, essentially standing as an area that cable operators could more fully step into as they transform their networks and the wireless industry evolves into 5G.

“We are going to be the leaders in wireless,” Charter’s Cowden said.

Charter, specifically, further outlined its plan to launch a Wi-Fi-first MVNO through Verizon in 2018, and then expand into mobile core infrastructure via licensed LTE small cells. Charter’s plans offer a general guide for other cable operators hoping to use their existing networks to move into wireless, most likely by offering backhaul connections to mobile operators’ small cells.

Small cells have become a critical aspect of the 5G discussion in the wireless industry since they can help operators densify their networks and deploy millimeter-wave spectrum, which generally can’t be used on traditional cell towers due to the spectrum’s diminutive propagation characteristics.

Along these lines, Cisco and CableLabs announced a mobile backhaul concept for DOCSIS networks that addresses mobile operators’ 5G small cell latency needs. In a post on the company’s site, Cisco’s Fellow and CTO John Chapman described an “API-based method for LTE to ‘pipeline’ its upstream request messages to a DOCSIS CMTS in advance, so as to ‘work ahead’ of known timing.”

The result, Chapman wrote, is that cable operators could offer mobile operators the difficult-to-obtain connections they need for small cell deployments.

To be clear, Remote PHY, virtualization and backhauling 5G are just a few of the many options open to today’s cable operators. But the fact that some of the nation’s major players—like WOW!, Charter, Comcast and Cisco—are either demonstrating or deploying these technologies at least indicates that progress is being made, and that the cable industry is serious about a network transformation. – Mike | @mikeddano