2022 is going to be a tough act for the broadband industry to follow.
Starting in January, the 22nd year of the second millennium has seen a nonstop parade of monumental milestones, noteworthy technology achievements, lingering logistical hurdles and, perhaps most importantly, a return to business as usual.
Best of luck to those tasked with putting a single, defining label on the year that was. It won’t be easy.
Was 2022 most notable for the flurry of speed tests from CableLabs and the cable community that recorded prototype HFC networks delivering data at multigigabit symmetrical rates, foreshadowing the 10G future made possible by the eventual adoption of DOCSIS 4.0 technology?
Or will 2022 be known as the year that broadband took centerstage, elevated to utility status by the pandemic-induced realization that communities and countries without access to high-speed connectivity face a significant and growing disadvantage in terms of competing in a digital-dominant world? Initiatives to reduce the gap between digital haves and have-nots in the form of public spending kicked into high gear in 2022.
And no one could knock industry observers for categorizing 2022 as a transition year, given that it was a mixture of lingering supply chain/logistical challenges and encouraging signs of a return to normalcy. The September SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, the first live industry meet-up since 2019, reminded all in attendance that debate is richer and discourse sharper when conducted in person and face-to-face.
The focus of this discourse, though, is not to look back, but to take a stab at predicting the future. In many ways, speculating on what’s to come in 2023 is not as difficult as it sounds. That’s primarily because the cable access plant is the most agile and adaptable broadband network in the world, and cable operators have never had access to so many technology and architectural options for evolving their HFC networks.
Depending on what MSOs choose to pull out of their sizeable toolboxes in 2023, meaningful milestones and industry altering technology initiatives are likely to occur even more frequently than they did in 2022. What follows are a few of what ATX believes will be the standout business and technology developments of the coming year.
More than Just Speed
The gigabit era is upon us. Multi-gigabit-per-second symmetrical broadband services from MSOs and FTTH providers, already available in several markets, will become even more commonplace in 2023. While all that speed is impressive, and eventually applications will come online that require those spectacular amounts of bandwidth, the reality is that it’s likely to be several more years before broadband demand begins to catch up with broadband supply.
While some service providers will continue to pursue market mindshare through the introduction of hyper-fast, but mostly superfluous, multi-gigabit services in the coming year, other defining attributes of broadband connectivity, namely security, reliability, and latency, will acquire increasing importance throughout 2023. In fact, delivering reliable gaming, browsing, or streaming experiences — free from interruption, jitter, or lag — is likely to be as relevant, if not more so, than speed as a criterion for selecting a broadband service package at some point in 2023.
The case for DOCSIS 4.0 gains momentum
The worst-kept secret in the cable industry is that the end game for all MSOs, in terms of the composition of their outside plants, is fiber. No one disputes that the evolutionary path of the HFC network ends in all-fiber, which is a near-perfect communications medium and architecture. Cable operators, in fact, almost exclusively turn to PON for their greenfield buildouts.
Given that reality, why would MSOs continue to upgrade their HFC networks instead of diverting all future investments to overbuilding their networks with fiber? The short answer: economics and timing. Fiber overbuilds remain several times more expensive than extending HFC investments, which can largely be accomplished through drop-in upgrades. DOCSIS 4.0 provides MSOs with the most bang for their buck when it comes to cost-efficiently meeting customer demand and fending off competitors in a timely manner. The many economic and time-to-market advantages of DOCSIS 4.0 vs. a fiber overbuild will become even clearer in 2023.
DOCSIS 4.0 adoption
Speaking of DOCSIS 4.0, much attention will be focused on whether 2023 will see the first turn-up of network segments based on the most recent DOCSIS specifications. That’s a close call. While DOCSIS 4.0 field trials are almost assured before the end of next year, the timing of live deployments will be dependent on the availability of DOCSIS 4.0 (both FDX and FDD) nodes and end-user devices.
When it comes to the outside plant, though, you can count on 1.8-GHz-capable amps and taps finding their way into live networks. Several operators, in fact, have already installed 1.8-GHz taps and passives, which are compatible with DOCSIS 3.0/3.1 architectures, into their production networks. Look for similar deployments of 1.8-GHz amps, at least for those upgrading to DOSCSIS 3.1 high-split, in the second half of next year. Several MSOs have revealed plans in 2023 to install 1.8-GHz high-split intelligent amplifiers with 1.2-GHz/1.8-GHz dual-mode operation capabilities into their networks in advance of switching on DOCSIS 4.0.
DOCSIS 3.1 optimization continues
While DOCSIS 4.0 planning will likely dominate MSO white boards in 2023, the optimization of their DOCSIS 3.1 networks is what will keep engineers and technicians busy throughout the coming year. It turns out that in many cases MSOs can meet current customer demand by increasing the bandwidth of their upstream spectrum to accommodate recent usage increases of applications that require a more robust return channel. The major selling point of both a mid- or high-split upgrade is that either can be executed with minimal expense and customer disruption, providing cable operators with several incremental performance upgrades before they migrate to DOCSIS 4.0.
Much of the motivation behind a high-split upgrade is that it would move cable MSOs into the same service neighborhood as the majority of broadband offerings from FTTH providers. A high split, which reserves upstream bandwidth in the 5- to 204-MHz spectrum range, enables MSOs to offer subscribers upstream speeds of 1 Gbps, an obviously critical component of a 1-Gbps symmetrical service tier. Based on feedback from North American MSOs, ATX estimates that 8-10 million HHP will be served by HFC networks delivering DOCSIS 3.1 high-split services by the end of 2023.
The debut of smart amps
2023 will mark the network debut of the 1.8-GHz “smart amp,” which is the moniker that’s been attached to next-generation amplifiers newly designed with automation and control capabilities that eliminate the need for plug-ins and equalizers. Moving to a software-based configuration will enable automatic alignment and simplify setup through pre-sets and configuration files controlled through a local interface. In addition to reducing installation time and human error, a software-based installation approach will reduce the needed inventory on service trucks by as many as 50 devices.
Most of these next-generation amplifiers will also offer the option of installing a transponder, providing MSOs with additional diagnostic and monitoring capabilities and enabling some maintenance events to be done remotely. These capabilities, though, come with extra costs as well as additional complexity. In addition, MSOs will need to invest in back-office software to analyze and act on the information being sent from these transponders. While some MSOs will shell out for the added capabilities in 2023, others are likely to rely on other sources of diagnostic information, such as Proactive Network Monitoring (PNM) intelligence, to assist in network troubleshooting.
Making a dent in the digital divide
While it’s likely to be another couple of years before U.S.-based service providers begin to receive proceeds from the $40 billion-plus Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program passed by Congress earlier this year, financial support from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is already flowing into operators’ hands, signaling that a significant narrowing of the digital divide is likely in 2023. The outpouring of public funding, in and outside the U.S., has been a boon to unserved and underserved communities by incentivizing cable, telecom, and even satellite providers to extend broadband to this subscriber base.
The biggest obstacle to serving these communities in the past has been the distances that separate rural subscribers from service providers’ nearest brick-and-mortar facilities. Fortunately, technology breakthroughs in digital optics, such as high-performance optical amplifiers, are making it easier and more cost-efficient to extend optical connectivity over long distances. The multiplexing of 10-Gbps DWDM optics is proving to be a valuable delivery scheme to support RDOF- and, eventually, BEAD-based deployments, as these signals can be easily amplified to reach long distances and passively support add/drop and demultiplexing capabilities.
Dawning of the supercapacitor
One of the most neglected components of today’s communications networks, for both cable operators and telcos, is their backup power, also known as energy storage operations. Look for this much-ignored, but vitally important, part of the service delivery network to start getting the attention it deserves in 2023. MSOs are now discovering that emerging energy storage technology, such as hybrid supercapacitors, which blend the best attributes of lithium-ion and supercapacitors, are far superior to the lead-acid batteries that most service providers still rely on to ensure continuous operations.
Under pressure to improve reliability, reduce operational and capital expenses, and shrink their carbon footprints, look for MSOs to pursue alternatives to battery-based standby power solutions in the coming year. In addition to their eco-friendly attributes, next-gen energy storage solutions will provide MSOs and other service providers with the ability to significantly reduce the total cost of ownership of their energy storage operations and to even reduce power costs by supporting peak-shaving capabilities, which enable operators to disconnect from the power grid and switch to backup sources to power their networks when electricity rates are at their highest.
A potential dark cloud hovering over an otherwise bright future for cable operators looking to extend their broadband dominance through speed and bandwidth improvements to their HFC networks is a shortage of skilled technicians to oversee that expansion. MSOs are nearly unanimous in voicing their concerns about fielding enough workers to execute their ambitious HFC evolution plans, which are critical to fending off competitive threats from FTTH providers.
The good news is that an industry effort to assist operators in acquiring the needed workers should make a significant dent in the labor shortage beginning in 2023. That assistance is largely coming in two forms, the first being work that is done by industry organizations and even technology suppliers to augment the labor pool with vocational training programs designed to churn out qualified field technicians. The other is through professional services organizations with the skills and resources to allow MSOs to leave much of the heavy lifting to a trusted third party.
In addition to the above, 2023 will also see the continuation of technology transitions that have been going on for the past few years, such as the migration of video delivery to an IP format. In the end, it's impossible, of course, to predict the future. But then again you don’t have to be Nostradamus to envision a cable industry future that is only going to get brighter.
Jay Lee is chief technology and strategy officer at ATX Networks.