The Network Speaks Ever Louder

Jan. 28, 2015
The growing intensity of cable operations across the board - in competition, in services offered, in subscriber demands and in other ways ...
The growing intensity of cable operations across the board - in competition, in services offered, in subscriber demands and in other ways - is making the value of the data coming out of the home ever more vital.

Another thing that is increasing is the size and value of the upstream path. The amount of data available in DOCSIS 3.0 and 3.1 is proliferating. Riding along with subscriber content is a tremendous amount of information that can be used to improve network performance, tell the operator where the network is falling short and even extend operators’ marketing efforts.

A well-known CableLabs initiative aimed at creating this beneficial data flow is InGeNeOs, which is the consortium’s marketing handle for the proactive network maintenance (PNM) procedures.

DOCSIS is designed to compensate for impairments by pre-equalizing. That raises an issue, however: How will engineers understand real problems - and the underlying trends that they represent - if a Band-Aid is applied to problems? In other words, if the signals look great when they reach the subscriber, how will operators know if things really are going or if the network is teetering on the edge of disaster? PNM confronts this by treating the modems on the network as an army of network probes.

The pre-equalization data - that is, the data returned to the cable modem termination system (CMTS) before the problem is removed - can provide what in essence is a roadmap of where problem are. The heart of PNM is deep analysis of the coefficients sent by the modems. These coefficients, said Scott Helms, ZCorum’s vice president of technology, are complex equations that that provide deep insight into precisely what is happening in the network - and where. Helms said PNM and InGeNeOs - both the specific tools and the conceptual approach - are moving beyond the world of DOCSIS to help in the WiFi, network planning and video realms.

This week, ZCorum introduced version 2 of its PreEqualization Analyzer. Helms said the new version features an upgraded user interface that will make PNM data more widely useful to a great number of people. Historical and trending data, for instance, will make it possible for planners to see how PNM is benefiting the operator, help determine where upgrades are necessary, more effectively deploy the workforce and in other ways leverage the data that has been collected. “We’ve redesigned the UI to push PNM to higher layers and make it possible use it at more levels of the organization,” he said.

PNM and InGeNeOs are not the only games in town when it comes to harnessing all the data that a cable modem generates to improve services. Last week, FourthWall Media and OpenVault announced a partnership. Under the agreement, OpenVault will license set-top box diagnostic data from FourthWall’s MassiveData division. The combination of this data with OpenVault’s modem data, the companies say, will provide deep data insight into how networks are behaving.

Rich Evans, the executive vice president for sales and marketing for OpenVault, said FourthWall focuses on the video network and data coming out of STBs. The company uses propriety technology for sending data upstream. The approach, he said, is essentially to fit packets into small gaps where none is being carried.

OpenVault, conversely, focuses on the high-speed data network, Evans said. He said the combined system will provide data on 75 collection points. The platform from the two vendors is vendor agnostic and will report on the health of both the data and video networks.

Expect more moves. “[Monitoring technology] is moving quality,” Evans said. “The reason is DOCSIS 3 [and 3.1] supports higher speeds, and coming with that is all these new monitoring capabilities and technology that are part of the same standard. It really is saying that the upgrade ... offers more sophisticated monitoring, whether operators knew it or not” when they upgraded. Bill Feinnger, the president of Massive Data, says the product is currently being tested by more than one MSO.

The bottom line is that the capabilities of equipment in the field to report on what ails them is heralding a new age in network monitoring and health. “It’s good that companies are looking at modems and STBs and not talking about hardware-based platforms and engineers walking around with meters,” said Brady Volpe, the founder and president of The Volpe Firm. “The new model is the cable modem and the STB are the test equipment, and people are building technology that takes advantage of the great capability of [these devices].” ZCorum distributes Volpe’s Nimble This PNM software.