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Betting on Cable's EPON Future

Cable’s dance with EPON took a positive turn last week, when six vendors became the first to obtain qualification from CableLabs for gear supporting EPON gear that leans on DOCSIS-style provisioning, something CableLabs called DOCSIS Provisioning of EPON (DPoE). 

It was a worthy achievement as cable operators begin to use EPON more aggressively to deliver services to business customers over fiber, and do so using interoperable equipment that lets the MSOs use their existing DOCSIS-based backoffice systems.

For the vendors, they’re making a bet that they’ll get a return on these efforts. In addition to the product development costs, securing qualification isn’t free. According to current list of CableLabs fees, testing of the DPoE “system” costs a cool $75,000, and doing the same for the DPoE Optical Network Unit (ONU) costs $25,000. The DPoE System is analogous to the cable modem termination system (CMTS) in the DOCSIS world, while the Optical Network Unit (ONU) behaves as the modem at the customer premises.

Now comes the hard part – getting the purchase orders. Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House are considered the champions of DPoE, but from our checks, Bright House is the only one using EPON in earnest.

Bright House, which began deploying EPON in 2006, is now the MSO’s “default last-mile access solution supporting fiber-based commercial services,” according to Craig Cowden, senior vice president of network engineering and operations and enterprise business solutions for Bright House.

TWC’s current use of EPON is “limited, but we do see growth in that area,” TWC spokesman Justin Venech said.

But there’s a lot more to come. The current crop of qualified vendors (CommScope, Huawei, Sumitomo Electric, ZTE, CTDI,  and Finisar) got the CableLabs stamp for the 1.0 DPoE specs, which provide the “minimum foundation” for delivering business services that are interoperable with DOCSIS provisioning systems, Curtis Knittle, director of business services at CableLabs, said.  While 1.0 covers basic Metro Ethernet Private Line (EPL) services, the 2.0 version of DPoE adds more depth and breadth by tacking on elements such as IPv6 and more advanced Metro Ethernet Forum services, including virtual EPL.

So, consider this qualification round a down payment on a potentially more lucrative future.

And, moving forward, one vendor to keep an eye on is Alcatel-Lucent, whose recent reorganization, dubbed the “Shift Plan” by the vendor, will include a stronger focus on cable, a sector where it’s dabbled, but achieved only limited success. 

So, what's Alcatel-Lucent's play? We've asked them to enlighten us. But Infonetics analyst Jeff Heynen has an idea, tweeting last week that the logical “entry points” for Alcatel-Lucent on the fixed side of the cable access business is EPON and DPoE. 

Update: Alcatel-Lucent is staying mum on its specific cable strategy, telling me that it expects to relay more detail by this fall.