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Broadband Networks: Predictions for 2021

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(Image credit: Andrew Brookes/Getty Images)

The year that was…

2020 was a year like no other. The pandemic drove an unprecedented acceleration of digital enablement, as companies and organizations of all types adopted virtual substitutions to in-person experiences, such as remote work, online education, and telehealth. This drove a massive consumption of bandwidth, upstream and downstream, and led cable operators to add 1.32 million subscribers in 3Q 2020 alone.

Broadband service providers have added capacity at a furious rate in 2020 to meet the exploding demand. Due to the short-term circumstances, some broadband providers, and more specifically cable operators, had to temporarily put aside their longer-term plans, such as virtualization and the re-architecture of the access network, and use more traditional tools to add capacity. 

The massive need for capacity in the upstream has prompted operators to reconsider tools they had in their arsenal, such as mid-split, which allocates 85 MHz of spectrum to upstream, and high-split, which allocates up to 204 MHz but may require the spectrum to be extended to 1.2 GHz to preserve downstream capacity. Another technology that received renewed attention in 2020 is orthogonal frequency division multiple access, which is part of the DOCSIS 3.1 specifications and improves spectral efficiencies, resulting in added capacity.

The year ahead

High levels of bandwidth consumptions will continue

Although the level of growth will taper off in 2021, high levels of bandwidth consumption will continue in 2021 as some of the digitally enabled business models will persist and evolve to become an essential part of the strategic framework. For example, many companies will retain some version of flexible work arrangements well beyond the pandemic, and some predict that about 20% of remote work will never return to in-person; another example is healthcare where the limits on in-person treatment drove almost a five-fold increase in telehealth-based treatment. Healthcare regulation is expected to continue to be relaxed in 2021, and telehealth utilization is expected to persist, and indeed grow, as the industry evolves business models toward more comprehensive virtual care modalities that include solutions such as remote patient monitoring and age in place. In addition to driving bandwidth consumption, these solutions will over time accelerate the comprehensive re-planning of the communications and computing infrastructures.

Technologies that gain traction in 2021

Mid-split and high-split: The trend that started in 2020 will continue, as the need for capacity in the upstream will exceed the capacity of most existing cable access infrastructures.

Low latency DOCSIS: More and more applications, such as gaming, are demanding latency as low as 5–10ms. New applications are emerging where continuous remote health monitoring of patients in their homes complemented by real-time remote data analytics that inform medical treatment may also require low latency data in the near future. Furthermore, augmented reality and virtual reality (VR) applications are increasingly finding important applications in medicine. For example, at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Beverly Hills, California, a study is focused on using VR for a nondrug approach to treating lower back pain.

The Distributed Access Architecture (DAA): DAA took a relative backseat in 2020 as operators used largely proven methodologies to meet capacity demands. However, continuing to add capacity with node splits and more hardware in the headends is not sustainable over the long term. Therefore, DAA remains the most viable architecture over the long term, with fiber moving ever closer to the customer. The debate between Remote-PHY and Remote MACPHY seems to have subsided somewhat, and the recently introduced Flexible MAC architecture, which gives operators flexibility in the location of the MAC, is gaining industry traction. 

Virtualization and cloud native implementations: As operators raced to meet the capacity surge, a clear shortcoming they faced is their inability to elastically scale capacity with demand. If the level of demand does not sustain at the level for which they planned, some of the capacity added will not be utilized, resulting in stranded capital. One of the main advantages of virtualization is the velocity and flexibility that operators gain in introducing new services and features, in scaling capacity with demand, and in gaining more visibility into their networks, leading to fault mitigation and better reliability. The move toward a virtualized headend, already under way, will continue and even gain momentum as the operators exit fire-fighting mode. 

DOCSIS 4.0: As demand for upstream bandwidth continues to grow, operators will need capacity beyond mid-split and even high-split. The DOCSIS 4.0 specifications, released in early 2020, enable operators to increase upstream capacity to 6 Gb/s. Although field implementations are still years out, operators will begin to decide their DOCSIS 4.0 strategy. Operators have two approaches to consider: Extended Spectrum DOCSIS, which involves increasing the highest plant frequency from 1.2 GHz to 1.8 GHz and later to 3.0 GHz; and Full Duplex DOCSIS, which works within 1.2 GHz using overlapping frequencies for upstream and downstream but may impose restrictions on the number of amplifiers and other legacy equipment between the node and the subscriber.

Passive Optical Networks (PON): Another approach that operators are considering for achieving 10G capacity is FTTx implementations via PON solutions, which allows them to build on their HFC investments to deliver even higher speeds. 

WiFi 6 and 6E: The need for more capacity and performance will continue to drive deployments of WiFi 6, and as WiFi 6E is introduced in 2021, which delivers even more capacity, operators will start supporting the new technology.

Automation: The recent pandemic, social distancing requirements, the increasing complexity of the networks, for example DAA deployments and 5G backhaul densification, will drive operators to implement more automation in the networks.

New business models will be explored

As bandwidth consumption shifts to homes and other locations, and as bandwidth is increasingly used to replace in-person activities, new frameworks around who pays for broadband will start to be explored, as discussed in a prior blog.

Beyond broadband networks

Although the focus has been on bandwidth capacity, and justifiably so, major currents are underway in the broader telecom industry. As digital enablement accelerates, companies in many verticals and consumers in their homes will need increasingly complex applications. Delivering connectivity, while essential, will no longer be sufficient. Offering complex solutions that include connectivity, computation, automation, and generic and vertical-specific application modules will emerge; service providers have the opportunity to play a major role in this emerging area. However, this will require investments, new partnerships, and innovative business models.

Liliane Offredo-Zreik of ACG Research

(Image credit: Future)

Guest blog author Liliane Offredo-Zreik is a principal analyst at ACG Research, where she is responsible for cable access infrastructure market research and consulting practice. Offered-Zreik is also president and founder of boutique advisory firm The Sannine Group.