SCTE Cable-Tec Expo Preview: It’s All About the Broadband

Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia
SCTE Cable-Tec Expo will make its return to the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the first in-person event since 2019. (Image credit: Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau)

The SCTE Cable-Tec Expo will return to an in-person event for the first time since 2019 on  September 19-22, and attendees are expected to descend on Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Convention Center with broadband on their minds. 

Cable-Tec Expo, the premier event in the cable technology realm, is eager to please. After two years of virtual contact, members will be able to meet face to face, reigniting friendships and deal-making as cable faces one of its biggest transitions ever.

Streaming is quickly taking the place of traditional video and cable’s once-robust cash cow — broadband — is feeling pressure. As new technologies like Fixed Wireless Access and aggressive fiber buildouts seek to offer service to more and more rural customers, operators and vendors alike are scrambling to find a way to efficiently and sufficiently meet demand.

Cable-Tec Expo has long been a showcase for new technologies, but it’s also a gathering place for tech executives and workers to learn about new developments and exchange ideas.

In an interview, Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers president and CEO Mark Dzuban said that while there are a host of technologies that will be discussed at the show, topics like 10G broadband will be top of mind.

The Expo will tackle 10G in three separate sessions: 

• The 10G Challenge: A fireside chat with CableLabs president and CEO Phil McKinney and Corning Optical Communications emerging applications marketing development manager Cate McNaught; 

• Navigating the 10G Journey: A trio of experts — CableLabs distinguished technologist Karthik Sundaresan, Volpe Firm founder and CEO Brady Volpe and CommScope engineering fellow John Ulm — will discuss the what, when and why of the technology in a panel moderated by Shaw Communications senior VP, wireline technology and strategy Damian Poltz;

Plant Design for the Future of 10G and DOCSIS 4.0: A panel moderated by Cox Communications director of outside plant engineering and architectures Mark Adams and including Comcast VP of plant maintenance Michael Spaulding and Shaw Communications standards specialist Kyle Holman will discuss and evaluate the emerging 10G OSP (outside plant) architecture.

The theme of this year’s show is “Creating Infinite Possibilities.” It’s co-chaired by Comcast Cable president and CEO Dave Watson and Liberty Global vice chairman and CEO Mike Fries, who will kick off the event’s Opening Session on September 20. Later, Comcast Cable president of technology, product and experience Charlie Herrin will talk about how industry platforms continue to evolve customer experiences worldwide. Rounding out the session, technology leaders will join a fireside chat to cast a vision of the future, closing with an announcement from CableLabs president and CEO Phil McKinney and an invitation from Dzuban to visit the exhibitor floor.

There will also be six dedicated sessions (three live and three prerecorded) in Spanish, as well as the International Cable-Tec Games and member forums like Exponential, a CableLabs forum where members can exchange ideas and connect with experts. 

No Such Thing as Overkill

Several cable operators have unveiled plans to offer multi-gig speeds even as they are still making 1 Gigabit per second broadband available across their footprints. And while there have been some critics that have called 10 Gig service overkill — 100 Megabits per second is usually ample bandwidth to handle most current applications — Dzuban said 10G is the future. 

Dzuban pointed to telemedicine applications, like remote diagnostics, using facial recognition to detect strokes and the ability to offer medical service to those hundreds of miles from the nearest hospital, as uses for 10G services.

“We have shortfalls of doctors and physicians today,” Dzuban said. “How do we solve that problem? It’s with video.”  

Cable broadband subscriber growth has been on a downward slide for months. It seemed to be near its nadir in the second quarter, after the two largest operators — Comcast and Charter Communications — reported flat growth and a loss of 21,000 high-speed data customers, respectively, in the period. That sent analysts back to their calculators, rejiggering expectations for full-year and beyond growth expectations. 

At the same time, small and medium­sized operators and telcos have been aggressively building out fiber in smaller markets, taking advantage of federal programs that are seeking to make broadband availability ubiquitous. 

The federal government has earmarked about $42.5 billion through the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment fund (BEAD), to be distributed via states to projects aimed at bringing broadband to more regular markets. That is expected to increase competition, as well as expand the market.

Mark Dzuban

SCTE president and CEO Mark Dzuban (Image credit: SCTE-ISBE)

In a February white paper titled U.S. Broadband Blitz: Timing and Impact, the Fiber Broadband Association estimated that fiber access to broadband households would increase from 55 million homes in 2021 to 112 million by the end of 2026. Subscribers to fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) services are expected to rise from 25.6 million in 2021 to 65 million by 2026.

While the FBA said federal money usually comes with conditions like price controls, more government oversight and strict deadlines for service, and larger companies (with the exception of Charter Communications) haven’t participated in the programs yet, $43 billion could cause everyone to take a closer look.

“In any case, the competitive landscape is certain to undergo some big changes,” the FBA wrote.

Competition already is beginning to have an effect. In the second quarter, large cable operators, which have held a decades-long stranglehold on broadband subscriber growth, reported their first customer losses ever. Comcast was flat in the period but Charter shed 21,000 broadband subscribers and Altice USA lost another 40,000 in the period. And though some analysts believe they may return to growth in the third quarter, they could finish the year at a deficit for the first time since introducing the product.

In addition to fiber competition, fixed-wireless offerings from telcos like T-Mobile and Verizon Communications are adding to cable broadband subscriber erosion. 

Market research firm Dell’Oro Group upped its forecast for fiber spending in late July based on the surge of projects, predicting that passive optical network (PON) equipment revenue would rise from $9.3 billion in 2021 to $13.6 billion in 2026; fixed wireless CPE revenue should surge to $5.1 billion by 2026, fueled by shipments of 5G sub-6 GHz and 5G Millimeter Wave units; and revenue for cable distributed access equipment (Virtual CCAP, Remote PHY Devices, Remote MACPHY Devices, and Remote OLTs) should reach nearly $1.3 B by 2026, as operators ramp their DOCSIS 4.0 and fiber deployments.

Fiber Worker Shortage

With that expansion has also come a worker crunch. Eleven industry organizations wrote a letter to Congress in 2021 saying that at least 250,000 fiber workers needed to be trained in the next three years just to meet that demand. 

SCTE is one of several organizations that have stepped in to address that worker crunch, launching the Workforce 2027 initiative this year to help address the problem. Workforce 2027 is a five-year program that focuses on building skills and bringing in new resources to help the industry compete in the marketplace. SCTE is working with companies to help develop training programs to educate the next wave of fiber techs. 

“That’s a big deal because what’s happened is the evolution of our networks requires this current state of the art to be developed in the skill sets, not only for new employees, but existing employees that need to maintain and operate the networks,” Dzuban said. 

The SCTE chief noted that the need for training isn’t just to satisfy the surge in construction, but to replace long-time workers who are nearing retirement age. 

“If you think about it, a lot of folks who put in 25 or 30 years, there’s been a lot of retirements this year and we’re going to see [more] next year,” Dzuban added. “So how do we fill those voids? We’ve got to develop the skill sets.”

What’s Up, DOCSIS?

While companies search to fill the fiber worker void, some in the industry have feared that one of the technologies that was supposed to drive the transition to 10G — CableLabs’ DOCSIS 4.0 standard — may be taking a back seat. But Dzuban said the standard is needed now more than ever. 

One of DOCSIS 4.0’s biggest selling points is that it can deliver speeds of up to 10 Gbps over existing coaxial cable plant, meaning there’s no major rebuild required. So even if a company is building a fiber network that could take several years to finish, it can offer those blistering speeds much sooner.

“Coax is still very healthy and viable delivering up to 10 gigabits and more, so that infrastructure is in place,” Dzuban said. “From a business perspective, I think it can certainly stand on its own. But there’s a migration. It’s like a toolbox. Every operating company has a different problem it is trying to solve. CableLabs has done a great job of saying, ‘You know, we’ve got fiber capabilities, we’ve got DOCSIS 4.0 capabilities, we have a spectrum of tools we can use to compete in the marketplace.’ ”

Other Hot Tech

Yvette Kanouff, a longtime cable technology executive and currently a partner in former Cisco chairman John Chambers’s venture-capital fund J2C Ventures, said the technology pendulum is beginning to swing from products as a differentiator toward customer experience, adding that “technologies that automate, self-heal[ing] applications and networks, make experiences faster and easier are critical.” Just as tech advancements helped shape the current cable landscape, she said, they have the same potential on the customer-care side.

“[W]e now have AI-based solutions that can help find issues and solutions much faster than traditional ways,” Kanouff said. “This makes every agent a great agent that can focus more on the customer.  Embracing social channels is another key area of focus.  I could go on for hours on this topic, it will define our successes.”

The veteran technologist also believes that despite the competition from telcos and other companies, cable can still come out on top, adding that “the question is who will be bold enough to lead in some of the amazing innovation happening in this space.”  

Dzuban was equally excited about AI. 

“The intent here of our networks is to be able to determine a problem before the customer does,” Dzuban said. “And I think that is well underway. There’s a lot of work being done, but stay tuned.”

Despite the challenges, Dzuban is optimistic about the future. 

“I think our industry has huge upside and I think that this is the beginning of things we can do that you’ll start to see,” he continued. “In fact, I think we don’t always give ourselves enough credit for what we’ve done. This is the beginning, this is not the end.” ▪️

Mike Farrell

Mike Farrell is senior content producer, finance for Multichannel News/B+C, covering finance, operations and M&A at cable operators and networks across the industry. He joined Multichannel News in September 1998 and has written about major deals and top players in the business ever since. He also writes the On The Money blog, offering deeper dives into a wide variety of topics including, retransmission consent, regional sports networks,and streaming video. In 2015 he won the Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Profile, an in-depth look at the Syfy Network’s Sharknado franchise and its impact on the industry.