DOCSIS 3.1 Is Go for Launch

Cable could soon go big with the Gigs.

The cable industry is in position to offer Gigabit broadband services on a broad basis, as CableLabs has certified modems from five suppliers for DOCSIS 3.1, a platform that’s designed to support Internet speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second downstream and at least 1 Gbps upstream.

In a major milestone announced last week, CableLabs stamped products from five suppliers: Askey Computer, CastleNet, Netgear, Technicolor and Ubee Interactive. The certification clears those products for retail distribution, but more importantly it means they are deemed interoperable, an achievement that cable operators typically require before they’ll buy.

More DOCSIS 3.1 products are expected to be certified in early 2016, CableLabs said.

Candidates for future certification include Arris, which showed off a pair of DOCSIS 3.1-based, retail-focused models at last fall’s SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, as well as Humax and Sagemcom, which all showed off new DOCSIS 3.1-based devices at a CableLabs press event last fall.

The first batch of DOCSIS 3.1-certified models come from two vendors with solid direct-to- MSO relationships (Technicolor and Ubee), a retail specialist (Netgear) and two Taiwan-based vendors (CastleNet and Askey) that do a lot of original design manufacturing business with partners in Asia and parts of Europe.

Ubee said its newly certified model, the DVMA20, is a voice cable modem powered by Broadcom’s D3.1 chipset. Ubee will also seek certification for the DVWA20, a D3.1-based wireless gateway that integrates WiFi and MoCA 2.0 home networking, an official said.

Intel and STMicroelectronics have also developed DOCSIS 3.1 chipsets, but the other vendors with certified products have yet to disclose their silicon partners.

Technicolor’s first DOCSIS 3.1-certified product is a standalone modem, though the vendor has several types of devices on its product roadmap, including wireless gateways, Gary Gutknecht, senior vice president of Technicolor’s Connected Home division, said.

Technicolor is talking to all three DOCSIS 3.1 silicon providers and will rely on multiple sources. “We want to keep all three on their toes, so they do a good job for us,” he said.

The initial wave of DOCSIS 3.1 modems consist of hybrids that will support both DOCSIS 3.0- and 3.1-based traffic, which is expected to be about 50% more efficient than D3.0 from a bits-per-hertz perspective.

The first batch of DOCSIS 3.1 modems will support about 5 Gbps upstream and 1 Gbps downstream when fully loaded. Under the current minimum requirements, the DOCSIS 3.0 side will be capable of bonding 32 QAM downstream channels and eight upstream QAM channels, while the DOCSIS 3.1 end will require a minimum of two downstream channels/blocks of orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) spectrum at 192 MHz wide, and two 96-MHz wide OFDM blocks for the upstream.

DOCSIS 3.1 will allow cable operators to deploy Gigabit residential speeds at scale, complementing their more targeted use of fiber-to-the-premises technology.

Because they are essentially two modems in one, D3.1 devices will cost more than their DOCSIS 3.0-only predecessors. The general expectation is that the new class of modems will cost between 30% to 50% more in the early going, and then decline as volumes increase. One supplier said the first wave of DOCSIS 3.1 modems will cost about $25 more than their DOCSIS 3.0-only counterparts, representing an increase of roughly 50%.

It’s a premium, but nowhere near the initial 300% to 400% delta between DOCSIS 2.0 and DOCSIS 3.0 modems, which were pricier because they contained additional tuners.

The new modems will also support switchable upstream features as MSOs consider dedicating more spectrum to the upstream path. North American DOCSIS systems typically limit their upstream to 5 MHz to 42 MHz, but some are considering “mid-splits” that would raise the ceiling to 85 MHz. A “high-split” would push the upstream up to 200 MHz.

The certifications come as MSOs prepare to test and deploy D3.1 services this year, and ramp up deployment activity in 2017.

Comcast is among the MSOs expected to be aggressive with DOCSIS 3.1 for residential Gigabit broadband services. Last month, it said it installed a D3.1-based modem on a “customer-facing network” in late November 2015 in its hometown of Philadelphia, and has since expanded those tests to other parts of Pennsylvania, as well as Northern California and Atlanta.

DOCSIS 3.1 modem deployments are expected to be “fairly limited” early on, as cable operators restrict use to lab and field testing, SNL Kagan senior research analyst Jeff Heynen said.

Technicolor’s Gutknecht said he expects to see MSOs buying in by midyear and getting more aggressive toward year-end and into 2017. Technicolor has shipped more than 1,500 units to “all corners of the world” in support of tests and trials, he said, and is in serious talks with about three operators about deployments.

He said he expects deployments of D3.1 models to reach into the realm of seven digits by sometime next year.

Key Dates in Driving DOCSIS 3.1

In DOCSIS terms, modem makers were able to achieve certification for the new, more-efficient DOCSIS 3.1 platform in record speed, thanks in part to the use of a new “rolling wave” process at Cable- Labs that allowed vendors to update products until they were able to achieve certification.

Oct. 18, 2012: CableLabs and MSO execs outline the technical makeup and anticipated performance metrics of DOCSIS 3.1 at a standing-room only session at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Orlando, Fla.

Oct. 30, 2013: CableLabs releases the product specs for DOCSIS 3.1.

Aug. 24, 2014: CableLabs said it has “opened the door” to vendors that are seeking to certify and qualify products for DOCSIS 3.1.

December 2014: CableLabs conducts what will be the first in a series of DOCSIS 3.1 interops.

July 23, 2015: Speaking on a Q2 earnings call, Neil Smit, president and CEO of Comcast Cable, says the MSO plans to start DOCSIS 3.1 market trials in Q4.

Sept. 21, 2015: CableLabs deems DOCSIS 3.1 as “real” at a press event at its Louisville, Colo.-based headquarters that shows off a wide range of products based on the spec.

Dec. 22, 2015: Comcast says it has installed a DOCSIS 3.1-based modem on a “customer-facing” network the month before in Philadelphia, and has since expanded tests to other parts of Pennsylvania, as well as in northern California and Atlanta, Ga.

Jan. 13, 2016: CableLabs says it has certified its first batch of D3.1 modems.