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DOCSIS Paves the Road for Cable's Future

It's hard to believe that it's been only three years since the first Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 1.0 cable modems and cable modem termination systems (CMTS) were certified by Cable Television Laboratories Inc.

During the ensuing 20 certification waves, 28 DOCSIS 1.0 CMTSs and 202 DOCSIS 1.0 cable modems have been certified. In the past year, seven 1.1 CMTSs and 22 cable modems have been certified. All told, 73 different companies have achieved certified or qualified status.

Consumers and cable operators have benefited from multiple suppliers entering the industry and delivering products available at the retail level, creating competition in price and innovation.

Those are some impressive accomplishments by anyone's standards. When broadband Internet service first began in the early 1990s, few immediately saw the great opportunities. But with the Internet explosion, it didn't take long for many operators and vendors to realize that the cable modem was a potent new revenue tool.

As cable modem popularity gained momentum, the industry, represented by CableLabs' executive committee, saw the proliferation of proprietary technologies and came to the conclusion something had to change — with the technology, with the service and with the industry. As an appetizer to a potential feast of broadband services, high-speed Internet access shouldn't be allowed to develop in the proprietary straightjacket that has plagued so many video technologies, resulting in high-cost products and limited and slow-paced innovation.

With that realization, cable's first standardization effort was under way.

But standardization had its fair share of skeptics. Critics doubted cable's ability to organize itself around a specification, mostly because the industry had never done it before. Doubters also questioned the plausibility of equipment interoperability — the primary goal of the DOCSIS standardization effort — and a multiple-vendor environment.

But many of us involved in the project had no illusions about what lay ahead. The soup-to-nuts checklist was daunting. The specification had to be created and methods to test for interoperability — among rival suppliers — had to be developed. A certification board populated by MSO technology executives was critical, and that meant asking for enormous chunks of their time.

This bite-by-bite process of developing a DOCSIS specification needed a steady hand. It needed neutrality. Fortunately, CableLabs was already well established by the time that demand for the specification began to peak. We needed CableLabs to bring all these parties together. Luckily for us, it was at the right place at the right time.

Credit for developing what has become a worldwide standard goes to many individuals, companies and organizations that contributed their trust to this process. There are hundreds of suppliers that collectively contributed thousands of engineers at labs around the world to DOCSIS. Their insights helped create the specifications, testing plans and procedures. Without their willingness to couple their marketplace drive with our interest in establishing interoperability, it is safe to say we would not be where we are today.

CableLabs members should be acknowledged for their constant support from defining requirements, reviewing reams of data and giving relevant feedback to providing critical information through field-testing of prototype and production line DOCSIS systems. And then, there's the long list of top-notch people at CableLabs, past and present, who wrapped their lives around this project over weeks, months and years.

The result was a specification and certification process that has become the envy of allies and competitors alike. The amazingly short 33 months it took to go from a paper specification for DOCSIS 1.0 to a retail product is unprecedented in any industry. We even managed to speed up the process, DOCSIS 1.1 took only 28 months to complete.

As a direct result, many entities look to the global DOCSIS certification program as a key model for other programs yet to come. In fact, some digital subscriber line and wireless competitors will quietly admit to having considered something like DOCSIS for their respective industries.

I'd like to think that over the past three years, the industry created three stanzas for cable — specification, interoperability and certification — which in turn became the poetry of the DOCSIS process.

An important thing about DOCSIS certification is that it has enabled more vendors to get to market faster. In today's market, DOCSIS-based modems are coming off the manufacturing lines of companies never before seen in this industry. Some of them have garnered significant market share. If you like competition, that's the part of the DOCSIS story for you.

And what kind of impact has that had on our industry? First, it made the scalability and functionality of this technology to be far superior to any proprietary solution. Second, it afforded a massive price change for cable modems — from $500 to as low as $50 now. There are now 10 million cable-modem customers in North America along, according to recent estimates, while the DSL total is half that. Most analysts expect cable to maintain that competitive leadership in the delivery of broadband services.

Broadband Internet service alone added $4.5 billion in revenue to the cable industry's bottom line — almost 22 percent of the revenue cable operators used to get from video. But DOCSIS also forged and paved a new revenue road for the industry. It all started with a path for high-speed modems. But now, DOCSIS's later versions (1.1, 2.0) can also be used as a highway for other services to drive on.

It's proven to be an effective way to provide the industry with Internet protocol-based multimedia services such as those from PacketCable, home networking services such as from CableHome, and many other new offerings. It's what will make our industry thrive, in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Where would we be if there hadn't been a DOCSIS effort? Prices may not have fallen as rapidly as they have. We would never have reached the 15 million shipped units number. We probably wouldn't have gotten increased valuations or additional respect from the financial community. Why? My view is that because cable was largely a one-way video distribution system before DOCSIS, and the specification has enabled cable to become a true two-way interactive communications network.

The legacy of DOCSIS is customer confidence, branding, backward compatibility, process and execution. Its future will move us to 100 megabit-per-second — and faster — symmetrical services. With that, the cable industry can approach small to medium businesses where it's been estimated there is something like $40 billion worth of revenue to tap. And with more symmetry, the types of home movies and user-generated content that come with the proliferation of hand-held digital devices — such as MP3 players, video cameras, mobile telephones and PC tablets — can move more quickly among residential customers.

Now with DOCSIS, we have built the open standard toolsets that operators can use to reach out and create business revenues that will be above and beyond the consumer revenues they're already generating. The network security, management and operation functionality of DOCSIS will give them the confidence to do that.

More importantly, the certification aspect of DOCSIS gives them the confidence that they can go to these businesses and offer these kinds of services with products from dozens of suppliers, all of which will work together.