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Getting Prepared for DOCSIS 1.1

It used to be that cable's summer months afforded at least a few empty afternoons to actually think about things: to look ahead, look back, adjust.

While the summer 2001 foxtrot of deals doesn't do much to promote quiet reflection, it's still probably wise to start prepping for several advanced services that are teetering on the brink of the scene.

For starters, it's plausible, that technology based on the enhanced version of the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, known in tech lingo as DOCSIS 1.1, will emerge from the Cable Television Laboratories Inc. certification laboratory as early as December 18. (An earlier test of 1.1-based gear wraps up on Sept. 25, but certifications seem unlikely.)

DOCSIS 1.1 is a pretty fancy party to plan. It contains all sorts of packageable confections, most notably the ability to automatically tier data services. (Think "good/better/best" here, with the fee structures to sustain it.) In that sense, DOCSIS 1.1 is to data services what pay TV was to basic TV, 25 years ago.

In turn, the assignment of committed speeds to those willing to pay extra for them would sway overall bandwidth planning. The tiers of DOCSIS 1.1 must be good neighbors to all other two-way services that need of safe passage along the upstream signal path. Once again, bandwidth management moves front-and-center.

DOCSIS 1.1 also brings a conga line of bouncers to protect how software upgrades are delivered, and ensure the depth of the moat against ne'er do wells. And, it brings a collection hat, up-ended to collect data consumption, in addition to throughput. Consumption tracking matters especially in open-access deployments, where both Internet-service providers (ISPs) and MSOs need tools to help them color inside the lines of service-level agreements (SLAs).

Other notable DOCSIS 1.1 enhancements: the potential to pre-equalize upstream transmissions, which yields a move to 16-QAM (quadrature-amplitude modulation) speeds of 10 megabits per second (mbps) per 3-MHz spectral slice, versus 5 mbps per 3 MHz under DOCSIS 1.0. And 1.1 brings the ability to fragment data packets — useful for voice services, or anything that requires transit timeliness.

DOCSIS 1.1 brings all sorts of things worth celebrating. But the celebration itself — because of all the reasons to party — requires serious planning.

Getting ready for DOCSIS 1.1 could easily require as much time as did the certification tests themselves. It's like the ski instructor who — just before plunging off the precipice of a particularly steep mountain — quipped, "You have three turns, use them wisely." So it is in prepping for DOCSIS 1.1: You have five months. You should use them wisely.

Preparing the to-do list for a DOCSIS 1.1 upgrade starts in the goo of the back office, where various servers are used to hook up and secure new subscribers, link into billing systems, collect and manage trouble reports and assign IP addresses. All must be updated for DOCSIS 1.1.

Remember the bouncers? In the lingo of DOCSIS 1.1, they go by "baseline privacy plus," or BPI-plus. They behave somewhat differently than today's security mechanisms. At the root of it is the authentication certificate — a sort of "Are you my mother?" bleated by individual cable modems that want to do something like upshift to a faster speed, for example.

The headend controller (known in tech-speak as the CMTS, or cable-modem termination system), is Mom — except she has so many children, she has to double-check each one against a master database to make sure it's hers before she says yea or nay. Getting that set up will require vigilance — and patience.

And, of course, there's the link to the billing system. In DOCSIS 1.1, account information for a high-speed Internet subscriber is optionally reported in XML (extensible markup language, an Internet invention). It's best to check now on whether or not your billing vendor speaks XML, too.

After you've sorted through which back-office servers need which upgrades, a next logical step is to hang a few 1.1-based (new) modems onto a 1.0-based (existing) CMTS. That way, the technology doesn't get stuck in the pipeline while you hone your marketing plans.

Next, slide a few 1.0- and 1.1-based modems onto a 1.1-based CMTS. Doing so assures that 1.1-based headend controllers are backward-compatible with the tens of thousands of new 1.0-based modems moving onto U.S. data subscriber tallies each week. Doing this in parallel with existing 1.0-based CMTS gear minimizes service interruptions.

Lastly, try 1.1 modems on a 1.1 CMTS, to flex the tiers, security additions, fragmentation, and other 1.1 goodies. When you're satisfied with all of that: Launch!

This is just an abbreviated look at what it takes to upgrade to DOCSIS 1.1. Get with your technology gurus, and sort out what it means. By the time the leaves turn and the days shorten, you'll be glad you did.