New Players, Advanced Apps Mark Latest DOCSIS Trials

Denver -- Cable-modem and headend vendors are swarming thelatest round of industry interoperability testing, focused on products that leapfrog tothe next generation of modem-supported advanced services.

Like the 10 previous waves, the current testing at CableTelevision Laboratories Inc. in Louisville, Colo., is intended to prove compliance withthe industry's current interoperability protocols, Data Over Cable Service InterfaceSpecification version 1.0. CableLabs is expected to announce testing results by earlyDecember, before the Western Show.

But most of the nearly 40 cable modems andcable-modem-termination systems submitted in this round -- the biggest turnout yet -- arealso designed for compatibility with the expanded DOCSIS 1.1 specification. That specsupports features and functions such as advanced security and guaranteed bandwidth -- anecessary element for Internet protocol telephony over cable.

In fact, some vendors said production of 1.0-certifiedproduct has been affected by anticipation that the manufacturing focus will soon shift tomeet demand for 1.1-compatible, 1.0-certified modems.

"We, as well as other companies, have a lot riding onthis next certification," said Tony Waters, marketing manager for Thomson ConsumerElectronics, which was one of the first with a DOCSIS 1.0-certified product.

"If nobody comes out of this certification wave with1.1-compatible hardware, the industry's going to be up against it for gettingmodems," Waters added. "Manufacturers are having to juggle this 'When do you dothe changeover?' process."

Although CableLabs plans to begin DOCSIS 1.1 certificationtesting in the second quarter of next year, vendors are already moving to meet customerdemands for gear deployable now that will support their current high-speed-data serviceofferings, plus the next generation of 1.1-based services such as IP telephony.

"Cable operators would prefer not to have a strandedhardware investment," said Michael Harris, president of consulting firm KineticStrategies Inc. "Also, for retail, there's a disincentive for consumers to buysomething if they know there's a new standard coming in six months."

Vendors also pointed to advancements in chip technologythat are making it possible for system operators to deploy 1.1-compatible modems that canbe upgraded by software downloads to make any changes necessary for 1.1 certification.

"I think that's what the whole industry is countingon," Samsung Telecommunications America Inc. senior manager of business developmentFrank Su said, "and some accounts are more willing to take the risk of usingnoncertified products."

Like other vendors in the current DOCSIS wave, Samsung hassubmitted a new modem using the Broadcom Corp. "BCM3300" chip set, designed as1.0- and 1.1-compliant, with software that can be upgraded for next year's 1.1certification testing.

The 3300 reference design has been in a number of testingwaves, but it has not yet won certification in any products. Broadcom -- which dominatesthe cable-modem-chip business -- said interest in submitting DOCSIS 1.1-designed productssoared after a CableLabs interoperability event in September gave vendors the first reallook at lab testing of the spec.

"That really started generating a lot of interest andenthusiasm," said Rich Nelson, Broadcom's director of marketing for cable-TVproducts. "We're seeing a tremendous amount of interest in the 1.1 specification anddeploying modems that can start off in a 1.1 interoperability mode and be potentiallyupgraded later, should the operator want to."

Entering certification testing for the first time isConexant Systems Inc. The analog-modem-chip giant is submitting a DOCSIS 1.0 cable-modemreference design based on its own "CN9414" chip, which also supports DOCSIS 1.1.

Conexant said certifying its platform would be a greenlight to manufacturing customers and partners to move ahead with modems aimed at servingthe 1.1-compliant markets.

"We want to shorten the distance between a certifiableplatform and an actual product that's deployable in the field," said Scott Keller,Conexant's manager of product-line marketing for cable-modem integrated circuits.

Conexant's and Broadcom's solutions have also enabledmanufacturers to submit new modem models taking advantage of the lower cost and reducedsize of their chip sets, which enable smaller modem casings by integrating the functionsof three or more chips into one.

General Instrument Corp. said its three "SB3100"models in the current certification wave, using the BCM3300 chip set, are about 15 percentsmaller than its DOCSIS 1.0-certified "SB2100" model.

Other changes are more mundane, but they help to make amore successful retail product, vendors said. For example, GI's SB3100 integrates themodem power supply, eliminating the external "brick" attached to its power cord,and it adds more lights to its front panel for indicating "on/off" and"transmit/receive" -- two indicators MSOs consider useful when handling customertrouble calls.

Vendors are also producing a flood of new CMTS productsaimed at supporting advanced cable services.

Cisco Systems Inc. is seeking DOCSIS 1.0 qualification forits 1.1-compatible "uBR924" cable-access router, which it unveiled this pastspring.

And Arris Interactive LLC is offering two new CMTSproducts, one of which is a direct current-powered version using a 48-volt power supplycommon to telephone company infrastructure.

Arris chief operating officer Oscar Rodriguez said,"48 volts is a cleaner type of power, it's regulated and you can build batteriesaround it. It is the preferred powering system for telco central-office environments, andwe find that around the world."

A new CMTS entrant is Broadband Access Systems Inc., thestart-up founded by a group of computer- and telecommunications-industry veterans tocreate from the ground up a carrier-class infrastructure designed specifically to supportadvanced IP services over cable.

Also beginning to appear in force at CableLabs are modemswith universal-serial-bus connectivity, a "plug-and-play" capability intended toslash installation times by letting users plug modems into USB ports on their computers,instead of opening the PCs and installing network-interface cards. About 450 computer,peripheral and software makers offer USB products.

Motorola Inc., which has not yet won DOCSIS 1.0certification, submitted three modems, including a USB model. And newcomer Ericsson Inc.,the Swedish telecommunications giant, submitted its first two certification candidates,with one of them being a USB model.

"When you get to USB, then you're going to get to aself-install where even if the cable company has to roll a truck, it's probably just goingto be to run a new wire," Waters said. "Everybody in the industry is interestedin USB."

The current testing wave also includes a proliferation oforiginal-equipment manufacturers -- such as Taiwan's Askey Computer Corp. and GVC Corp. --hoping to gain certification that would enable them to churn out millions of modems forcustomers that market them under their own, better-known brands.

Askey -- which OEMs a DOCSIS 1.0 model for Philips ConsumerElectronics Co. -- submitted a new model based on the BCM3300 chip set. Product managerJeff Kao said the new chips help to shave about $40 off the wholesale price of the modem.

The current testing wave is also marked by a variety of newplayers in the cable-modem space, including consumer-oriented analog-modem industryveterans aiming to flood the market with product early next year.

Best Data Products Inc., a 15-year-old company, submittedits first cable modem, based on a chip set from Texas Instruments Inc.'s Libit SignalProcessing Ltd. unit. Best Data hopes to add a certified product to a retail-orientedlineup of analog modems, graphics accelerators, home-networking products and PC videocameras.

"We have partnerships with almost every major retailerout there, from Costco [Wholesale Corp.] to CompUSA," said Ken Chong, the LosAngeles-based company's director of marketing. "We are leveraging that, and we arealso developing relationships with telcos and MSOs."