Tech Roundtable 2017: Capacity

The 2017 Tech Roundtable Panelists
Kevin Hart, executive vice president and chief product and technology officer, Cox Communications
Dan Hennessy, chief architecture architect, Liberty Global
Jay Rolls, chief technology officer and senior vice president, Charter Communications
JR Walden, senior vice president of technology and CTO, Mediacom Communications
Tony Werner, president of technology and product, Comcast Cable
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MCN: What are your priorities, as it relates to network capacity?
Jay Rolls:
Our priority is to constantly balance capacity against demand. It’s a never-ending quest. We watch it very closely, and we’re very pragmatic about it -- the volume of tools, metrics and ways to see what’s really happening, and invest accordingly, is really deepening in ways that matter.

Tony Werner: We’ve been on a pretty steady path of doubling our network capacity every 18-24 months for several years, and I don’t see anything that makes me think that will change. We’re making better and faster products for our customers who expect and deserve world-class online experiences, and the network has to deliver on that promise. The key from my perspective is staying ahead of that curve in a way that’s smart and future-proof. We’ve been strategically extending fiber further into our network to meet customer demand, and that effort, combined with our commitment to deploying DOCSIS 3.1 has given us a network that’s powerful, flexible, and ready for what’s next.

JR Walden: We have completed the removal of all the analog channels. That was the big step one. Step two was to start transitioning high-speed data over to DOCSIS 3.1, so we're not adding any more 3.0 channels, and reuse spectrum for 3.1, which is a bit more efficient. The whole company is 3.1, all of the modems we're buying since June have been 3.1, so we've begun that next transition. 

We're in the process of migrating to MPEG-4, mostly the HDs. That's following along with some of our set-top refresh -- getting some of the old MPEG-2-only capable boxes out of the network and we can transition more of the channels to MPEG-4. 

Right on the heels of that, we're going to start moving some channels, the lower-viewed channels and some premiums, over to IP. We're also reducing node sizes. We average about 285 homes to 290 homes per node as an average. 

Kevin Hart: Ultimately, our goal is to continue to provide a great customer experience with a competitive broadband product and service. To do that, we are continuing to keep pace with downstream and upstream data rates, which is key to being competitive with our speed offerings, and quality of service. Reducing latency is also a top priority.

We’re investing in the network and in those growth rates, in terms of downstream and upstream speeds. Those are key drivers. Ultimately, providing that in-home or on-premises (business) experience, with our WiFi products — is equally important.

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Dan Hennessy: We see demand increasing by up to 45% across our markets and in recent years, we responded with a wide deployment of CCAP [converged cable access platform] equipment throughout our footprint. That investment, along with ongoing node size optimization, enabled us to increase capacity at a much faster rate. As a result, 70 – 80% of our plant will be DOCSIS 3.1 ready by the end of next year, giving us a path to even greater capacity expansion allowing us to continue to increase the available capacity across our access network, upstream and downstream 

MCN: What is your strategy with regard to fiber?
Suffice it to say that fiber plays a key role on our network architecture. Our network today contains more than 150,000 route miles of fiber, and to meet customer demand, we extend fiber further into the neighborhoods we serve each year. When it comes to delivering gigabit speeds, our focus is obviously on DOCSIS 3.1, and our new xFi Advanced Gateway, which will bring Gig availability to more people, in more markets than ever before. But part of the reason we’re able to deliver that capacity is because we’ve systematically enhanced our network with fiber.

I feel pretty strongly that the best path ahead is to leverage the existing coaxial network and DOCSIS resources to the fullest, then inch towards FTTH, over time. Why? Because we can. We don’t have to build an entire network just to turn up one customer.

KH: Once you leverage the existing coax that we have, by taking fiber deep toward an N+0 architecture, we're future-proofing our investment , we're positioning ourselves to leverage DOCSIS 3.1, and also position ourselves for Full Duplex, because symmetrical speeds will be important. 

And we're also thinking about the fiber investment and fiber deep as it relates to our wireless strategy, enabling some of our customer with a small cell strategy but also positioning ourselves to take advantage of that in the future as well as thinking about fiber deep to benefit both residential and our commercial customers simultaneously. 

We've got a ten-year network 2.0 network transformation plan, and fiber deep, DOCSIS 3.1 and Full Duplex are at the core of what's driving the investment. 

DH: We’re aggressively future-proofing our network. Over 80% of our new build program is based on a combination of either fiber-deep, retaining the HFC final drop, or fiber-to-the-home.

The U.K. is a good example -- that’s where our “Project Lightning” network expansion initiative is happening (announced in early 2015). Cable network build had been very limited in parts of the U.K. since the ‘80s, and until a few years ago and is now benefiting from this fiber strategy.

JW: [Fiber deep] is a bit further out, at least as a large-scale type of project. I think fiber deep for MDUs, high-density areas and some planned communities, higher end communities doing deeper fiber or fiber-to-the-home [is happening]. But as a wholesale [change] and going to node+0 kind of architecture, I don't see that in the next two years. 

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JR: Fiber-deep is part of the overall capacity conversation. We’re constantly analyzing and monitoring our infrastructure, and matching those results against the technologies we have in our portfolio -- whether that’s DOCSIS 3.1, or taking fiber deeper, or Full Duplex DOCSIS. It’s a rational approach, where we’re trying to balance the needs, the available technologies, and the costs. DOCSIS 3.1 has some pretty remarkable capabilities, but it’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast reason to not take fiber deeper, for instance. Different situations drive different capacity decisions. There’s nothing universal about it -- you have to take it on a market-by-market basis.

MCN: To what extent will you use bridging techniques, like remote PHY & DOCSIS 3.1?
We’re already trialing and testing both Remote PHY and DOCSIS 3.1 across our footprint. Our plan of record is to exploit virtualized and distributed access architectures.

Our strategy is fully focused on leveraging 3.1 and cost to upgrade is less than 20 Euro per home passed, so a very efficient way of getting to speeds of 1 Gbps-plus.

KH: We're making tremendous progress in calendar year 2017 on our DOCSIS 3.1 CCAP deployment. We started in earnest early in the year and by the end of this year, we'll have over one-third of our footprint 3.1-enabled with north of 90% of our footprint enabled with 3.1 by the end of 2018 and early 2019. We're definitely going to be leveraging a remote PHY architecture and some of the early stage testing around remote PHY currently. 

JR: They both play a role. Just like DOCSIS 3.0 and PON played a role in the evolution of the network over the past five years, DOCSIS 3.1 and remote PHY are going to play a major role in the coming years. Everyone will be using them, us included. Like everything else, it’s a matter of matching the right tool to the right task.

TW: I could tell you how committed we are to DOCSIS 3.1, but it may be easier just to lay out our progress to date. Since December 2015, when we provisioned the world’s first DOCSIS 3.1 modem on a customer-facing network, we have been aggressively expanding our D3.1-powered gigabit offering. Today, we have deployed D3.1 in 23 states and dozens of markets, with more coming online all the time. What I love about this technology is that it is a cost-effective way to make gigabit speeds a reality for a far broader cross-section of Americans, and not just to those lucky few who live in a few select neighborhoods. As for remote PHY and DAA [Distributed Access Architecture], both technologies are advancing at a breakneck clip, and I think you’ll hear more from us about them soon. 

MCN: What are the consumer factors pushing you toward the desire to provide symmetrical bandwidth, and eventually take advantage of technologies like Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX)?
The world of applications and services continues to evolve, obviously, but so far we’ve been able to meet those needs with an asymmetrical topology. That said, things like real-time gaming, augmented and virtual reality, and the Internet of Things -- some of those will likely drive more symmetry in the network. It remains to be seen. Whether it goes completely crazy, or just nudges the demand on the network, it’s good to have techniques like FDX on the drawing board.

KH: It’s a little but further out on the horizon. The upstream growth rate is ticking up a couple of notches, but not to the tune that we would need significant additional capacity and/or a complementary need for symmetrical bandwidth. We're still testing that, but the experiences, the gaming, the latency and interactive [applications] and additionally connected everything, I think, will be drivers of higher need for improved symmetrical speeds. But at this stage, the symmetrical is a nice-to-have for residential and definitely will be a good option for our commercial customers. 

DH: Presently, both our products and the consumption of those products are highly asymmetric. While we see some increase in upstream demand from cloud-based services, we don’t see the asymmetry changing any time soon.

Because of that, we are actively engaged with CableLabs and industry partners on the development of Full Duplex. We see it as part of our future access toolkit.