In fear of fiber, cable industry rushes out 10G full duplex

The Internet & Television Association, CableLabs and Cable Europe have come together to outline a 10 Gbps cable future beginning in 2020, taking a stab at 5G hopefuls in the process with a new “10G” trademark. Clearly the threat of fiber has the cable industry bodies running scared, triggering them to accelerate the rollout of Full Duplex DOCSIS and potentially running blindfolded straight into a ditch.

First things first, despite being a luxury desired by many consumers, most homes today don’t require anything near 1 Gbps broadband speeds and the services available to buy today have seen slow uptake in the US, let alone 10 Gbps – so what we really have here is a typical headline-grabbing cable announcement.

Secondly, this campaign risks falling into the same trap the MNOs have with their premature, pre-standard “5G” launches, notably AT&T’s misleading “5Ge” launch this week (actually 4G LTE-Advanced), a move which has been met with ridicule by rivals, leaving AT&T with egg on its face. Therefore, marketing the idea of 10 Gbps broadband connectivity to consumers needs to be handled extremely delicately by an industry already in flux.

CES is renowned as a show where industries like cable go missing under piles of connected shin pads and laundry folding robots – hence our absence this year – but these three cable bodies have made a stand against mobile in Las Vegas with a pledge to massively enhance cable connectivity in the US through hybrid fiber coaxial upgrades.

There will be innovations along the way but the fundamental foundations for 10G networks were developed some time ago; not one single technology but a network comprising multiple technologies. “It’s the cable broadband technology platform that can handle more data from more devices 10 times faster than today’s fastest cable broadband networks,” writes CableLabs President and CEO Phil McKinney.

The full list of these technologies is: 25G-PON (Passive Optical Network), 50G PON, FDX (Full Duplex) Point-to-Point Coherent Optics, DOCSIS 3.1, FDX DOCSIS, Low Latency DOCSIS, WiFi Easy Mesh, WiFi Passpoint, WiFi Vantage, Micronets, WiFi PNM (Proactive Network Maintenance), and Low Latency Mobile Backhaul. Vendors from any one of these fields will certainly be relishing the attention the new initiative has gained.

FDX DOCSIS has a theoretical maximum of 10 Gbps up and 10 Gbps down, with CableLabs describing it as “the ultimate technology to support the speed and latency requirements of current and emerging services over HFC networks.” But to achieve the spectral efficiency of almost 100% via full duplex you need a modem or gateway which can use all spectrum on the wire, and it’s unlikely any operator will ship one anytime soon.

So, the project lists quite a line-up of cable darlings, spanning older technologies like the fiber standard 10G-PON which was first standardized in 2009, progressing to developments in 50G-PON technology, as well as new kids on the block like Easy Mesh, the WiFi Alliance’s multi-AP standard which launched in the middle of last year, developed in partnership with CableLabs.

As well as enhancing these existing technologies, CableLabs says ISPs will continue to upgrade existing fiber-rich networks (getting operators to upgrade fixed lines is easier said than done as we know), combined with “new” hardware and software currently being tested. Intel will play a critical role in FDX DOCSIS deployments, citing Comcast, Cox and Charter as three of its early 10G partners.

Arris is also onboard the 10G project, having developed the underlying technologies going back “several years”, according to CEO Bruce McClelland, including spectrum expansion and utilization techniques for FDX DOCSIS and Ultra-High-Split with Extended Spectrum DOCSIS, as well as playing a hand in the development of fundamental 20-year old data transmission techniques.

As part of the announcement, CableLabs misleadingly implied cable networks now deliver 1 Gbps speeds to over 100 million US households, when it really means reaches, and 93% of US cable customers have access to lag-free 4K streaming and smoother gaming experiences. What’s to bet a survey asking a couple of thousand people paying for 1 Gbps broadband if their 4K streams have ever lagged, would argue otherwise? Well then, it’s just as well CableLabs is promising that the capacity of these networks will be incrementally expanded over the next few years until new technologies can be deployed on a massive scale. No pressure.

The reality is something closer to cable supplying about 56 million of the 120 million or so broadband lines in the US today. We see US operators moving from the 3 million 1 Gbps lines there are installed today, to 33.1 million by 2023, and right now we believe AT&T has more 1 Gbps lines than Comcast due to its recent fiber initiative. The two will be neck and neck but we project Comcast to take the lead over the next couple of years, while we won’t see much in the way of progress from Verizon for some time.

The 10G future is currently being built by cable operators in the US who offer broadband services to 85% of US homes – including Comcast, Charter, Cox, Mediacom, Midco and others – plus international operators, including Rogers, Shaw, Vodafone, Taiwan Broadband Communications, Telecom Argentina, Liberty Global and more.