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10 June 2021

Merged CableLabs-SCTE spills updates on fiber, convergence, education

Cable cowboys united for a rare taste of the US market at this week’s digital Anga Com, as Mark Dzuban, SCTE President and CEO, joined Phil McKinney, President and CEO of CableLabs, to deliver a number of important industry updates six months after the two network technology standards groups merged.

Unsurprisingly, echoing sentiments from every cable technology trade event of the past two years ever since Vodafone and Liberty Global were allowed to strike a market-altering deal in Europe, the topic of mobile convergence took center stage.

That said, the two industry veterans were proud to announce that around half of all operator members of CableLabs (for which SCTE continues to operate as an independent subsidiary) also operate mobile networks. Vodafone and Liberty Global are the headline MNOs, but there is also Videotron and Shaw in Canada, as well as Liberty Latin America’s mobile operations, and many smaller entities. While some of these operators have entered the mobile game via acquisition, CableLabs views this combining of entities as step one in the bigger picture of network convergence.

“Now, how do you deliver a consistent experience, consistent sets of infrastructure that scales? Mobile convergence is about creating a consistent platform so the customer doesn’t care what access means they’re using – they just want to get to all services consistently,” said McKinney.

Donning the SCTE education cap, Dzuban highlighted the importance of training in mobile convergence, where courses will of course focus on the core technology within CableLabs’ one network concept, having a core backbone of communications that supports many technologies, but also on creating consistent language and terminology. Convergence causes confusion, and SCTE is all too well aware of this.

“Training was one thing you thought you could get away with if you needed to cut your budget, but cutting training reduces customer satisfaction,” warned Dzuban.

Recognizing the European audience, Dzuban described Vodafone as a “great partner” that has been “very engaged and appreciative” of the work done by CableLabs/SCTE. Of course, Vodafone is the only non-US MSO member (excluding Liberty Global as a US company in EU waters). On that front, we learned that three vendor members have been named to the combined boards of the two non-profit industry organizations, which will supposedly be instrumental to strategy moving forwards. While Dzuban seemed hesitant to name these vendors, we took it upon ourselves to find the list of board members where the names CommScope, Corning, and EnerSys are listed, so there is our answer.

While CommScope is a familiar name to the Faultline audience, Corning is a materials science specialist with a current focus on advanced optics and glass polarizers for fiber networks, while EnerSys is a stored energy systems manufacturer. It makes for a good balance of vendor voices.

It was fitting then that, besides mobile convergence, McKinney cited fiber optics as an area the merged groups are spending a lot of energy on – reminding us that DOCSIS is based on HFC which is a combination of fiber and coax.

“One bit of data spends between 93% to 96% of time on fiber before transitioning to coax,” was McKinney’s way of underscoring the importance of fiber networks. However, he believes the upper limits of fiber technologies available today pales in comparison to the ongoing work at CableLabs, where technicians are looking at speeds that “far exceeds anything you could even contemplate today for fiber”. While he didn’t leave much to the imagination here, McKinney mentioned future proofing architectures to help prevent escalating construction costs, so that the glass going into the ground doesn’t have to change. The only changes should be made at either end, so operators can get returns on investments over a long-term period of 30 years or even 40 years.

Of course, part of the reason for merging with SCTE-ISBE was in an effort to pull forward 10G – the CableLabs roadmap focused on next-gen capabilities including symmetrical speeds up to 10 Gbps.

That said, McKinney claims 10G is not the only driver, pointing to the accelerated pace of innovation related to all underlying technologies. In the past, getting from the innovation stage to the “making it real stage,” as McKinney put it, was an arduous process. We saw that with DOCSIS 3.0 and prior generations where the industry was taking 6+ years for each cycle. Significant change came with DOCSIS 3.1, however, when that cycle was crushed to just two and half years, even as the first cable standard to deliver multi-gigabit speeds, while the release of the DOCSIS 4.0 specification goes above and beyond that.

“This acceleration of pace is fine on the innovation side, but we’ve also got to accelerate the pieces that come together,” implored McKinney.

CableLabs is also undertaking a bunch of work in AI, focusing on predicting the “next thing to maintain in the network,” according to McKinney, to predict potential upgrades or required maintenance before anything goes wrong in the network.

Looking ahead, McKinney pondered how much of the pandemic-related network trends would stick, in terms of home working and streaming demands? “All-in-all, the broadband networks on a global basis did a phenomenal job. The philosophy of the industry is making very large capital investments into the networks each and every year. People always find a way to use up what’s available, whether processors, memory, disk storage or in this case bandwidth,” he added.

In other words, throwing more cash into the network is the answer.