Cable beefs up to challenge fiber threat: Heynen

Though so much of the news in the world of broadband revolves around the rapid expansion of fiber network builds, a number of recent announcements and financial results show that cable operators are already beefing up their own efforts to improve and expand their DOCSIS networks and services.

On February 9th, Comcast announced that it would be launching its latest Xfinity 10G network upgrade to 10 million homes and businesses across 40 markets by the end of February. The operator said that these customers and locations had received foundational network upgrades that position them for the introduction of symmetrical, multi-gigabit services by the end of 2023. According to Comcast, these enhanced services are expected to reach more than 50 million homes and businesses by 2025.

Comcast has been very active this past year with mid-split upgrades, which push the upstream spectrum from a range of 5 to 42MHz all the way up to 85MHz, effectively doubling the amount of upstream bandwidth it can deliver to subscribers. The company has identified mid-splits, alongside the migration to distributed access architectures (DAA) using a vCMTS and Remote PHY Devices (RPDs), as two of the first, foundational steps in its gradual transition to the Full Duplex- (FDX) flavor of DOCSIS 4.0. The mid-split work has resulted in new service tier offerings, including a 1.2Gbps/200Mbps and a 2Gbps/200Mbps tier at the top end and symmetric 50Mbps and 100Mbps tiers at the lower end. There are also 300-900Mbps downstream tiers that each deliver 100Mbps upstream. Prior to the mid-split upgrades, those tiers would have typically offered 20Mbps-50Mbps upstream.

Comcast’s mid-split efforts have minimal impact on customers, as most deployed DOCSIS 3.1 modems already have the ability to support the new spectrum ranges of both mid- and high-splits. Typically, one of the only changes that needs to be made is at the amplifiers, which need to be upgraded with diplex filters to support the higher upstream frequency range or, in the case of older amplifiers, swapped out with either 1 GHz or 1.2 GHz units.

Based on its fourth quarter financial results, Comcast didn’t hold back in 2022 with its upgrade strategy, increasing total spending on scalable infrastructure and line extensions for the year to $4.7B, up from $4.2B in 2021 and $3.7B in 2020. The company also guided that 2023 capital intensity would remain around 11%, similar to levels seen in 2022. It seems clear that Comcast will continue to respond quickly to the threat posed by fiber and fixed wireless providers by evolving its broadband networks to DOCSIS 4.0.

Along those lines, but not specifically tied to Comcast’s current mid-split efforts, was CommScope’s February 13th announcement that it had built and shipped 1 million amplifiers to cable operators around the world in 2022. That’s a significant jump over Dell’Oro’s estimates for annual trunk and line extender shipments, especially when considering that the estimated total number of amplifiers in North American cable networks is in the 15-17 million range.

CommScope’s announcement confirms that operators are indeed focused squarely on increasing the available spectrum in existing DOCSIS 3.1 networks in the short-term to deliver gigabit speeds consistently. The announcement also confirms that the foundation is being set at major operators for a significant upgrade cycle for DOCSIS 4.0. With major operators upgrading to 1.8 GHz amplifiers to support Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD) or to more specialized 1.2 GHz FDX amps, 1 million new unit shipments annually will look like small potatoes when compared with the shipments expected in each of the next 4-5 years.

Going back to Comcast and going beyond discussions around speed, the operator also unveiled plans to offer a new Wi-Fi gateway that will have cellular connectivity and battery backup to help keep customers connected in the case of a power or other network outage. Additionally, Comcast noted that it will be offering new low-latency features later this year, presumably for subscribers who are heavy users of latency-sensitive applications, including videoconferencing and online gaming.

In an increasingly competitive environment where cable operators are perceived as the incumbent that doesn’t provide any value beyond a connection to the home, the services Comcast is planning to offer subscribers are intended to change the narrative and position the cable operator as the one delivering the reliability and flexibility subscribers increasingly demand. It’s a playbook many ISPs—both new and old—are trying to follow as they move from being at one the only provider in town to just one of multiple choices.

Jeff Heynen joined Dell’Oro Group in 2018, and is responsible for the Broadband Access and Home Networking market, Fixed Wireless Infrastructure and CPE market research programs. He has expanded the Broadband Access and Home Networking areas to include fixed wireless CPE, virtual CCAP, Remote PHY, Remote MACPHY and DOCSIS 4.0 infrastructure. Heynen is a frequent judge and expert speaker at industry conferences and his research and analysis have been widely cited in leading trade and business publications.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceTelecom staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceTelecom.