Cable's DAA work stalls as operators add more capacity due to COVID-19 traffic increases: Special Report

The cable industry's distributed access architectures (DAA) initiatives were pushed to the back burner the first part of this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But even before COVID-19, DAA has been a slow moving train because despite its benefits, it's complicated.

For now, other than Comcast's DAA efforts, cable operators are more consumed with pushing fiber deeper in their networks or implementing mid-splits or high-splits to increase bandwidth for their upstream traffic.

DAA, along with other access networking technologies such as fiber-to-the-home, DOCSIS 4.0 and fixed wireless access, will be discussed Monday, June 15 during a free FierceTelecom virtual event "The Future of Access Networks."

"For DAA this year, I am projecting that spending on Remote PHY and Remote MAC-PHY devices will drop by 19%," said Dell'Oro Group's Jeff Heynen, senior research director, broadband access and home networking, who will be a moderator and a keynote speaker at next week's FierceTelecom Blitz Week. "Part of that has to do with the fact that Huawei is exiting the remote MACPHY market.

"But beyond Comcast and a few other operators, there are limited DAA deployments going on right now. Most operators, particularly in the midst of COVID-19, have been maximizing the available license capacity on their existing CCAP platforms, as well as using the software tools available to them via DOCSIS 3.1."

Jeff Heynen, Dell'Oro Group

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Along with virtual converged cable access platforms (CCAP), which Comcast has deployed on a limited basis, some cable operators are looking at DAA as the starting point for virtualized networks and software-defined networking. DAA also drives cable operators' transition to all IP services, which in turn helps them orchestrate and activate all of the services from a converged infrastructure.

Cox Communications' Jeff Finkelstein, executive director of advanced technologies and a panelist on The Future of Access Networks panel, expects some movement on DAA over the coming years because it's key to the cable industry.

"Distributed access architectures, whether remote PHY or remote MAC-PHY, are one of the building blocks for future cable technologies," Finkelstein said. "As an industry we are moving toward that future vision by making incremental investments into our networks by improving our fiber capabilities with DWDM and coherent optics to increase capacity on our converged interconnect networks (CIN) enabling wide-scale deployment of DAA technologies."

Aside from other priorities at the start of this year, DAA has also been hamstrung over the past few years by the integration of the various solutions.

"Much work has been done prior to the current year to reduce the complexity and risk of deploying DAA," Finkelstein said. "I expect that we will see a significant increase in these deployments as we move into the mid 2020s. Taking advantage of digital optics, RF modulation and demodulation closer to the customer, and increased fiber capacity is the cornerstone for building the DOCSIS 4.0 network of the future.

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"Our (broadband access) plans include increasing capacity in our CIN network using DWDM and OCML technologies, increasing more upstream capacity by adding OFDMA channels and moving to a mid-split, preparing the network for 1.8 GHz by completing testing and field trials of related outside plant components, and adding more downstream capacity by increasing our use of OFDM. We believe this will keep us well ahead of the utilization curve to meet customer demands," said Finkelstein.

According to Heynen's recent research, total broadband access equipment revenue dropped 15% year-over-year in the first quarter to $2.5 billion. The first quarter for the cable access concentrator sector, which includes DOCIS infrastructure technologies such as converged CCAP, virtual CCAP licenses and DAA, was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted supply chains throughout Asia-Pacific.

"DOCSIS has proven itself to be capable of handling many different scenarios and has handled the current high usage the shelter-in-place for work and education very well," Finkelstein said. "Worldwide there have been a small number of performance impacts, which have been handled by business-as-usual activities by cable operators. This shows the years of hard work by operators, CableLabs, and vendors has placed the cable community in a very strong position to meet customer demands today and into the future.

"As part of meeting the projected future needs many operators have accelerated cable improvements including mid-split, high-split, node splits, and adding additional channels to provide the bandwidth needed for home work and schooling.

In the first quarter, total cable access concentrator revenue decreased by 22% year-over-year to $211 million, mainly driven by a slowdown in CCAP license purchases in North America. The need for increased speeds and more availability will eventually win out over the current macroeconomic slowdown, according to Heynen, but it could take until the second half of this year before there's a sustained rebound.