Liberty Global CEO says it's not done with DOCSIS – yet

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Liberty Global CEO Michael Fries noted “we have multiple paths to 10-gig in every market.” (Liberty Global)

Liberty Global CEO Michael Fries insisted cable and DOCSIS technology will continue to play a key role in its networks for years to come, after Virgin Media O2, the company’s U.K. joint venture with BT, unveiled a plan to transition to full fiber-to-the-premises.

During Liberty Global’s Q2 2021 earnings call, Fries stated cable technology “will continue to play a big role even in markets where we intend to upgrade to fiber."

He added it is "not decommissioning the cable network” in the U.K., but instead plans to use DOCSIS 3.1 to offer speeds up to 2.2 Gbps. “So we'll be at 2 gig pretty shortly here on the DOCSIS plant, and we'll continue to utilize that plant wherever and whenever necessary, with the fiber really being an overlay as opposed to a replacement of the coax network or the HFC component of the network anyway," he explained.

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Liberty Global operates in seven European countries, with 26 million homes passed. Fries warned its decision to push fiber to the premises in the U.K. shouldn’t be viewed as a signal of what it plans to do in other markets, pointing out “we have multiple paths to 10-gig in every market.” These include upgrading to DOCSIS 4.0, tapping into wholesale fiber or deploying its own fiber infrastructure. The decision of which course to pursue depends on the competitive environment in a given market and capex and other economic considerations associated with each option, he said.

For instance, while Fries said “Ireland looks a lot like the U.K. to us” he noted it will likely take a hybrid approach in Switzerland and pursue a “fiber-deep DOCSIS 4” strategy in the Netherlands.

Roger Timmerman, executive director of Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) Fiber, recently told Fierce DSL and cable “are already at the end of their life,” arguing operators are simply “trying to squeeze every last year out of that infrastructure.”

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On the call, Fries acknowledged there are drawbacks to pursuing cable. Specifically, he noted that while there is a clear path to 50 Gbps with fiber, the DOCSIS roadmap currently tops out at 10 Gbps.

But while fiber is the superior technology, analysts at New Street Research in an analysis of HFC vs fiber in Europe tipped the cable upgrade path to offer “a higher return on capital employed – both in the near-term and long-term”.

“So far in Europe, we have seen no substantial evidence that where FTTH goes head-to-head with HFC cable, FTTH has been able to win material share,” they concluded.