Cable-Tec Expo kicks off with ironic moment, moves on to substance

Clockwise from top left CableLabs CEO Phil McKinney; Comcast Cable CEO Dave Watson; Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries; Charter CEO Tom Rutledge (Cable-Tec Expo screenshot)

One of those Covid-19 ironic events happened at the kickoff to the 2020 virtual Cable-Tec Expo this morning. Comcast’s President of Technology Tony Werner was interviewing NCTA President Michael Powell when Werner’s internet connection went out. That, in itself, is kind of embarrassing, considering that you would assume someone in Werner’s position would have a good internet connection. But to add to the irony, Werner was in the middle of bragging about how fantastic the cable industry has done during Covid and how much more vital wired networks have proven to be than wireless.

“The LTE and the wireless guys are making such a big deal out of 5G,” said Werner. “During Covid, Wi-Fi is carrying 15 times the amount of traffic than LTE is. I guarantee you that 10G will be carrying more than that times whatever 5G carries. The networks have done really well.” [and then he cut out]

Poor Powell was left to ad lib for a few minutes until Werner came back.

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When his connection resumed, Werner joked, “I happened to be on LTE here, and so I dropped for a minute or two.”

CEO panel

After the glitch, the conference got into substance when the heads of Comcast Cable, Charter and Liberty Global started talking about their experiences managing their networks during Covid.

The CEO of Comcast Cable Dave Watson said the consistent investment the company has made in its network over many years allowed it to meet the moment. “We installed a bunch of 100 gig links in record time,” he said, attributing this speed to the fact that the company has been implementing artificial intelligence to provide “just-in-time flexibility around capacity.”

RELATED: Comcast's Roberts: Broadband business is booming and not just because of Covid-19

Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries, representing international broadband on the panel, said, “We had a bigger uptick in six weeks than we’d seen in six years on the upstream. It’s put a bright light on all the things that went well. Always pushing and ramping speeds has paid off.”

Charter CEO Tom Rutledge touted the company’s rollout of Docsis 3.1 over the last few years. “We have 1 gig in front of 51 million homes passed available in the U.S.,” said Rutledge. “I think there’s a lot more capacity in 3.1 than we’ve realized today. You can change the architecture of your upstream, along with using more downstream for 3.1 capability. For years, I think we’ll be able to invest in 3.1 and get tremendous capacity increases.”

Rutledge also said Charter plans to work with Cable Labs on the development of Docsis 4.0 “to take the existing capacity up to 10G.”

10G is a target the cable industry has set to achieve symmetrical 10 Gbps speed on their broadband networks. As Charter CTO Stephanie Mitchko-Beale said today from Cable-Tec Expo, “10G is a portfolio of technologies that will deliver speeds 10 times faster than today’s cable networks.”

RELATED: While 10G is cable's future, better upstream speeds are its present

Rutledge didn’t seem to have a time-frame for Docsis 4.0. He said he wants "a ubiquitous deployment” that will require a lot of planning. “I think the big issue is how to operationalize the upgrades that will be required as you spend the capital to get a widely deployed universe,” he said. “I still think there’s an enormous capacity in 3.1.”

Leaping ahead to fiber 

Fries said that fiber overbuilding is a lot more intense in Europe than it is in the United States. “There’s a lot of runway in 3.1, unfortunately the runways are a lot shorter in Europe,” said Fries. We’re 3.1 across 33 million homes across the footprint, and it’s delivering brilliantly. But there’s a lot of fiber in Europe; 50% is an average number in Europe. For us, it’s about how quickly and cost-efficiently we can get to 10G. I’m competing in Switzerland with multiple operators offering 10 Gig.”

Fries said Liberty is looking at Docsis 4.0, but it’s also looking at more fiber-to-the-home. “We’re totally behind 4.0; it will probably be our default. But the proposition of FTTH is starting to creep in,” he said.

Rutledge said the Covid crisis has highlighted the fact that networks “need to have some headroom.” He said Charter is continually looking at its capacity needs and forecasting those going out a number of years because it takes time and capex to build the physical infrastructure.

In terms of fiber Rutledge said Charter is “building a lot of fiber-only plant on the increment,” but he pointed out that massive fiber builds in the U.S. are going to require some new construction companies. “That’s becoming clearer to me every day. Relative to all the construction that’s taken place, it’s daunting if you do the math when you think about all the people that will be needed.”

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