Telco consultant says monolithic cable networks are a thing of the past

DOCSIS 4.0 is set to deliver faster speeds for cable network operators, but the next generation technology will also spur an operational sea change, telecom consultant Sean McDevitt told Fierce.

McDevitt is a partner at Arthur D. Little, a management and consulting firm which was founded in 1896. The company has around 43 offices and 1,000 staff across the globe, and primarily works with clients to help them make growth and future-oriented decisions. McDevitt heads up its telecom, IT, media and electronics (TIME) practice in North America.

He said around 66% of TIME clients are service providers – the Comcasts, AT&Ts and Verizons of the world – with another 25% comprised of vendors and suppliers. The remainder of clients are financial investors, including private equity players which are buying assets in the telecom industry or funding overbuilders.

According to McDevitt, the cable community is taking a hard look at DOCSIS 4.0, weighing which of the two versions of the specification is best for them and what adoption will mean for network operations going forward.

“Historically, the cable industry had a ubiquitous mentality. DOCSIS 1.0 became 2.0 with 100% coverage and ubiquity to it,” he said, noting ubiquity refers to the idea that all subscribers in all nodes across the network have access to the same technology. “That mentality has carried forward as DOCSIS 2.0 became DOCSIS 3.0, and most people who have deployed DOCSIS 3.0 have now upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1 with pretty much ubiquity in mind.” But going forward “that’s with almost near certainty not going to be the case anymore.”

McDevitt said that’s in part because different operators in the cable industry will have different versions of DOCSIS 4.0 to choose from, not all areas will necessarily need DOCSIS 4.0 and more players are likely to begin rolling fiber out to a portion of their customers.

Today, most cable companies are “monolithic plants. Everybody’s got DOCSIS 3.1. When you roll a truck, whatever woman or man steps out of that truck knows exactly what they’re walking into,” he said. However, looking ahead DOCSIS 4.0 will likely be deployed to meet demand in cities and other high-traffic areas, but some places may remain on DOCSIS 3.1 “for a very long period of time” if those areas aren’t attractive for fiber overbuilders and the economics of an upgrade don’t make sense. And in certain key markets, cable operators may race to overbuild their own networks with fiber to head off threats from LECs and other third parties.

Thus, cable operators “are likely to be operating a multi-access technology network on a going forward basis.” As the industry weighs its next steps forward, that means the calculus involves not just technology decisions but also the need for “cultural change” as well.

Creating a roadmap for the future now is “actually very complex because it first off involves a lot of choices that are based on demand, economic attractiveness of the areas you deploy your network in, coupled with what’s actually happening on your competitive side and you have limited capital and these technology choices will be available to you over different periods of time than a ubiquitous one,” he concluded. “That exercise nationwide is complex and a lot of work to do.”