Fiber played a starring role at the SCTE Cable-Tec Show

Nov. 2, 2023
During the four-day cable event, cable operators, equipment vendors, standards experts, and research analysts spelled out the steps the industry takes to deploy fiber lines and various flavors of PON
Even as they begin to deploy DOCSIS 4.0 and continue to upgrade their legacy hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) networks, cable operators and vendors are embracing fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) architectures and PON technologies like never before.

That message resounded throughout the mammoth Colorado Convention Center at last month’s SCTE Cable-Tec Expo conference in downtown Denver.

In nearly a dozen sessions during the four-day tech extravaganza, cable operators, equipment vendors, standards experts, and research analysts spelled out the steps the industry is taking to deploy fiber lines and various flavors of PON throughout the United States, Canada, and Latin America.

MSOs take aim

For one, attendees heard from Damian Poltz, senior vice president of wireline networks at Rogers Communications. The major Canadian operator, which recently acquired fellow cableco Shaw Communications to become that nation’s largest cable and broadband provider, has rolled out XGS-PON over fiber lines to 450,000 homes passed in the Atlantic provinces over the past three years, even as Rogers has been prepping to deploy DOCSIS 4.0 over its legacy HFC network.

“We all love fiber,” Poltz declared during an Expo breakfast forum hosted by Light Reading about maxing out the cable HFC network. “We’re all fiber deployers, we all build fiber….[and] we have extensive fiber-to-the-home and fiber infrastructure ourselves.”

Speaking at the same forum as Poltz, Pao Lo, vice president of network engineering at Midco, related how the midsized operator is now conducting a small field trial of 25G PON over fiber lines in its Sioux Falls, S.D. market. The problem, which started during the summer, is slated to run at least into February 2024.

“We’re looking to expand on that next year in terms of going active with it,” Lo said. “As technologists, we must look for new things to be able to integrate into our portfolio and to remain competitive. It’s another tool in the tool kit.”  

Even top tech executives at Comcast ― which, during the show, announced its initial launches of DOCSIS 4.0 and symmetrical 2 Gig service in nearby Colorado Springs and in Philadelphia and Atlanta ― gave a solid nod to fiber at the convention. Speaking at the same breakfast forum as Poltz and Lo, Robert Howald, vice president of network architecture and a fellow at Comcast, noted that the operator’s ongoing nationwide rollout of Remote PHY, a version of Distributed Access Architecture (DAA) technology, allows it to deploy FTTH just as quickly as DOCSIS 4.0.

“This is the vision of Distributed Access Architecture coming to life,” said Howald, noting that Comcast has installed over 120,000 Remote PHY fiber-optic nodes throughout the country, up from 50,000 a year ago. “You could hang any last mile on that architecture – it could be a PON node, it could be an HFC DOCSIS node, it could be both simultaneously,” he said. “It traverses the same DAA infrastructure we put in place, whether the PON or the DOCSIS traffic. Both the DOCSIS side and the fiber-to-the-home sides are served by the same infrastructure.” 

A few hours later, Elad Nafshi, Comcast’s chief network officer, seconded that notion. Speaking at a separate Expo session, Nafshi said the most extensive U.S. cableco is already leveraging those new DAA-enabled digital fiber nodes to serve DOCSIS and FTTH customers interchangeably over the same virtualized architecture. “Who cares what’s inside the wire that delivers the services to the home?” Nafshi asked. “Whether it’s glass or coax, what difference does it make? ... The reality is that today, we already have thousands of customers in the field benefitting from this architecture, and that will scale massively next year as we continue to expand the deployment.”

Preparing for PON

Although they insisted that DOCSIS technology over HFC lines still has plenty of legs, many cable technologists at the show also freely conceded that PON over FTTH lines will inevitably win out. They noted that it’s more a question of when, not if.

“Of course, we all know over time. Eventually, we’re all going to be fiber operators,” said Colin Howlett, chief technology officer at Vecima, speaking at the Light Reading breakfast. “There’s a spectrum of change coming. There’s a bright future where PON is going beyond the 10 Gigs.”

Stefaan Vanhastel, vice president of marketing and innovation for fixed networks at Nokia, agreed with that assessment. Speaking in a separate session, he urged cable operators to prepare for the transition to FTTH now rather than wait any longer. “There’s a lot of life in cable yet,” he acknowledged. “But that means that as an industry, we need to make sure that it’s straightforward and streamlined for an operator to mix DOCSIS with GPON-based technologies and evolution.”

Consistent with that reasoning, several vendors demonstrated their fiber and PON prowess at the show. Vecima, for instance, unveiled its new 1.8GHz Entra EN8400 and SC204 “forever” nodes, designed to support DAA and work on DOCSIS 4.0 and PON-based networks.

Other top vendor technologists went further than Howlett and Vanhastel, arguing that the industry’s necessary transition to FTTH and next-gen PON is already well underway. “I think it [cable moving to 10G fiber] has already started to happen,” said Dan Gledhill, senior vice president of operations for Harmonic. “I would expect, at least in the U.S., all cable operators to have a fiber solution they can deploy incrementally in the next 12 months.”

At the show, other technologists from traditional cable equipment suppliers offered a starker message about the fiber future. They warned cablecos that they had better start pivoting quickly to fiber to survive the potentially decade-long “dogfight” looming in the already hotly contested broadband market.

Although DOCSIS over HFC still commands more than 60% of broadband subscribers in North America, “the enemies are at the gates, as they say, ramping up interesting offers based on all-fiber access and fixed wireless access,” said Fernando Villaruel, chief architect of Ciena, in another Expo session. “We must continue to compete, and that path looks like it will be fiber.”

Speaking in the same session as Villaruel, Ed Boyd, vice president of PON R&D at Ciena, argued that cablecos should aggressively deploy FTTH in their regions before any would-be rivals decide to swoop in with their fiber builds. “Once you’ve pulled that fiber, you have the golden connection,” Boyd said. “You should be able to block anyone from overbuilding once you pull that fiber.”

In the same session, Vanhastel pointed out that service providers have deployed XGS-PON over fiber lines in more than 150 regions worldwide. Thanks mainly to such deployments, he said, there are now more than 90 multi-gig networks operating across the planet. “XGS-PON is quickly becoming the mainstream technology,” he said, noting that “95% of what we ship in the U.S. is XGS-PON…. The U.S. is certainly the leading country in this regard.”

Leading industry analysts echoed that message as well. Speaking on the same panel as Villaruel, Boyd, and Vanhastel, Julie Kunstler, chief analyst at Omdia, said the die has already been cast for fiber and next-gen PON. “FTTH or FTTP is growing, and it will continue to grow, thanks to BEAD financing along with other government programs and private investment,” Kunstler said. “Most operators in North America today are deploying XGS-PON, especially in Greenfields.”

Not surprisingly, then, industry analysts and other observers viewed Cable-Tec Expo as at least as much a fiber and PON show as it is a cable and DOCSIS event despite the various DOCSIS 4.0, DAA, and related cable tech announcements. 

“For me, [the show was about] how much PON that we’re seeing and the embrace of fiber for operators’ strategies,” said Jaimie Lenderman, a research manager and principal analyst at Omdia, speaking on a Light Reading podcast during the conference. “Many traditional cable vendors have moved into the fiber space and have exciting solutions. But also, we’re seeing vendors coming into the cable ecosystem that maybe were traditionally only in the telco side…. to catch some of the momentum that’s happening.” 

Standards organization support

Even CableLabs executives, who have been setting the HFC, DOCSIS, and other tech standards for the cable industry for more than four decades, did not attempt to buck the fiber/PON trend at the conference. Instead, they welcomed it, using a special Expo session to announce a historic initiative to support FTTP builds and rollouts of XGS-PON (also known as ITU-based PON) by cablecos with new tech standards.

Curtis Knittle, vice president of wired technologies at CableLabs, explained that the standards group has been crafting the fiber-friendly initiative for the last six months or so after holding summits with the first ten major fiber vendors and then eight to 10 operators to discuss the FTTP challenges they face. 

“We’re announcing a renewed focus on FTTP and a corresponding shift in our resources to support it at CableLabs and Kyrio,” said Knittle, who also spoke at our Fiber Connect show in Orlando in August. “We want to create efficiencies for deploying ITU PON for cable operators. We intend to leverage what we can, modify what we need to, and create what we must.”

Such a renewed focus on fiber makes sense, given the prospect of steady subscriber losses for the cable industry if it doesn’t adapt to the changing market dynamics. Kunstler probably summed it up best in her panel closing statement.

“Once customers are on fiber, whether point-to-point or point-to-multipoint, their churn rate is very, very low, and it’s tough to win them back,” she said. “So once a cable operator loses to [a rival provider], whether it’s to Google Fiber, LEO, or whomever, it becomes costly to try to get them back.”

Gary Bolton is the president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association.

About the Author

Gary Bolton | President and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association

Gary Bolton is president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association.

Sponsored Recommendations

Data Center Interconnection

June 18, 2024
Join us for an interactive discussion on the growing data center interconnection market. Learn about the role of coherent pluggable optics, new connectivity technologies, and ...

The Pluggable Transceiver Revolution

May 30, 2024
Discover the revolution of pluggable transceivers in our upcoming webinar, where we delve into the advancements propelling 400G and 800G coherent optics. Learn how these innovations...

The Journey to 1.6 Terabit Ethernet

May 24, 2024
Embark on a journey into the future of connectivity as the leaders of the IEEE P802.3dj Task Force unveil the groundbreaking strides towards 1.6 Terabit Ethernet, revolutionizing...

From 100G to 1.6T: Navigating Timing in the New Era of High-Speed Optical Networks

Feb. 19, 2024
Discover the dynamic landscape of hyperscale data centers as they embrace accelerated AI/ML growth, propelling a transition from 100G to 400G and even 800G optical connectivity...