A New Prerequisite for a Modern Cable Communications Architecture

March 21, 2018
Market dynamics point to the need for a new prerequisite for a modern cable communications architecture - built on a principle of universal network design. This principal ensures all services converge onto one network and easily accommodates multiple classes of services. The primary question is: "How is this done?" The answer: a universal network design approach in the fiber plant.

The cable industry began in the 1940s and 1950s to deliver television signals into remote areas. Antennas were placed in advantageous locations, and the signals were distributed along coaxial cable lines to local homes. As technology developed and cable systems grew in size and number, the coaxial cable lines remained in place to offer a wide range of voice, video and data packages. Direct competition for customers intensified over time as ILECs began aggressively rolling out broadband networks over copper and fiber. Rapid advancements and changes in how consumers used technology created a unique race for developing the most attractive service for consumers.

Today's cable companies face new business and operational pressures. Increased competition from over-the-top (OTT) video services puts significant pressure on top-line revenue. Furthermore, a constant increase in content costs adversely affects profitability. Pressure to develop the most advanced app-based platforms dominates the headlines for many cable operators. Cable networks are often proprietary, yielding inflexible architecture options that are costly to design and customize. They are marked by heavy labor requirements and are time consuming to turn up.

On a positive side, most cable operators are using more fiber-optic networks to keep up with consumer demand and reduce operational expenses. The Internet of Things (IoT), in many of its forms, combined with customers' focus on mobility and high network performance are driving the need for 5G mobile network implementations. Filling this need provides great revenue potential for cable operators, as 5G will require dramatically more fiber deployments—especially for fronthaul/backhaul of remote radios. The 5G fronthaul/backhaul services are expected to be in high demand and profitable—provided the new fiber-rich network architecture addresses key operational challenges and removes historical obstacles.

These market dynamics point to the need for a new prerequisite for a modern cable communications architecture - built on a principle of universal network design. This principal ensures all services converge onto one network and easily accommodates multiple classes of services. "Fiber Deep" or "One Fiber" are examples of this direction. These initiatives push fiber close to the end-user and yield future-proof networks, faster services and lower turn-up time as well as lower operational expense and total cost of ownership.

The primary question is: "How is this done?" As companies look to dramatically increase fiber throughout the entire network, how can they mitigate business and operational risks and remove obstacles to a successful network buildout? The answer: a universal network design approach in the fiber plant.

Plugging into plug and play

Let us look at what is happening with communications equipment vendors and the support of software-defined networking (SDN) to remove the need for proprietary, monolithic, chassis-based platforms. Can physical layer companies learn anything here? We fully believe the answer is yes. By applying principles similar to those found in SDN – interoperability, software automation, open application programmable interfaces (APIs) and other interfaces – cable operators can decrease the need to be tied to a specific vendor or product family. This is also the hallmark of plug-and-play techniques found in physical fiber management platforms. Industry standards-based plug-and-play technology in the network creates a physical network design that precisely focuses on resolving key challenges in the network buildout – lowering labor expenses and ensuring faster time-to-revenue.

Labor makes up about 70% of the overall build costs in a fiber-to-the-home network. As fiber gets closer to the end user, labor costs tend to increase. Plug-and-play technology can combat this trend, first because it simplifies labor requirements by removing splicing activity in the universal design – specifically in the distribution and fiber drop areas from the outside plant to the customer premises. Plug-and-play removes the need for highly trained technicians and splicing equipment at the remote end. Labor is not removed, but it is optimized. Plug-and-play technology lowers the amount of skill required to do the final connection at the home and dramatically quickens service turn-up. Faster time-to-revenue and minimal breakeven time enables cable operators to offer services more quickly than the competitor and win the race to "share of wallet."

Finally, cable operators can reduce maintenance costs and downtime by using restorable fiber products, such as microducts that protect the fiber pathway. Operators could use a fiber cable that combines the fiber-optic core along with cladding and protection as a single unit. But if that fiber cable is cut, the entire fiber cable segment must be replaced. A better approach uses microducts that allow non-intrusive, minimum interruption pushable optical fiber replacement in the event of a fiber cut. Downtime is shortened to the minimum and the fix is permanent – improving the overall customer experience.

The cable market is taking its place in the fiber feeding frenzy. Applying a universal network design methodology will ensure that the cable industry is ready to unlock the unprecedented potential to build seamless digital ecosystems for the future.

Kevin Morgan is chair-elect of the Fiber Broadband Association and chief marketing officer of Clearfield, Inc., the preferred supplier specialist in fiber management and connectivity platforms for communication service providers. Morgan has served in various senior marketing positions since 1996 at ADTRAN, Inc. where he gained extensive experience in advanced communications technology, fiber-optic systems and business product marketing. Before that, he spent nearly a decade at telephone operating company BellSouth, now a part of AT&T, where he worked as the lead product evaluations resource of broadband technologies in the Science & Technology department. Morgan also served in various leadership positions with the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Council Americas, including as a regular Board Member from 2011-16 and Chairman of the Board in 2015. Morgan received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Auburn University and an MBA from the University of Alabama.

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