DOCSIS 3.1: One Big Change ... Among Many

BTR_Feature_Art_DOCSIS-9-3-13 The cable industry is looking forward to DOCSIS 3.1, which features new modulation schemes, expansive channel bonding and other advances. The bottom line is that the next iteration of DOCSIS will provide heaps of additional capacity in both the upstream and downstream. While that's promising for the industry's future, observers caution operators that it is a long-term transition that will play out amidst other dramatic changes to how the industry distributes its data.

This story will look at some of the timing and related issues from a higher level. Next week, Broadband Technology Report will look at some system level issues related to the transition to the higher capacity - and more demanding - standard.

DOCSIS 3.1 promises 10 Gbps downstream and 1 Gbps or more upstream. It will be a tremendous weapon for operators struggling to handle growing demand and fighting street-by-street battles with telcos. The challenge is managing the multi-year journey from today's DOCSIS to tomorrow's. "There is no question that the transition is a concern for the MSOs we’ve spoken to, and to our customers, who are the equipment vendors," said James Martin, the director of business development for Anadigics' (NASDAQ:ANAD) infrastructure business unit.

DOCSIS 3.1 alone means significant changes for cable operators. The spec brings new modulation schemes - orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) in the downstream and orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) in the upstream - as well as an enlarged upstream spectrum path.

Those are big changes. DOCSIS 3.1, however, is only part of a larger transition the industry is undertaking. There are two other parallel shifts: In addition to moving from DOCSIS 3.0 to 3.1, the industry is transitioning from discrete video and data infrastructures to the Converged Cable Access Platform ( CCAP) and from set-top boxes to gateways. Cable operators long have been adept at seamlessly evolving their platforms. The next few years will test those skills.

In terms of the DOCSIS element of the trio of transitions, customer premises equipment (CPE) with DOCSIS 3.1 functionality will roll out first. DOCSIS 3.1 line cards - whether in legacy CMTSs or in CCAP devices - will follow and work with the pioneering CPE. The first step will be to trigger the DOCSIS 3.1 downstream, which will be followed by tests of the OFDMA upstream, said Daniel Howard, the senior vice president of engineering and CTO for the SCTE.

The transition from DOCSIS 3.0 to 3.1 line cards probably will first happen in the commercial services sector where capacity demands are the greatest, Howard said.

These steps will be joined at the hip with the move to CCAP. "Everyone is asking when your CCAP product will support DOCSIS 3.1 and how," said Mark Sumner, the vice president of marketing and business development for Casa Systems. "It is very much on the mind of operators as they look down the road. They all ask about it."

The industry has time to work this all through. The DOCSIS 3.1 spec isn't ready. Tom Dunleavy, the senior director of product management and marketing for ARRIS (NASDAQ: ARRS), said prototype CPE may be available in 2015. The SCTE's Howard said the finalized spec will be released by the end of this year and the certification process likely will start in late 2014 or early 2015.

At that point - whenever it comes - the industry will begin considering the full implementation of DOCSIS 3.1, though legacy versions of DOCSIS still will be supported. "The last step in the process is switching over entirely to 3.1 throughout the network," Howard said. "Then you have the possibility of upgrading the plant itself, moving node split points for greater upstream capacity or potentially increasing the downstream."

While the transition no doubt will be driven by operator needs, the orientation of the vendor will have impact as well. At The Cable Show this spring in Washington, DC, Dr. Tom Cloonan, the CTO of network solutions for ARRIS, said at a breakfast presentation sponsored by BTR that there are several variations in the order in which vendors will add features to CCAP platforms. For instance, vendors who approach the market from the video side - through edge QAM devices - may add DOCSIS 3.1 relatively late in the process. That seems to fit nicely with the fact that the transition to CCAP is ahead of the transition to DOCSIS 3.1.

The cable industry - both at the business and technical levels - always is in a state of change. The next few years will be particularly tricky as operators adjust to a radically different world of voice, video and data delivery. The key is to be aware of that change and to put plans in place to make the inherently challenging transition as smooth as possible.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at

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