Expo 2015 Lessons Learned

BTR Managing Editor Ron Hendrickson Now that SCTE Cable-Tec Expo 2015 has gone into the record books, what have we learned?

(Caveat: This is just what I learned, based on 30+ interviews with vendors and operators at the show, an admittedly small sampling. Your mileage may vary.)

Easily the two biggest themes in New Orleans, other than beignets and Bourbon Street, were gigabit and virtualization. Broadly speaking, gigabit is big and is driving lots of other things, while virtualization is interesting, but none too easy to nail down.

Before wading into the mud and the blood and the beer, let's look at some of the numbers from this year's Expo.

Attendance at this year's conference in New Orleans was more than 8,600, an increase of 5% over Expo's last appearance in New Orleans in 2010, but down from 9,100 at last year's Expo in Denver and 9,800 at Expo 2013 in Atlanta. New exhibitors this year totaled 66.

Whether these numbers are disappointing or encouraging is to a certain extent a matter of perspective.

Population-wise, New Orleans is a bit over half the size of Denver and nowhere near as cable-centric, so a drop there is understandable; in any given year, a lot of Expo attendees are local to the venue. Atlanta is half again New Orleans' size, but much more heavily weighted with cable companies; for example, Cox Communications is headquartered there, and several vendors, including Cisco, have a large presence in Atlanta. So apples to strawberries to cantaloupes.

The increase in new exhibitors this year was nice to see, particularly given recent industry consolidation during which bunches of vendors have been gobbled up by their larger brethren. The increase stems largely from the injection (some might say "intrusion") into the cable space of numerous startups and other companies whose roots lie in other industries such as computing, broadcast and OTT. The infusion of new blood, so to speak, may be uncomfortable right now, but it'll be good for the industry in the long run.

Tech-wise, two themes overarched all others at this year's show: gigabit Internet and the virtualization of network functions.


While gigabit residential Internet services remain somewhat thin (but growing) on the ground, they're heavy on hype and are tending to drive movement in several areas.

DOCSIS 3.1, for example, is eagerly awaited by cable ops who want to offer gigabit without having to run fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). D3.1, though moving at unprecedented speed, still can't get here fast enough. A number of products have been released that are built to the new spec (for example, Hitron and ARRIS both showcased D3.1 modems at Expo), but none have been certified by CableLabs yet, and the spec itself still isn't finalized. That's not as dire as it sounds, though; the expected remaining tweaks are few, and in many cases with products, getting to "final-final" can require no more than a firmware upgrade.

Similarly, gigabit pressure is causing movement in fiber technologies for cable operators. Rather than requiring wholesale "rip and replace" with an entirely new physical infrastructure and logical architecture (with all the attendant costs and headaches therefrom), recent fiber advances tend to focus on adapting to cable ops' existing networks rather than replacing them with adaptations from the telco or long-haul fiber worlds. For example, some remote-PHY adaptations of CCAP are designed such that FTTH can be deployed from the remote-PHY node without having to replace everything from the node back to the headend, which amounts to considerable cost savings, both in plant and re-training.

Since DOCSIS 3.1 is still "soon" but not yet here, some cable ops are going straight to FTTH where it makes sense to do so. Suddenlink's Corporate Vice President of Technical Operations Andy Parrott said his company is building FTTH in its greenfield projects, which is helping to advance its "Operation Gigaspeed" plan, under which 90% of Suddenlink's markets are scheduled to have gigabit access by the end of 2017. At INTX, Cox Communications EVP and CTO Kevin Hart said his company is pursuing a similar approach, largely based on RFoG.

That said, I fully expect to be writing about DOCSIS 27 when I eventually die at my desk.


Though nearly every vendor and operator I spoke with at the show mentioned virtualization, opinions on it varied widely, suggesting that the industry hasn't quite got its arms around the thing yet. It's a little like when Apple's Steve Jobs first showed the iPad to cable operators: "What's it do?" they asked. "Whatever you want," Jobs answered. Now as then, we need a little more detail.

The trick with virtualization is less what you can do than what you should. What you can do is more or less limitless, so long as it's in the IP realm. And its allure is strong: cheap off-the-shelf servers, or even cloud stuff a la AWS, and global updates via a mouse click rather than endless man-hours, forklift time and dedicated (and perhaps soon-to-be obsolete) hardware. That brings us to the "should" question. In practical terms today, "can vs. should" translates into cost differential. For example, it makes sense to virtualize an IP-PBX, but maybe not generic (and therefore cheap) x86 chip functionality for CPE. There's also the matter of throughput, particularly for cloud-based functions and services.

Exactly where this trend is headed remains to be seen, but it's a safe bet that cable ops will pursue it wherever it makes sense. For example, CableLabs has a number of virtualization and network evolution projects running, and announced yesterday that it will be participating in the upcoming LSO Hackathon in Dallas to further those efforts.

For more on the takeaways from this year's Expo, please join yours truly and my colleague Stephen Hardy for our upcoming webcast on the topic this Thursday, Oct. 22, at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

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