Derek Kelly, Lumos’ VP of market development, went as far as to say that “fiber is always the answer,” and suggested cable alternatives will not stand the test of time. Kelly claimed that as $42.5 billion is set to roll out through the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, relying on investments in fiber will provide stability over the next 15 years.
“I think we’ve all seen DSL and fixed wireless projects get funded over the last couple of years. And then what happens? Those areas ultimately become blocked from future funding until the definitions change. And then they become available for another grant. And we see public dollars going on top of previous public dollars.” Kelly said. He noted Lumos defines “unserved being no cable, underserved means they’re stuck with cable. And then there’s everyone else that has life-changing fiber. So we don’t care about speeds at this point.”
While acknowledging the need for funding in areas without even cable access, he noted another large-scale program after the BEAD initiative is unlikely. “Cable modems aren’t going to keep up with these definitions forever. Their lobbyists aren’t going to be able to convince people forever just make sure that they just barely can meet the definition of unserved,” he said. “We have communities that don’t have access to fiber. The FCC and NTIA may consider them as served today. And I agree the funding should go to areas that don’t even have cable yet, but the time is coming, where cable is going to be what’s unserved or underserved.”
Fiber execs mostly targeted cable’s “Achilles heel,” which is its lacking symmetric speed capabilities (upstream and downstream).
AT&T Fiber’s EVP Chris Sambar told a large keynote audience, “Don’t ask cable about symmetrical speeds, they don’t even know what that means.” In an earlier blog post, he wrote, “Fiber is superior technology for things like uploading large files and increased bandwidth. It delivers an amazing experience, with multi-gig speeds and equally fast up- and downlinks. It’s also critical for powering technologies like 5G (backhaul) and edge computing (fiber access for ultra low latency). And with a far superior upgradeable capacity to handle soaring demand for high-quality bandwidth well into the future.”
However, Jay Lee, CTO of ATX Networks said that cable operators are “right in the throes” of upgrading their networks to get to full DOCSIS 3.1, and that high-split type of architecture will allow them to achieve competitive speeds in the upstream. “Their downstream is probably two gigabits per second now and there’s a line of sight to be more than that,” he said. “Is it 10 Gig PON? No. But it’s still in that gig threshold that I think is as important from a consumer standpoint,” he added.
The next plan phase for cable is to move up to DOCSIS 4.0, which starts to get toward multi-gigabit upstream and five-plus in the downstream, sometimes upwards of 10 in the downstream. Lee noted that plenty of cable companies are doing “lots” of their own fiber buildouts. “Some of the statements made on cable were like ‘they can’t do anything about it’ and certainly they can. DOCSIS 3.1 high-split is just the start.”
Jeff Heynen, VP at Dell’Oro Group echoed Lee’s comments, noting that current DOCSIS 3.1 mid-split can deliver 2 Gbps downstream and up to 200 Mbps upstream, which is what Comcast is offering today. Charter and Cox’s high-split offerings can go even further, delivering 2 Gbps downstream and up to 1 Gbps upstream.
A recent interoperability test conducted by Cable Labs showed that DOCSIS 4.0 modems paired with CCAP and vCMTS platforms in high-split configurations could deliver up to 8.6 Gbps downstream and 1.5 Gbps upstream. Cable operators have claimed DOCSIS 4.0 modems should become available later this year, with volumes in 2024. Those downstream speeds would give cable “very comparable service tiers to most fiber providers,” Heynen said. “And this is before the outside plant is upgraded to DOCSIS 4.0, which will be capable of delivering up to 10 Gbps down and 6 Gbps up.” However, other analysts have hinted that DOCSIS 4.0 rollouts will take longer than cable companies are saying.