Retail Access to DOCSIS 3.0 Modems Could Prove Boon to Cable Wideband

Floyd Wagoner, global product director, access network solutions, Motorola

Floyd Wagoner, global product director, access network solutions, Motorola

August 31, 2009 – Cable industry wideband service at 50 megabits per second or above recently received an important boost toward entering the mainstream with Motorola’s introduction of its DOCSIS 3.0 modems in major retail chains across the country.

For the first time consumers have the option to purchase from Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics, Radio Shack and other brick-and-mortar outlets cable modems that offer a one gigabit Ethernet port in combination with support for four-channel bonding over downstream and upstream channels, which could greatly assist cable operators in their efforts to pump consumer awareness of broadband. The SB6120 modems, priced at $99.99, are also available over online outlets, including Amazon.com and Motorola’s own retail Web store.

“We’re at the cutting edge as the only supplier of DOCSIS 3.0 technology in the retail space today,” says Chris Kohler, a senior director of engineering at Motorola. “You’ll find these modems available through all these retailers’ outlets in North America.”

Kohler, noting the modems are CableLabs certified to work with any vendor’s DOCSIS platform, says the move to retail leverages refinements developed in deployments with cable operators worldwide, including the remote configuration capabilities that underlie service assurance for retail purchasers. Backward compatibility with DOCSIS 1.1 and 2.0 together with the relatively low price point provides consumers and businesses who want the gigabit Ethernet premises networking capability an incentive to go to DOCSIS 3.0, even if wideband isn’t yet offered in their markets, Kohler adds.

“Consumers see the modem on the shelf and the opportunity to future-proof for DOCSIS 3.0 when their operators launch the service,” he says. “We don’t provide sales figures, but I can tell you that at every retail outlet we’ve been supplying modems to, the response has been overwhelming. We’re definitely meeting our expectations.”

This is the case even in areas where operators don’t discount service to subscribers who purchase their own modems, he adds. “Availability is not dependent on whether the operator offers incentives for people to buy their own modems,” he says, noting that modems provided as part of the service fee typically do not have gigE ports.

With successful early sales results for its retail-distributed DOCSIS 3.0 modem Motorola is gearing up to introduce additional advanced broadband cable gateway CPE devices. “Motorola is very bullish on the concept of the gateway product family,” Kohler says.

These include a 3.0 product supporting two-line voice-over-IP connectivity, a gateway with four gigE ports and IEEE 802.11n routing (the high-speed version of Wi-Fi) and a media gateway that supports conversion of digital TV QAM (quadrature amplitude modulated) channels to IP for distribution of content to PCs, portable playback devices, handhelds and even low-cost IP set-tops.

“We are doing joint development work with Virgin Media on the media gateway,” Kohler says. “They’re one of the leading operators in the world that has embraced the concept of the media gateway, and they’ve approached Motorola to work exclusively on development of the CPE.”

In the U.S. Time Warner Cable has become a proponent of this type of device. Motorola is working with this MSO as well, though not on an exclusive device. There is widespread interest among other U.S. MSOs, which are watching how things unfold with TWC rather than undertaking their own development efforts, Kohler says. “We’re talking with them as well,” he adds, “but they’re largely aligning with TWC.”

Virgin and TWC are looking at possibly doing lab trials of the gateway concept in 2010, but nothing has been firmed up, he says. No dates for commercialization have been set.

Motorola is taking an aggressive approach in the next-gen CPE retail space as it sees demand growing for DOCSIS 3.0 hardware, including its own DOCSIS 3.0 CMTS (cable modem termination system). In its first announced supply of the platform to an operator in North America, the company is supporting Calgary-based Canadian operator Shaw Communications’ rollout of the first 100 mbps service on the continent.

“Shaw exemplifies the strategy taking shape in many operators’ minds where launching DOCSIS 3.0 service isn’t just a matter of responding to competitive pressures from fiber-to-the-home services offered by telcos,” says Floyd Wagoner, global product director for Motorola’s access network solutions. “It’s about gaining first-mover advantage, which is also a key to the strategy we’re seeing with Virgin Media in the U.K.” Motorola is one of the suppliers to Virgin Media’s bonded-channel offering, which touts a top speed of 200 mbps.

The sense of just how big a factor first-mover advantage can be has been on evidence ever since Japan’s NTT launched 100 mbps fiber service in mid 2001, which eventually prompted Jupiter Communications, the largest cable operator in the country, to become one of the first cable operators anywhere to implement DOCSIS 3.0 service. “You could argue that in Asia the practical reality of somebody using 100 megabits of average throughput doesn’t exist,” Wagoner says. “But it’s really more of a marketing war that’s been playing out there and which is now playing out in Europe and North America.”

The more people hear about the fact that, here and there, 50, 100 or even 200 mbps service is coming available, the more impact the first-mover advantage will have in markets where such services don’t exist, Wagoner adds. And now that Verizon and other telcos outside the U.S. are beginning to promote symmetrical 50 mbps broadband over fiber-to-the-home networks, the ultra broadband marketing strategy needs to take the upstream capacity into account, he notes.

Motorola’s pursuit of next-generation CMTS business is greatly aided by the fact that its integrated CMTS (I-CMTS) architecture allows operators to experience significant efficiency gains whether or not they choose to immediately implement DOCSIS 3.0 bonding, Wagoner says. “With DOCSIS 3.0 the bulk of the reason we’re seeing success is the demand for our high-density TX32 solution, which delivers a huge amount of capacity packed into a single card slot on our BSR 64000 CMTS to address growth in bandwidth demand over unbonded channels,” he explains.

“And if for competitive or other reasons you want to go to channel bonding,” he adds, “you can do that with a software upgrade. You can channel bond on the 64000 without using the TX32, of course, but this high-density capacity has given us that swing in the marketplace.”

Wagoner notes the TX32 requires one slot in the BSR 64000 to support delivery of up to 32 downstream QAM (quadrature amplitude modulated) channels at a cost savings of up to 60 percent per downstream channel in comparison to other approaches. All of Motorola’s customers for the TX32 in Asia are using it in conjunction with bonded channel offerings, and many in Europe are as well, he says.

“Our card has now been through lab and field trial processes with a number of North American operators, so we expect to see the TX32 going into service in conjunction with DOCSIS 3.0 rollouts in the near future,” he adds. The company reported in February that its customers had deployed 1,000 TX32 cards worldwide. That number has now doubled, according to Wagoner.

Where upstream connectivity is concerned, Wagoner hints there are more shoes to drop that will provide operators great efficiencies on the upstream. One of these, as demonstrated at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association Convention in April, entails use of a technique known as S-CDMA (Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access) to suppress the types of interference that impede cable operators’ use of the spectrum below 15 MHz in the upstream path. Although it was included as part of the DOCSIS 2.0 specifications, S-CDMA was not widely implemented at a time when operators found there was sufficient bandwidth above 15 MHz to accommodate upstream demand. Now, with upstream bandwidth consumption on the rise, Motorola’s support for opening this lower tier spectrum promises to expand total upstream bandwidth to 150 mbps or better, according to company engineers.

“Data we’ve gleaned from one of our customers covering a sample of 10,000 households show the bandwidth requirement from mid 2007 to 2008 rose by 17 percent during average usage periods and by 24 percent in peak periods,” Wagoner says. “Operators’ first moves will be to address the average capacity requirements and then add channel bonding to provide more flexibility to cover peak periods. Our solutions will address these new requirements in the upstream.”

The battle for cable broadband business among the top suppliers of CMTSs is fierce, with Cisco Systems, provider of a modular CMTS (M-CMTS) approach to DOCSIS 3.0, still in the lead in terms of total ports for all DOCSIS generations. But some operators prefer I-CMTS solutions, which means they’re turning to Motorola, Arris and other I-CMTS suppliers for DOCSIS 3.0 support, resulting in some erosion in overall market share for Cisco, according to recent research conducted by Infonetics Research. As reported in August (p. 1), Cisco has plans to introduce an I-CMTS solution for DOCSIS 3.0 in the near future.