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Networking events: what next for cable?

The European cable industry, as David to the telcos’ Goliath in infrastructure-based competition, has always been collegiately-minded, willing to share experiences and collaborate, for example by working towards technical standards that help reduce the cost of equipment by delivering scale.

Light Reading’s Cable Next Gen Europe event in London this week saw cable industry technologists gather to discuss technology roadmaps and share experience around the innovations that will enable the industry to compete with larger telecom giants.

For some, in truth, the very idea of a ‘cable industry gathering ‘is somewhat outdated. As the industry has consolidated, divisions have emerged between the big-time players and smaller operators. Larger operators are determining the technology roadmap to be followed by others, convergence between fixed and mobile operators is softening the demarcation between cable and other types of communication providers, while cable operators themselves are adopting a variety of technologies – not just coaxial cable – to extend their base of customers and better serve those they have.

The Cable Next Gen Europe event saw Vodafone group head of fixed development Nuno Sanches kick off proceedings by outlining his company’s plans to establish its cloud-based Vodafone TV platform as the single group-wide platform. Vodafone plans to ultimately migrate its entire TV base to the single cloud-based Vodafone TV platform, beginning with new subscribers in greenfield markets, followed by existing subscribers with a basic TV service.

The company has now launched TV services in five markets and is planning to move “every other Vodafone product to this platform in coming years and have a single product,” he said.

Mobile giant Vodafone, which delivers fixed services over multiple types of network in multiple markets, including large HFC cable footprints in Spain and Germany, could hardly be described as a ‘cable’ company as such. Its embrace of cloud technology to deliver TV makes perfect sense, enabling to transcend physical infrastructure and launch services quickly in new territories. Sanches said that Vodafone would move away from traditional set-top boxes where that makes sense and that he expected the box footprint to reduce. The company believes its value proposition is centred on delivering a superior user experience that matched consumers’ experience on mobile.

For the cable industry – in most of Europe traditionally a vehicle to deliver TV signals under a utility model – as for the telecom business more widely, video is now simply one application that can be delivered over a best-in-class broadband network. The key task for cable in this context is to keep up with rivals in terms of delivering faster and faster broadband.

Also present at Cable Next Gen Europe were Liberty Global senior technologists Mark Burns and Ade Brittain to talk through Liberty’s access network roadmap for the next few years – a presentation rich in references to cable-only technologies such as R-PHY, Virtual CCAP, Full Duplex DOCSIS and Extended Spectrum DOCSIS. One of cable’s big priorities now is to work towards the distributed access architecture that will give them much greater flexibility in the battle to compete on speed.

All of these are ways in which cable players with HFC networks can mitigate the cost of competing with rival telcos and stay ahead in the broadband race without ploughing limitless funds into digging the streets to bring fibre to the home. Some, such as Full Duplex DOCSIS, can enable HFC operators to deliver the same kind of symmetrical services that only fibre is capable of today. The main objection operators lodge to investing in this technology is that there is little, if any, demand for symmetrical bandwidth – except in the enterprise and government services markets, where operators may in any case prefer to pull fibre when required rather than invest too much time and effort in newfangled DOCSIS variants.

The promises of 1Gbps and symmetrical bandwidth are however potentially useful tools to deliver effective marketing messages and avoid the risk of appearing to be yesterday’s technology when fibre players can already offer these. (Operators are however also aware of the risk of overpromising even on downstream speeds when most customers’ in-home WiFi networks are incapable of delivering those speeds to end devices.)

In many markets fibre-to-the-home remains in short supply, of course, giving cable a window to compete on speed with telcos still trying to squeeze more bandwidth out of copper. However, this may not be the case in all markets forever. Also present at Cable Next Gen Europe was Greg Mesch, the outspoken boss of the UK’s CityFibre, which recently announced plans to spend a further £2.5 billion (€2.9 billion) building fibre networks across the UK’s major cities in a wholesale model that he says will undercut BT Openreach and – incidentally – provide a third infrastructure-based competitor alongside Liberty Global-owned cable operator Virgin Media.

CityFibre’s key customer is none other than Vodafone, which has lagged in the UK fixed market but may now be able to use CityFibre’s to compete head-on with on-off dancing partner Liberty Global in the latter’s most important market. The emerging mixing and matching of technologies means that ‘cable’ will inevitably have less meaning as a category in the future, with potentially less fraternity between cable players.