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Christmas On Hold?

Wed, 09/30/1998 - 8:00pm
David Iler, Associate Editor.
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The Internet has always been about waiting-waiting for Web pages to download; waiting for more reliable and faster service; waiting for that killer application.

Now the cable industry, with bandwidth-hungry customers anxious to move into the fast lane of the information superhighway, waits as the clocks ticks on an important deadline.

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The scheduled arrival of standardized, interoperable cable modems on retail shelves is likely to become a reality this holiday season, nearly three years after the industry first discussed creating a cable modem standard in November 1995. Yet the road to retail for standardized, Data-Over-Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) modems has not been without its speed bumps.

"There were (modem manufacturers) telling us months ago they would have products in stores in August," says Mike Schwartz, senior vice president of communications for CableLabs, the cable operator-funded organization charged with testing modems for DOCSIS compliance. However, by mid-August, only two cable modem manufacturers, Cisco Systems and General Instrument Corp., had formally applied for the first round of DOCSIS certification testing. Given the arduous four-week testing process at CableLabs, the time from certification to manufacturing to distribution was very short.

"The timing is a little tight," agreed Stephen Van Beaver, senior vice president of Road Runner, the joint Internet service venture of Time Warner Cable and MediaOne.

But it's safe to say that the DOCSIS testing and certification team at CableLabs breathed a collective sigh of relief when General Instrument and Cisco became the first two modem manufacturers to formally apply for DOCSIS-certification testing in August.

"Two vendors raised their hands and said, 'look, I'm ready'," says Rouzbeh Yassini, executive consultant to CableLabs and the person overseeing the testing process. "That was a very positive thing for us."

It was also positive for cable operators, vendors and consumer electronics retailers, all of whom have much riding on the DOCSIS standard. Last month, Nortel/Bay Networks, 3 Com Corp., Toshiba, Samsung and Thomson applied to go through the September certification wave.

Vendors must pass the certification process before they can claim "compliance" with the DOCSIS spec.

DOCSIS cable modems are not only "better, cheaper and faster" than today's cable modems, says Yassini, but the standard itself is seen as the foundation of digital packet services, i.e. voice, data and video, that cable operators will be rolling out in the next few years.

With North American MSOs offering cable modem service to more than 15 million homes, and more than 300,000 subscribers already signed up (as of Aug. 31, according to Phoenix, Ariz.-based Kinetic Strategies Inc.), the stakes are high for the industry to deliver a standardized cable modem quickly and without a hitch. "Everybody has an incentive to make this happen quickly," says John Mattson, senior manager of Cisco's cable product line.

Can it happen by the all-important holiday season? "Absolutely," he says. "I believe it'll be well before Christmas."

"We're extremely bullish on the possibility," says William Markey, director of marketing and business development of 3Com's cable access division. He added that 3Com plans to "turn directly from certification to multiple retail channels."

Chris Grobicki, director of product management for the broadband technical division of Nortel/Bay Networks, is also confident of a holiday rollout of cable modems, adding that the challenge will be "can (the modems) get into the retail channels themselves."

With the amount of testing required by CableLabs, which includes 2,300 PIC (Protocol Interface Conformance) tests to be conducted by a vendor prior to submission for certification, plus an exhaustive four-week alpha, beta and field lab testing process at the CableLabs facility in Louisville, Colo., DOCSIS certification is an extremely complex process.

"It's one thing to apply," says Grobicki. "It's another thing to pass. We wanted to make sure what we applied with would pass."

With an expectant market waiting for DOCSIS, the CableLabs process is in place because "we don't want to deploy a box that we have to recall," says Yassini.

Pace of the rollout

Despite all the optimism surrounding modems, it's important to remember that when (and if) DOCSIS-certified modems do appear this year, they will be from a relatively small number of manufacturers and available in a limited, but growing, number of regions where Internet-over-cable is available. "Nobody expects a full-blown rollout," says Michael Harris, president of Kinetic Strategies.

"In my opinion," offers Andrew Audet, director of network and business development for the cable data products division of Motorola Inc., "it's still going to be field trials and early deployments."

In fact, cable modem heavyweight Motorola, which has shipped more than 250,000 of its CyberSURFR cable modems, is skeptical enough that it did not apply for the September round of DOCSIS certification. "We're not quite ready," says Audet, who explains, "We were not quite targeted on the Christmas rollout like everybody else." Instead, Motorola expects to participate in the October certification wave, and plans to roll out DOCSIS-approved modems in the first quarter of next year.

Motorola's focus, says Audet, has been on developing a DOCSIS-qualified Cable Modem Termination System (CMTS) first. "We'll actually have a DOCSIS-qualified CMTS in November," says Audet.

While Motorola waits, however, 3Com's Markey believes the time to go to market with DOCSIS is sooner rather than later. "It would be foolhardy to miss this opportunity," he says, adding that 3Com has been working with retailers for about one year, discussing shelf positioning, messaging and other aspects of placing DOCSIS-compliant modems on the shelves.

Retailers are interested, says Markey, because this first wave of DOCSIS modems will have "one of the highest ASPs (average selling prices) they've seen in a while. They know this is the next generation." Markey expects the first wave of DOCSIS modems to be priced around $300. Later, as more manufacturers become certified and volumes of standardized modems increase, the prices will drop. Therefore, modem vendors have a financial incentive to be one of the first on the shelves. "It's all about market share," agrees Grobicki.

Another cable modem manufacturer that's delaying its application for DOCSIS certification is Terayon Communications Systems, makers of a cable modem which deploys a proprietary spread spectrum technology to compensate for high return path noise. Terayon plans to apply for certification at an unspecified time early next year, according to Zaki Rakib, Terayon's chief financial officer. While acknowledging that proprietary cable modem solutions will hurt the industry, Rakib also says, "somehow, the industry needs to find (out) how to incorporate innovation into the standard." Citing his product's implementation of Quality of Service functionality, a feature not incorporated in DOCSIS version1.0, Rakib contends that "the baseline (of DOCSIS 1.0) is below what we've already demonstrated."

As retailers make space for DOCSIS modems, they hope standardized cable modems and the high speeds Internet-over-cable delivers will attract computer users anxious to upgrade and add a few other peripheral devices, or perhaps a new computer, into their shopping carts.

Several within the industry applaud the fact a cable modem even exists and is being generally accepted. "In three years, it's pretty phenomenal (that) we went from concept to product on the shelves," says Susan Marshall, vice president of products and technology for TCI.net. Marshall points out that it is significant that manufacturers aren't "duking it out" over competing standards as with the 56K telephone modem standard. "It's the most remarkable thing that could've happened."

"Based on a lot of other standards-setting in other industries," says Ken Wright, chief technology officer for InterMedia Partners, "it's been a quick process." He specifically points out what occurred with xDSL and ISDN technologies as examples of poor standardization efforts.

The absence of a standards war is also good news to consumer electronics retailers, who, according to Markey, "still have a hangover from the 56K battle." The lack of a 56K standard confused many consumers and caused them to hesitate before making the leap to the new speed levels, thus dampening retailers' expectations.

The most obvious advantage of DOCSIS for cable operators is the fact a standardized modem, available for purchase by consumers, will allow them to essentially remove the cost of modems from their books, and let their marketing departments price Internet service without tacking on modem rental fees. With the telcos' ADSL deployments increasing, cable ops will be able to price their Internet access more in line with the competition.

"It's more than just a capital issue," says Wright. "It's a customer satisfaction issue . . . Customers feel better about not having to rent modems from us."

Wright says InterMedia is planning commercial rollouts of Internet access in three markets between now and year's end, and the company will be following the DOCSIS-certification program closely to take advantage of the availability of standardized modems.

Focus groups that the company has conducted with current cable subscribers have shown strong support for purchasing, vs. renting, those modems, says Wright.

Road Runner's Van Beaver adds that the arrival of DOCSIS will "help with operational efficiencies by standardizing cable modems and CMTSs . . . this helps us scale our business up much more rapidly," he says.

In addition, Van Beaver points out that the DOCSIS rollout will bring out "self-provisioning tools" to allow customers to essentially hook themselves up to online services, such as Road Runner, by accessing a Web site, instead of sending out an installer to a subscriber's home.

For those cable operators that already have deployed proprietary modems, however, there will be a cost to implement DOCSIS. "As long as we have proprietary modems in the field," says Wright, "we'll have to double up on bandwidth and equipment on the headend. That's a painful thing."

"When we finally have everything resolved," says Wilt Hildenbrand, senior vice president of technology and engineering for Cablevision Systems, "we will likely put on a DOCSIS channel." Cablevision has been deploying proprietary Terayon cable modems throughout its Long Island systems.

Fully tested

When DOCSIS-certified modems finally do hit the shelves, they will have been fully tested, both in the lab and in the field. TCI.net, for example, is testing both 3Com CMTS and DOCSIS modems in Spokane, Wash. "We're feeling very good about the tests to date," says Marshall. Both Time Warner and MediaOne, says Van Beaver, have been testing Cisco's UBR CMTS units and Cisco, Toshiba and Bay Networks' DOCSIS modems.

But the largest field test of DOCSIS modems is being conducted by Ontario, Canada-based Cogeco Cable Inc. According to Rob McCann, network implementation manager for Cogeco, the company deployed Samsung modems with DOCSIS specifications with 500 paying customers. "We're finding DOCSIS-compliant modems are much more robust," in both reliability and in their ability to react to the intermittent behavior of changes of the plant, such as noise levels and temperature changes, McCann says.

"We took these modems out and picked some of the worst places (in the plant) we know," he says. Additionally, Cogeco also selected the most avid detractors of cable modem service and asked them to compare pre-DOCSIS and DOCSIS service. The DOCSIS-spec modems proved to be "a resounding success," says McCann. Conversely, failure rates of non-DOCSIS modems were high, often throwing Internet users off the network.

Consequently, Cogeco plans to "swap out the entire system" of 6,100 customers from proprietary to DOCSIS-compliant modems, says McCann. Cogeco projects to serve up to 20,000 data customers, installing new customers at a rate of 50 to 75 per day.

With the industry pressing to bring more and more services over HFC, such as voice over IP, the temptation to wait until the Quality of Service functions that have been incorporated in DOCSIS version 1.1 has been suggested. But that would be both foolhardy and short-sighted, according to Hildenbrand, because the additional features of the next version of DOCSIS, "are far less important than the whole program itself."

"If we all followed that plan (of waiting for the next version) with DOCSIS, set-top boxes and automobiles, we'd all still be walking," says Hildenbrand. "There's always something a little bit better coming along."

"It's time to deploy now with a standards-based product," agrees Wright. "The general feeling is, let's go ahead with 1.0 and not delay things."

Compatibility issues

And while work is proceeding on v. 1.1 (draft specs were due for release on Sept. 23), early rumors that DOCSIS 1.1 would not be compatible with DOCSIS 1.0 are simply not true, according to Yassini. "DOCSIS 1.1 is going to be backward compatible to 1.0," he says. "There's no interoperability issue, there's no physical layer issue, or MAC (Media Access Control) layer issue that isn't going to make them (1.1 and 1.0) backward compatible."

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DOCSIS 1.1, says Cisco's Mattson, "will help voice over IP become a reality." He adds that "You can absolutely operate 1.0 modems and not cause voice calls on 1.1 to be broken up and to lose packets." A process is in place to allow for the prioritizing of packets in the headend, says Mattson.

To be included in the 1.1 specs are such "packet-friendly services" as Quality of Service extensions, fragmentation and baseline privacy enhancements. Multicast enhancements and OSS/MIB spec modifications may possibly make it into the spec, but may also fall within a future DOCSIS 1.2 standard. SAID/SID decoupling, advanced MAC layer and advanced physical layer functionality are being reserved for future study, according to Yassini.

Advanced MAC layer functionality is "supposed to help with low-latency, high-performance ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) capabilities," says Yassini, but he stresses the fact that any advanced PHY layer enhancements to the DOCSIS standard would have to be backward compatible. He also points out that an Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers working group is considering a standard for an advanced physical layer in cable networks.

Yassini predicted last month that a DOCSIS 1.1 product could be in the field in six to nine months. The next evolution, DOCSIS 2.0 (if 2.0 is indeed the designation chosen, and to-date no official designation has been decided upon), is projected to be ready within about 18 months, possibly by mid-year 2000.

"The bottom line is we have to converge to IP architectures to handle voice, data and video," says Yassini.

Under wraps

Still under wraps is the actual design and wording of the CableLabs' DOCSIS certification sticker. Yassini notes that the sticker is important "to identify the standard of digital services" ultimately to be used with both cable modems and set-top boxes.

"Hopefully," says Harris of Kinetic Strategies, "they'll use a name other than DOCSIS."

As the seven cable modem manufacturers now toiling at CableLabs wait on the results of testing, all their production, manufacturing and distribution resources will be taxed to bring their modems from the lab to the consumer by Christmas. In a world where fast is never fast enough, the industry has no time to lose.

e-mail: diler@cahners.com

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