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Extending HFC's Borders

Wed, 03/31/2004 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor

MSOs are employing traditional and wireless technologies
to reach small and mid-sized businesses

Cable operators interested in pursuing business-class customers have one major criteria these days: re-using the HFC (hybrid fiber/coax) network they've spent billions over the past several years building and upgrading.

These days, MSOs appear to have plenty of tools available to them to do just that, with vendors lining up with commercial services products that mine existing coax or use wireless broadband technologies to extend available DOCSIS channels.

But first, take a look at the economic picture and the true reason why MSOs continue to prospect for commercial gold. Two prime examples are Cox Business Services (CBS) and Charter Communications. CBS generated $77 million in revenues in Q4 of 2003, and $287.6 million for the full year, a 25 percent year-over-year increase. Charter Communications, meanwhile, snagged $55 million in commercial services revenue for the quarter ended Dec. 21, 2003, up from $44 million the year earlier.

"We have a $7 billion revenue opportunity," says Bill Stemper, vice president of Cox Business Services. "We're just scratching the surface. We have a lot of opportunity to grow."

Attacking the middle ground

The easiest way to reach a small business with high-speed data services is to leverage the existing DOCSIS infrastructure. But that approach does have its limits if operators want to chase the lucrative T-1 replacement market, which can fetch fees in the neighborhood of $350 to $1,000 per month. Several vendors have stepped up with products that claim to plug the gap between

DOCSIS on the low end and fiber-fed on the high end. By design, many of those middle-ground approaches do not change or even touch much of the cable operator's existing infrastructure.

Chuck Kaplan
Chuck Kaplan,
Narad Networks
The system from Narad Networks, for example, lives above 860 MHz, but below 1.1 GHz.

"It's important to stay below 1.2 GHz because the vast majority of taps and passives out there today in upgraded plant will not pass 1.2 GHz," says Narad Chief Operating Officer Chuck Kaplan. "We do not want to force a cable operator to replace any of the taps and passives out there. After 1.2 GHz, you're asking the cable operator to rip them all out."

Using passive diplexers that bypass existing amplifiers, Narad's platform injects into that band a symmetrical 100 Mbps (or 400 Mbps up/400 Mbps down if the node puts out four coax lines). Narad's system provides between 5 Mbps and 20 Mbps symmetrical data. "There are some office buildings that want 50 or 60 Mbps symmetric, but we haven't seen anything above that," Kaplan explains. "Everything above DOCSIS and below fiber is where we go."

Coupled with a headend component (not shown here),
S-A’s BroadLAN platform emulates T-1 services over coax in the
5 MHz-15 MHz range without interfering with residential traffic.
Shown here is the BroadLAN CPE.

Scientific-Atlanta is complementing its fiber, Resilient Packet Ring-based Prisma IP platform with BroadLAN, a Layer 1 product line designed to emulate T-1 services over coax in the 5 to 15 MHz range without interfering with the residential traffic. S-A plans to deploy BroadLAN commercially in the second quarter.

"We're taking bits in and using an inverse muxing functionality in the upstream to get the data into the bottom side of the spectrum, which is typically too noisy to be useful," says Paul Connolly, vice president and general manager of S-A's emerging business division.

Because BroadLAN is designed for T-1 traffic, operators can use it to go after a significant chunk of the overall revenue coming out of the commercial services sector. "This allows the operator to target the sweet spot of that market, which is the T-1 interface. It uses the cable plant, so cost of service for that customer is already low," Connolly says.

For example, if an operator already has coax in a school to support a video feed, the operator can offer T-1 services there by dropping in CPE in the premise and marrying it to the BroadLAN headend component, and do so without any amplifier, node or passive network element changes.

The same would be true for a business that owns its own PBX for voice and data communications. BroadLAN's CPE-side gear uses an adapter to hook into the legacy T-1 interface. By comparison, cable modems do not have a T-1 interface and don't provide the same dedicated connections that a T-1 does.

"The design goal [of BroadLAN] was to do nothing to the network," Connolly says. The CPE component of BroadLAN looks similar to an Explorer set-top. At the hub or headend, it looks like a simplified, Layer 1-only CMTS.

Motorola Broadband is also going after this middle ground with its Multi-Service Enterprise Access (MEA) products. Targeting dedicated symmetrical data rates of between 10 Mbps and 30 Mbps, MEA is perfect for commercial customers that carry PBX traffic, says Curt Smith, Motorola Broadband's senior product manager of enterprise solutions. That also extends to off-premise exchange systems that might use a master PBX to communicate and four-digit dialing to connect to other company sites. Schools, medical practices and hospitals are just some examples that fall into this category.

Motorola's MEA Platform
Motorola’s MEA platform targets data
rates above DOCSIS and into the range
of 10 to 30 Mbps.
Though Motorola doesn't disclose specific prices, the company says the MEA platform, thanks to low-cost CPE and a "pay-as-you-grow" approach at the headend, can be paid off in less than six months based on just a single customer that's paying between $350 to $1,000 per month for service, company officials say.

Motorola, which released the platform in mid-2003, has yet to announce any customer wins, though some MSOs are using it today in the field and testing it in the lab, says Jeff Walker, senior director of marketing for Motorola's network infrastructure solutions unit.

Growing operator activity in the commercial HFC space has been cause for change at vendors such as Jedai Broadband Networks, which originally was founded on a fiber-only approach.

"We used to be a fiber play, but the market has directed us to a cable play," says Jedai CEO Michael Pritz, who adds that Jedai recently has been working on a way to place TDM services over a cable modem. "It turns out that our technology combined pretty well with the cable modem," he adds.

Jedai's latest project, which will be part of the company's FrontRunner product line, centers on TDM services over the DOCSIS upstream using a T-1 interface. Jedai expects to release the product later this year.

Although VoIP is leading the hype meter, TDM is still a viable platform for voice services because it will take time for softswitches to be deployed. Some MSOs, Cox Communications and Comcast Cable, in particular, also have legacy Class 5 switches to consider.

"You want T-1 rates, but it will take a while for the VoIP infrastructure to be rolled out," Pritz says. "Cable operators are selling high-speed data using cable modems, and they should be picking up those TDM customers. Why leave it to the incumbent telco to win them back?"

But Jedai hasn't forgotten its fiber roots. "Now cable operators can look to Jedai for fiber and coax [commercial platforms]," Pritz says. That way, he adds, operators can tailor their networks to fit the situation. Depending on the size of the business and the potential return on investment, an operator could still opt for the fiber approach.

Xtend Networks has also shifted its original cable strategy. After initially marketing a system that can boost available cable bandwidth to 3 GHz, the company has since discovered that its technology has an even better fit for operators that are deploying commercial-class services.

Hillel Weinstein
Xtend Networks CEO Dr. Hillel Weinstein
Xtend's claim to fame in this area involves upstream capacity, and more of it. "Right now there's limited upstream capacity, and that's an understatement," says Xtend CEO Hillel Weinstein.

Although the spectrum between 5 MHz and 42 MHz is set aside for the upstream traffic, operators can only use spectrum above 20 MHz for high-speed data and telephony because everything below that threshold is too noisy, Weinstein contends. Plus, the 38 MHz to 42 MHz range has its problems, too, thanks to the roll-off of the tuners. This all means that the 20 to 39 MHz range is actually usable for things other than signaling. If an operator taps that for residential services, it doesn't leave much for potential business customers.

Xtend's platform can provide operators with 500 MHz of additional upstream capacity, which, in turn, can be used to fuel business services, Weinstein says.

Cox is the first MSO to formally agree with that notion, signing a master purchase agreement with Xtend earlier this year.

Xtend's platform also doesn't require an operator to "rebuild" in the traditional sense. Its technology doesn't touch anything from the node and the headend or anything 1 GHz and below. Instead, Xtend goes after 1 GHz to 3 GHz frequencies with parallel equipment. Weinstein acknowledges, however, that operators must replace passive elements because the legacy equipment can't handle anything above 1 GHz.

Providing yet another approach is Advent Networks, maker of a proprietary platform dubbed "Ultraband." Similar to a cable modem deployment, Advent's router sits next to the cable modem termination system. On the customer side sits a CPE/router about the size of a paperback book.

Advent's flagship product is the USR8800, a chassis with 80 QAM modulators. That device is suitable for dense downtown business districts. To serve the lighter end of the commercial spectrum, Advent has recently launched a less expensive, "entry-level" product, the USR4400, which can support up to 64 commercial subs with T-1-like services. The platform itself provides dedicated downstream speeds from as low as 5 Mbps to as high as 40 Mbps, and up to 8 Mbps in the upstream for any one user.

And there's big money to be made in that category. One of Advent's commercial customers, says company founder and chief advisor Geoff Tudor, is getting $10,000 per month over existing coax without pulling extra fiber. Advent has publicly disclosed deals with Time Warner Cable of Austin, Texas, and says it is in some other trials and commercial deployments with five of the top six MSOs.

Although Advent's system remains in the "proprietary" category, the company intends to someday remove that classification. Advent has high hopes that its media access layer technology will become part of an enhanced version of DOCSIS. But even that is "still a year to two years away," Tudor estimates.

Exploring the wireless options

Wireless Bypass Installation
Wireless Bypass is one of a growing group
of vendors that enable operators to beam
DOCSIS channels into business parks that
are unreachable by traditional HFC.
So what to do if you are hindered in your pursuit of SMB customers by impediments such as a body of water or railroad tracks or general right-of-way issues? Plant could be extended physically, but that approach can be expensive and time-consuming.

To address those problems, vendors such as Arcwave Inc. and Wireless Bypass have come up with methods that extend DOCSIS signals wirelessly via unlicensed spectrum.

In the case of Wireless Bypass, its strand-mounted gear beams a full DOCSIS channel up to 1.5 miles at 5.8 GHz, though the typical deployment scenario is a couple hundred feet to as much as a mile.

"We're competitive with construction builds....where [operators] can't build by an impediment or something that creates problems such as rights-of-way, climate problems and build moratoriums," says Wireless Bypass Vice President and COO Dave Blumberg.

Because of those issues, between 20 percent and 40 percent of commercial sites can't be served by RF, estimates Steve Goldberg, CEO of Arcwave. "About 10 to 20 percent of that could be reached with a wireless plant extension." Using DOCSIS-compliant wireless line extensions, he says, can help operators go after the low-hanging fruit made up of SMBs with between five to 200 people.

The approach also comes with some inherent disadvantages that can be out of the operator's control. A newly-built facility could block and therefore disable the wireless service, for example.

Still, the technology is also attracting the big dogs. Motorola Broadband, Walker says, is in the process of partnering with a wireless line-extension company, but at press time wasn't at liberty to disclose the name of the partner.

S-A is already working with an unnamed wireless provider and is looking at adding multiple partners to the mix, Connolly says.

As Charter Communications is finding out, deploying wireless line extensions can not only reach the previously unreachable, but save capital costs along the way as well.

Charter Vice President of Commercial Services Steve Santamaria estimates that an operator can spend between $23,000 and $30,000 to extend plant a mile. A wireless solution, meanwhile, can cost $4,500 to $7,000 to hit two or three businesses. When it becomes economically feasible to build plant to those areas, Charter can then redeploy the wireless network elsewhere.

"The economics just drove us to this solution," Santamaria says. "It's like an invisible piece of cable rolling across that mile."

It's also complementary to DOCSIS, so operators can use the same cable monitoring systems to which they are accustomed. "It's a natural fit for how we manage our network today. Our provisioning system works exactly the same for those customers," says Pete Hicks, Charter's senior manager of commercial services.

Charter, which just announced an agreement with Wireless Bypass, is still in its infancy stage with the technology. The short-term goal is to get at least one system out to Charter's divisions, and perhaps roll out 100 units this year. "It's a new product for us, so we need to learn how to use it and when to use it," Santamaria says.

Cox is also looking at wireless line extension technology. "We're very bullish on it, especially in customer situations where construction is prohibitive or it would take too long [to build plant]," Stemper says.

Cox is already dabbling in some Wi-Fi technology, offering free access to computers at the Arizona Capitol and at some casinos in Las Vegas.

Kristi Hedlund
Kristi Hedlund, Cox Business Services
In Arizona, Cox probably won't use Wi-Fi to blanket coffee shops and restaurants with broadband coverage, although the use of wireless line extension technology to reach SMBs is definitely in the making, notes Kristi Hedlund, Cox Business Services' director for the region.

Though 1.5 or 2 Mbps wireless extensions at 5.8 GHz can help operators tackle small business users, there's a bigger opportunity in front of cable operators with 24 GHz wireless technology, says Derek Prada, vice president of strategy and partner development at DragonWave Inc.

DragonWave's approach uses 24 GHz unlicensed spectrum to essentially deliver wireless, native Ethernet and committed data rates of 100 to 150 Mbps to business customers.

With that technology, operators can go after firms whose bandwidth requirements reach beyond 10 Mbps, opening up the door to combined high-speed data and voice services.

Dragonwave's wireless platform
DragonWave’s wireless platform uses the
unlicensed 24 GHz band to pipe native
Ethernet data rates over the air to
commercial customers.
One issue with unlicensed 5.8 GHz technology, Prada argues, is that it allows for broadcast, 360-degree bubble patterns that are susceptible to interference with other devices that operate in that spectrum, including 802.11a hotspots and some cordless phones.

Blumberg of Wireless Bypass counters that his company avoids most interference because of the high-power spectrum it uses. He notes that three bands populate the 5 GHz spectrum: an indoor-only band for cordless phones and Wi-Fi equipment, an indoor/outdoor 5.3 GHz band for medium power applications such as collision avoidance radar, and the high-power 5.8 GHz, where Wireless Bypass operates.

"That's not to say there can't be interference, but the instances are low. You can co-locate our equipment and have that problem," as one example, he says.

For Charter's part, the MSO has not experienced any interference hiccups with its wireless line extension equipment, Hicks says. "During the testing period, we put as much wireless stuff as we could dig up to throw against these things," he adds.

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