It’s generally a bad sign when an organization with a successful operating formula all of a sudden starts doing things differently, and worse yet, declines to explain why.

In Perspective Brian SantoCableLabs has a tried-and-true certification/qualification process for cable infrastructure equipment that has served the industry well for 10 years now, encompassing several iterations of the DOCSIS (Data over Cable Service Interface Specification) standard, along with the CableHome, OpenCable and PacketCable standards.

Companies would submit their customer premise equipment (CPE) and network equipment, and if they met performance requirements, CableLabs would either certify products in the former case, or qualify them if they fell into the latter category. It was a simple pass/fail system.

But now in the DOCSIS 3.0 generation, CableLabs is going to start qualifying cable modem termination systems (CMTSs) in three stages: Bronze, Silver and Full.

CableLabs said it is waiving what it described only as some of the more advanced DOCSIS 3.0 CMTS requirements for the entry level of qualification. All parties involved have signed a non-disclosure agreement that prevent them from discussing what Bronze, Silver and Full mean in terms of equipment capabilities or readiness.

Which leaves observers wondering what’s going on. Are there delays in DOCSIS 3.0 CMTS technology development that must be compensated for by testing CMTS subsystems? Are DOCSIS 3.0 CMTS implementations somehow so different that they have to be qualified differently? Are MSOs getting impatient for product?

A group of CTOs representing several of the top cable companies worldwide say they have yet to fully exploit DOCSIS 2.0 technology–they all want DOCSIS 3.0, they just don’t need it immediately. One exec says his company doesn’t expect to make a transition to DOCSIS 3.0 until 2009 or 2010 (see our “CTO Roundtable”).

That notwithstanding, CableLabs CTO Ralph Brown says several of CableLabs’ members are doing trials with pre-DOCSIS 3.0 equipment and would like to get their hands on some certified/qualified systems. “It was really members pressuring to move the process along,” he said.

The tiered system gives vendors an incentive to come in and test their equipment, and at the same time, CableLabs will get to verify CPE.

The first certification wave for DOCSIS 3.0 CMTSs will be wave 56, scheduled to begin in October. In the meantime, CableLabs will host a number of interoperability events.

Once the 3.0 cert waves start, systems can qualify for a lower tier of compliance to the DOCSIS 3.0 standards, but ultimately, full DOCSIS 3.0 compliance will be the sole qualification level for CMTS vendors. The two lower levels of qualification will be phased out as the full suite of criteria is made available by vendors.

Brian Santo