Author: Phil Miguelez, Director, Access Network Architecture
The growth in demand for unicast services—high-speed Internet and VOD—is both a gift and curse for cable operators. More demand means more opportunity for revenue, but it also means more strain on cable networks. Across the board, North American MSOs see downstream bandwidth running out in the next one to two years if no action is taken. That’s right, not running low, but running out. Of course operators won’t actually let that happen, but the pressure to upgrade networks is real, and strategies for dealing with the bandwidth crunch vary from system to system.
Analog is a bandwidth hog, and the decision to keep analog channels going exacts a price on the operator’s network. Comcast has made headlines with its transition to all-digital cable delivery to free up analog bandwidth, and the operator expects to complete the process nationwide by the end of the year. Part of Comcast’s motivation is the fact that it’s maintained a mostly 750 MHz cable plant. At the other end of the spectrum, Cox upgraded to 1 GHz years ago and has thereby been able to hold onto its analog channels, a competitive strategy designed to lure those subscribers who still own several analog TV sets. The recent introduction of new high-power RF hybrids are making the idea of a network upgrade to 1 GHz much more attractive by virtually eliminating amplifier moves and re-spacing.
Time Warner Cable is somewhere in the middle between Comcast and Cox. With an 870 MHz plant, Time Warner has relied primarily on switched digital video to cut its bandwidth demand. Its transition to an all-digital network is on a much slower pace than Comcast, but with SDV, Time Warner can save bandwidth by keeping select channels switched off when they’re not in use. Charter’s following an SDV path too. It started an aggressive rollout of the technology last year.
Across all MSOs, node splits are still a favored method of increasing bandwidth to individual subscriber service groups, and splits will continue in the future as a normal course of business. However, operators will also keep looking for new methods to reduce the bandwidth crunch; methods that don’t strain their budgets. For that, new ways of thinking and new technology innovations are in order. Because downstream bandwidth demand is going nowhere but up.