NBN prepares for field trials of gigabit HFC technology

Eyes February 2018 trials ahead of planned commercial launch later next year

NBN is preparing to launch field trials using the DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband standard, which is capable of delivering gigabit speeds over hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) connections.

HFC is one of the fixed-line technologies being used in the rollout of the National Broadband Network, alongside fibre to the premises (FTTP), fibre to the node (FTTN) and other technologies that like FTTN also rely on copper (fibre to the building and fibre to the curb or FTTC).

NBN obtained its HFC assets under deals struck with Telstra and Optus as part of a shift to a ‘multi-technology model’ for its network. The company in September 2016 announced it had largely dumped the use of Optus’ HFC infrastructure, instead planning to deploy more FTTC connections.

HFC is still slated to be a major component of the new network, however, with the company having so far connected around 850,000 households using the technology. Some 210,000 customers have active HFC NBN connections.

NBN is already seeing “huge demand” for cable broadband, according to a spokesperson, who said that customers on HFC connections have so far proven more prone to taking up higher speed services compared to customers on other technologies, including FTTP.

NBN’s FY17 results, released earlier this month, revealed that as of 30 June 29 per cent of NBN fixed-line services were on its slowest 12/1 megabits per second tier, while 53 per cent of end users had opted for 25/5Mbps. Just 13 per cent had opted for the fastest 100/40Mbps tier, while 4 per cent had 50/20Mbps connections (and 1 per cent opted for the 25/10Mbps tier).

On HFC, about 22 per cent of end users have so far opted for 50/20Mbps or 100/4Mbps services.

NBN announced in February 2015 that it had signed an agreement with US-headquartered company ARRIS to upgrade and integrate the HFC infrastructure that the company obtained as part of its deals with Telstra and Optus, including a move to DOCSIS 3.0.

Previously NBN has achieved download speeds of up to 376Mbps and upload speeds of up to 49Mbps when it was testing DOCSIS 3.0. During lab trials of DOCSIS 3.1, NBN has achieved 1 gigabit per second download speeds and 100Mbps upload speeds.

NBN’s Network Termination Devices (NTD) in HFC-connected households are already capable of delivering DOCSIS 3.1 services. The company would need to install new upstream line cards in its cable modem termination system (CMTS) and roll out a software upgrade as part of the shift to the newer standard.

As well as higher speeds for end users, DOCSIS 3.1 delivers operational efficiencies and a range of additional diagnostics for network operators.

NBN has long talked up DOCSIS 3.1 as part of its blueprint for rolling out higher speed HFC services, and it is now gearing up for field trials of the newer standard in February 2018.

The tests will involve around four HFC nodes, with details of the locations of the trials still being finalised by the company. NBN is hoping to stage a commercial launch of DOCSIS 3.1 by the end of 2018.

ARRIS president for network and cloud, Dan Whalen, said that his company had seen strong interest in rolling out DOCSIS 3.1 among operators of cable broadband networks in overseas markets

“We’re seeing this ramping very quickly in North America today as well as in much of Europe as well,” Whalen said.

“In North America, some of the major operators at doing it,” he said. “We’re involved in trials and deployments with over seven different operators in North America today.”

In 2018, ARRIS expects the deployment of devices supporting DOCSIS 3.1 to reach “mass scale”.

Pricing of gigabit and similarly high-speed services have tended to be consistent across both fibre and HFC, Whalen added.

The ARRIS executive said he expected the use of DOCSIS 3.1 to spread rapidly in Europe thanks to the significant amount of fibre in many network operators’ networks.

Closer to Australia, there’s significant DOCSIS 3.1 penetration in South Korea and Japan.

Whalen said that in “premium markets” where end users are consuming significant amounts of video content he expects cable network operators to eventually move to having gigabit-level services as the de facto offering.

Whalen expects trials of the emerging Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 technology towards the end of 2018 and full-scale deployments in 2019.

Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 could deliver 10/10Gpbs services for end users with HFC connections; however, the rollout of the technology requires the deployment of powered equipment to nodes where a network operator’s fibre connects to the coaxial cable that runs to households.

“We’re already in discussions with NBN on Full Duplex DOCSIS and what the requirements would be and when the timing is,” Whalen said.

NBN in February 2016 heralded as a “game-changing moment” an announcement by not-for-profit R&D group CableLabs that it had proved the viability of full duplex communication over HFC using DOCSIS 3.1.

CableLabs develops cable broadband standards; NBN earlier this year joined the group.

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