If you read the press releases or listen in on investor calls for the big cable companies over the last year, you might think that the latest cable network technology, DOCSIS 4.0, is right around the corner and will be installed soon. Cable companies have been leaving this impression to fend off competition with fiber. There are millions of new fiber passings being constructed this year where cable companies serve today, and most of the companies building fiber say that they reach at least a 30% market penetration rate within the first year after fiber reaches a neighborhood.
The reality is that it will still be a while until DOCSIS 4.0 networks make it out into neighborhoods. A recent blog from CableLabs spells this out well. This month (July 2023), CableLabs is holding the first big interoperability testing event where different manufacturers will test if their DOCSIS 4.0 equipment is interoperable with other vendors. This kind of interoperability testing is a standard step in the process of moving toward gear that is approved for manufacturing.
Per the CableLabs blog, this testing is a pre-cursor for CableLabs to be able to certify specific brands of modems. The blog describes this as the first interoperability testing event that will look to see if a cable modem can be operational when working with the latest version of DOCSIS 4.0 core equipment. This test also will check if new modems are backward compatible with earlier existing versions of DOCSIS. This is only the first of multiple interoperability tests, and later tests will go deeper into more specific functions such as interfacing with the overall network, backoffice functions, etc.
It’s normal during this kind of testing that bugs are found in the software and hardware, and it’s likely that there will still be tweaks in many of the components of the DOCSIS 4.0 network.
Only after all of the testing is done and CableLabs is happy that all components of the system are operating correctly and will work together properly can the process of certifying equipment from each vendor begin. That involves sending devices to CableLabs for extensive testing and final approval by the CableLabs Certification Board. Only then will any manufacturer put a device into mass production. Any device that doesn’t pass certification will have to be reworked, and the process started again.
It’s hard to think that it won’t be at least another year until devices start to get certified. After that will be the time needed to mass produce, distribute, and install devices. That could easily mean two years before we might see the first DOCSIS 4.0 network being installed.
With that said, this entire process has been exceedingly fast by industry standards. The DOCSIS standards was completed in early 2020. This process is far ahead of where most new technologies would be only three years after standards are completed.
The cable companies are in a huge hurry to be able to declare superfast symmetrical speeds to compete against fiber. I’m sure there has been tremendous pressure on CableLabs to speed up each step of the process. This likely meant faster than normal efforts to create breadboard chips and the components needed for equipment. For example, the normal timeline for getting a new chip designed and built can easily take 18 months. DOCSIS 4.0 chips are likely on an accelerated timeline.
Who can say how long it will take cable companies to upgrade networks to DOCSIS 4.0? They will certainly start in the markets where they think the technology makes the most market sense. It could easily take several years to make this upgrade nationwide, assuming that manufacturers will be able to keep up with the demand.