Cable execs defend HFC, plot their digital divide strategies

DENVER — The annual cable convention SCTE Cable Tec Expo is happening in Denver this week. And one theme running through a session today was a bit of defensiveness on the part of cable operators and vendors about comparing cable’s hybrid fiber coax (HFC) networks with fiber networks. New fiber builds are being driven by the $42.5 billion in Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funds that have been distributed to all U.S. states and territories.

At a breakfast hosted by Light Reading this morning, several panelists expressed surprise at the fact that cable is being compared unfavorably to fiber.

Jay Lee, chief technology and strategy officer with ATX, said he attended the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber Connect conference in August. “I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised the fiber guys were going to beat up on the cable guys,” he said. “It just felt like there’s an extreme level of confidence that fiber is going to kick some butt.”

But he added, “I just feel cable’s in a great spot both from a technology timeline and in terms of upgrading the network far more quickly than fiber will be able to build out.”

Several executives mentioned that fiber is already a big part of HFC networks. And Damian Poltz, SVP of Wireline Networks with Rogers Communications, said, “By the way, we love fiber. We all build fiber.”

Colin Howlett, chief technology officer at Vecima, said, “Eventually, we’re all going to be fiber operators.” But he said cable’s HFC plant still “has a long life left in it.”

John Williams, VP of Engineering & Architecture with Charter Communications, said, “We have the capability to do fiber on demand, if somebody wants 100 gig service to their house.” But he said, “I think cable’s got a long runway. It’s just the next stepping-stone on how to get more capacity in your network. I think we have the capability to do whatever we want. We have fiber, and we have coax.”

Keith Habberfield, SVP of Sales and Marketing at Precision Optical Technologies, gave some advice to the attendees at this morning’s breakfast. He said, “Try to guard against any religion against coax versus fiber. Fiber has its advantages, coax has its advantages. Don’t get wrapped up in all one or the other.”

General Session

After the breakfast, the audience gathered for the opening general session, featuring Charter CEO Chris Winfrey and Rogers Communications CEO Tony Staffieri. Their conversation focused more on closing the digital divide in the U.S. and Canada.

Staffieri said Canada has about 40 million people who live mostly within 100 miles of the U.S. border.  “On wireless we cover 98% of the population. That’s about 12% of the landmass,” he said. But the country’s wireless and wired operators struggle to get connectivity to the vast areas with low population. “The Canadian government is open to evolving technologies like fixed wireless access.” But he said a limitation in Canada is lack of wireless spectrum. “We continue to work with and push the government to free up more spectrum, which can be cost-effective for very rural."

Charter’s Winfrey said, “There are still areas in the U.S. that don’t have broadband service.” 

He said it’s a unique moment in time with the availability of BEAD funds. “For the U.S., when is it that the government gave you money to go build? The return is good. It’s a long cash payback. And when has cable gotten to look great in terms of solving the digital divide?”