Cox’s multi-billion fiber plan raises questions about the future of DOCSIS

Cox Communications has been working hard to bring DOCSIS 4.0 to life in its labs, but the operator has another major project up its sleeve: a multi-year fiber rollout. Analysts told Fierce the move is yet another example of a trend that raises hard questions about the future of DOCSIS 4.0.

The operator said this week it’s planning to make a “multi-billion-dollar annual infrastructure investment” over the coming years to deploy 10-gig-capable fiber infrastructure. Though the announcement was light on specifics, it doesn’t appear to be abandoning its cable ambitions just yet. It noted the combination of its forthcoming fiber-to-the-premise network and DOCSIS 4.0 will allow it to provide “multi-gigabit symmetrical speeds in the coming years to both residential and business customers.”

Cox said its investment will include buildouts in underserved areas, and it committed to spend more than $400 million over the next three years on such efforts. It also plans to partner with municipalities to pursue federal funding. It said these efforts will allow it to deliver fiber service to more than 100,000 locations near its existing footprint, with work expected to kick off “soon.”

The operator won $6.6 million to cover 8,212 locations with broadband as part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction in 2020, but it is unclear whether these are part of its rural initiative.

A Cox representative declined to provide additional detail about its fiber plan, commenting only that “Our intent is to remind the market that we are going to continue to aggressively invest in the communities we serve to maintain and build highly competitive networks.”

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The fiber move is interesting given Cox is already well into upgrading its hybrid fiber-coaxial network in preparation for DOCSIS 4.0. In October, a Cox executive said it had deployed distributed access architecture (DAA) and Remote PHY devices (RPDs) across 30% or more of its network. It was also planning to move to a high-split configuration in the near future.

Recon Analytics founder Roger Entner speculated Cox’s plan may be a response to AT&T’s aggressive fiber expansion plan, given the operators’ territories overlap.

DOCSIS doubts

Cox is the latest cable operator to plot a significant investment in fiber, with its announcement coming just days after Altice USA unveiled a plan to forego DOCSIS 4.0 and blanket two-thirds of its existing footprint with fiber by the end of 2025.

Both Entner and Dell’Oro Group VP of Broadband Access and Home Networking Jeff Heynen said Cox’s move is representative of a trend that raises important questions about the future of DOCSIS.

“There’s really a chicken and egg situation going on here,” Heynen said “The vendors and component suppliers all want some commitment in terms of level of investment by the operators in DOCSIS4.0 before they say ‘yep, we’re going to put forth the R&D effort to develop the components necessary to support that environment.’ So, everybody’s kind of waiting for somebody to make the first move and say ‘absolutely, we’re 100% committed to DOCSIS 4.0.’ And even Cox, who’s always been a proponent of DOCSIS 4.0, they still said we’re going to supplement with fiber.”

Entner noted that in theory, an upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 should be less expensive than rolling out fiber, and yet operators are choosing to go the latter route. “People vote with their feet,” he said, “It speaks for itself.”

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Heynen pointed out that there are technology divisions even within the community of operators sticking with DOCSIS, making the situation even harder for vendors. For instance, Comcast has committed to using full duplex DOCSIS, while other operators like Charter Communications are pursuing a frequency division duplex (also known as extended spectrum) flavor of the technology.

“If you look at the total pie, the total addressable market of DOCSIS 4.0 homes passed, it continues to shrink,” he said. “And if you combine taking Comcast off the table as an addressable market and then you have the other operators saying ‘yeah, there’s going to be a percentage of our network that’s going to go to fiber-to-the-home,’ then you [as a vendor] start to think about how you need to change your R&D investments.”