Editor’s corner: Could DOCSIS 4.0 rollouts be delayed?

DG Editor's Corner

Comcast and Mediacom are aiming to start by the end of 2023. Charter Communications is eyeing rollouts in late 2024. Plenty of others, including Cox Communications, have pegged a date in 2025. But could DOCSIS 4.0 deployments take longer than these timelines allow?

Dell’Oro Group VP Jeff Heynen suggested that could be the case, telling Fierce Telecom the rollouts could take “up to a year” longer than companies have publicly stated. According to Heynen, that’s because there are still workforce and supply chain challenges standing in operators’ way.

 “I just think there’s still labor shortages and I think there are also going to be some supply chain issues that are going to limit the immediate availability of some of the 1.8 components,” he explained. “It’s just going to take longer than people are expecting. There are a lot of moving parts.”

So, what do suppliers have to say? Well, take Charter vendor Harmonic, for instance. During Harmonic’s recent Q2 2023 earnings call, CFO Walter Jankovic acknowledged that while parts of the supply chain have improved “we continue to see certain long lead-time parts that require 52-week lead times.” He did not specify which components these longer lead times applied to, though.

Similarly, Broadcom CEO Hock Tan stated during its fiscal Q2 2023 call in June that the vendor’s “standard lead time for our products is 50 weeks, and we are still staying with it.” Broadcom, of course has been supplying DOCSIS 4.0 chips for Comcast’s next gen tests and has been working with Cox as well on DOCSIS 4.0 silicon.

Fierce Telecom reached out to Comcast, Charter, Cox and Mediacom for comment about what factors, if any, might contribute to delayed DOCSIS 4.0 rollouts.

A Comcast representative told Fierce there’s been no change to its deployment schedule and it remains on track to achieve its initial DOCSIS 4.0 deployment before the end of 2023.

Meanwhile, a Mediacom representative told Fierce that the operator’s engineers “don’t seem overly concerned” about potential supply chain issues. But they are worried about whether there will be enough suppliers of Buy American-compliant equipment to meet the needs of operators participating in the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program (which heavily favors fiber but not exclusively so).

“There will be a lot of companies that will competing for components,” the representative said. The spokesperson added “contract labor will continue to be an issue. There are a lot of projects happening simultaneously across the country with no slowdown in sight.”

Labor crunch

By now, anyone watching the broadband space will be familiar with the idea that the industry is facing a labor shortage at a key juncture. But – perhaps because of BEAD’s fiber focus – it seems most training programs are dedicated to fiber technologies.

The fiber realm already has a smattering of different programs available from the likes of the Fiber Broadband Association (in partnership with 67 community colleges and electric cooperatives covering five states), Corning and AT&T, LightBrigade and the Communications Workers of America. Community colleges and other institutions in states like Alabama and New Mexico have also launched their own fiber technician training programs.

That’s not to say there aren’t any cable training programs. For instance, ATX Networks in November launched a training program specifically for cable network technicians. CableLabs subsidiary SCTE also offers DOCSIS training (DOCSIS 4.0 Essentials and DOCSIS 4.0 Boot Camp) and certification programs along with its fiber offerings, of course. It’s just that in a market where both fiber and cable are competing for the same labor pool, fiber certainly seems to get headline billing.

Mitigating factors?

It’s not a sure thing that DOCSIS 4.0 deployments will be delayed despite the aforementioned hurdles. But if they were, are there any mitigating factors that would make that less of a bad thing? Perhaps so.

First, several fiber players have recently pulled back on their near-term deployment targets (looking at you, AT&T, Altice USA and Lumen). This seems to be both because of economic circumstances and efforts to maximize the upcoming BEAD program. But whatever has driven it, the change of pace could give cable operators slightly more breathing room on the competitive front.

Second, on the workforce front, labor isn’t just scarce it’s also more expensive. Gas – which is required for truck rolls – is also still pricey. As vendors have proclaimed on their earnings calls, the cost of materials has also risen with inflation.

It’s not clear whether or when these conditions will ease, but you could make the case that a slight delay might not be a bad thing if it means prices go down during the wait.