Here’s how cable giant Comcast is thinking about fiber

Comcast is in the midst of a massive overhaul of its network, rolling out mid-split upgrades and plotting the launch of DOCSIS 4.0 in the second half of this year. But while Comcast remains firmly in the cable camp, Comcast Cable EVP and Chief Network Officer Elad Nafshi told Fierce there is a place for fiber in its future. And, he said, it’ll soon provide a more in-depth glimpse of what that future looks like.

To be clear, there’s already a ton of fiber in Comcast’s network. According to Nafshi, Comcast’s nationwide backbone network – which it calls the core network – is all fiber. Most of its access network is also composed of fiber. It’s only the drop that runs from the node to a subscriber’s home that’s connected with coaxial cable, he explained.

As the operator upgrades its network with distributed access architecture (DAA), Nafshi said the access network is transitioning from analogue to digital fiber and to a new virtualized architecture delivered via a virtual Cable Modem Termination System (vCMTS). That means customers will receive “digital fidelity all the way to the home,” improving both the quality and resiliency of Comcast’s service.

That transition to DAA architecture is also opening the door for Comcast to offer fiber-to-the-home on a larger scale. (It already offers fiber service with speeds of up to 6 Gbps to select customers.) “The DAA architecture we’ve built enables us to completely abstract the wire and have the optionality to deliver based on consumer demands. So, in the same digital nodes that we’re deploying right now we can put a DOCSIS module, we can put a fiber module and offer the same operations with the same vCMTS, with the same telemetry,” Nafshi said.

Indeed, Comcast has been working in this direction for quite some time, having mentioned its plans to use Remote optical line terminals (OLTs) at least a year ago. Fellow cable giant Charter Communications also recently talked up the idea of offering fiber on demand using nodes which allow it to deploy DOCSIS technology alongside Remote OLTs.

But Nafshi said Comcast will soon show its plans are more than just talk. While he kept mum on the details, he stated “we will be able to give you a grand view of what that looks like to live subscribers, probably in the next few days…That’s real. That’s definitely technology that we’re looking forward to deploying.”

In terms of where it sees fiber fitting into its footprint, Nafshi said rural areas are the most likely target. While that might seem counterintuitive given all the talk of how costly fiber is upfront, Nafshi said using fiber in those areas means Comcast doesn’t have to deploy as many active components in the network, which would be even more expensive.

Nafshi stressed the ability to deploy fiber doesn’t necessarily mean that Comcast is evolving to full fiber. Instead, he said it just means the operator has the “optionality to build the right wire to the right customer.”

“As we build more homes, when the architecture lends itself to fiber economics, we build fiber. We build it into MDUs, we build it into greenfield locations and in some cases we even build it into brownfield locations where it makes sense,” he concluded. “The coaxial platform is remarkable, it is extraordinarily robust and it is connected to each and every one of our homes…Do we need to rip out every connection to the home and replace it with fiber? The answer is no, we don’t. It doesn’t make any sense to do.”