Upstream bandwidth has continued to be a big focus for more than a year now. Those networks who require more bandwidth continue to be a very relevant topic today.
The good news is service providers and operators survived 2020 and 2021, but they may have not been ready to support the rapid increase in bandwidth on their networks. Demand was different for every operator, depending on what their architecture looked like and how their customer base behaved.
Video calls, streaming, gaming, and the like are constantly happening and eating up bandwidth, and the trend toward remote-everything shows no sign of slowing down. After the smoke started to clear, 3 big misconceptions came to light.
#1 — More upstream bandwidth only happens with a complete plant upgrade. This is not always true. Each company is different and does not have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to perform an upgrade.
#2 — You have to use DOCSIS 3.1 to expand your upstream. You can, and if you can, you should, but you don't immediately have to. Sometimes, DOCSIS 3.1 is a little out of the reach for an operator in the first step of their investment.
#3 — Trusting information from online sources. There are limited, reliable sources on the Internet with information service providers are searching for. Most network-specific information is not openly shared, so it’s much harder for smaller, rural operators to make tough choices without good analysis.
CCI Systems is here to help providers and operators find out what they really need to invest in right now to get their network where it needs to be. A stair-step investment is the best way to spend what you can to get your desired results. Afterward, providers will see the reward of their investment into the future.
Outside help or advice, or even talking to other operators, can be invaluable when expanding a network to accommodate increased bandwidth. Every service provider needs to take a fresh look at how they are addressing their upstream bandwidth challenges and discover the new techniques and technologies available to them.
Watch the entire episode for all the details. (Transcript has been edited for clarity.)
Joe Smith (00:10): All right, and welcome to another episode of the “Make Life Better” podcast. I'm Joe Smith from CCI Systems, and today, we're going to talk about upstream bandwidth needs. We've been spending a lot of time on upstream bandwidth for more than a year, at least, certainly even prior to the pandemic. It continues to be a very relevant topic, and today, I have Todd Gingrass with us. Todd is the Vice President of Solution Architectures at CCI Systems. Todd actually has an article to be published on September 9th with the ACA. So Todd, welcome.
Todd Gingrass (00:49): Thanks, Joe.
Joe Smith (00:51): So Todd, we really want to talk about the upstream bandwidth. We had Chad Kay on the last episode, and we're talking about HFC versus PON and some of the tools that CCI has to help service providers and operators out there really get a better understanding of what the problem may be within some of the networks. Especially with all the additional use that the networks are getting from people working from home and different things like that. So, let's just take a step back. It's been over a year, since the pandemic sent so many people home. Are operators still seeing problems with their upstream bandwidth or is there something else?
Todd Gingrass (01:32): Yeah, absolutely. The problem hasn't gone away. It's normalized a little bit. Some operators have done a little work, changed some things around, but the problem is not going to go away. What we believe we'll see this year is more kids back in schools. We'll see that we're competing with that whole school life, work life time—at the same time—coming especially from residential. We'll see more kids back into schools, but we saw a lot of companies all around the country are not sending their people back into businesses, as we knew before. They're working from home, they got used to it.
Joe Smith (02:14): Cisco, I think, just announced that they're giving their employees a choice, I believe, from now until eternity.
Todd Gingrass (02:22): Absolutely. I think there's going to be a lot of real estate for sale. So, that bandwidth is still there. It's still presenting headaches for different operators. Different for everyone, too. Through the pandemic, operators were able to survive, but it definitely cut into what their plans were. Their time horizon for when they expected to invest their next amount of dollars in their networks, and what they were going to do. It really lumped a lot of projects together, and there was only so many dollars to go around. One thing we did see is a lot of operators, again, were able to survive the last year. Again, every type of operator, whether they have PON or they have HFC, they were able to survive the download/upload—but again, it cut into what they had. Where they spent a lot was in their core networks. Now, you had so much bandwidth funneling at the same time, and they may not have been ready for that. 1-gigs getting upgraded to 10-gigs, 10-gigs to a 100-gigs.
Joe Smith (03:26): When you say they're not ready for that, which part of their network or plant was not ready for that?
Todd Gingrass (03:33): Their core networks. Definitely. Routing, switching, transport—potentially—depending on the size of the operator. It was different again for every operator, what their architecture looked like. So, we saw a lot of that happening, however, now it's coming back around. And now, maybe what they were able to survive last year, they've tapped out, so we're at a point that upstream is key. We're all doing just like we are right here, a video call of some type going to each other and it's constantly happening, and that's going to continue. And just more and more now applications are happening, what used to happen from the office (uploading, people using different cloud storage file services from their business). Now, that's all happening from the homes also. All of that bandwidth, you think about things you didn’t think you did when you were at work, you didn't think about it, which was going through, typically, a dedicated fiber connection or something at your office—now has spread across residential. So, for operators, they really have to look at that and find those effective ways, and when, how much and when to invest to be able to keep their subscribers happy and continue to move forward.
Joe Smith (04:51): So, I had mentioned in the opening about this article that you wrote, that's going to be published here shortly with the ACA on September 8th—couple weeks. But, I liked it because you took a unique approach to looking at the problem by looking at the top three misconceptions of DOCSIS upstream. Tell me a little bit more about that, as you look at those upstream bandwidth challenges through that lens.
Todd Gingrass (05:17): Right. What we really wanted to do is—we know there's a lot of operators out there that haven't done an upgrade in quite some time, and the thought process you used 15-20 years ago is not the same now. There’s new techniques to be able to do things, and we want to make sure everyone takes a fresh look at how they're addressing the challenge. So, number one we looked at—a lot of people thought you had to spend hundreds to millions, hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars doing a complete quote/unquote upgrade to the outside plant and it's not always necessary. I won't say it's never necessary. It depends on the situation.
Joe Smith (06:07): The key word is complete.
Todd Gingrass (06:08): Right. So, you have to look at the fact that there are a lot more creative techniques that can be used—module upgrades, small kit upgrades—just to attack just that upstream bandwidth. Again, assessments can be done. We do a lot of those ourselves with operators to find out what do you really need to invest right now to get you to where you need to be. Some people might see that as a cheap way of doing things, it's not. It's a stair step investment. Spend what you can to get the desired results, and then continue getting rewards from that investment to keep investing going forward. So that was definitely one, just many people turn off.
Joe Smith (06:51): How many times when you go to an operator and start explaining and talking through this, is there a change of plan after taking a different look at maybe what they're about to do through different tools we have? Has it changed? Are you surprised by how often they say—
Todd Gingrass (07:06): No, I'm not surprised by it at all, and a lot of times it's just there's sometimes a lack of information out there. Let's face it, operators are so busy, they don't get the time to just sit and look on the Internet for some magical answer. It does take some time to figure it out, and sometimes, you need some outside help or advice, or even talking to other operators. What did they do? But that's not always easy. Everybody's busy—and do they know other operators that are going to help them out—especially the smaller operators. They don't have big, corporate engineering staffs (like some of the larger ones do) that can analyze this type of information and come up with great solutions that they can find a small, medium, and large solution to put across their systems, no matter where they are in the country. Small operators don't always have that.
Todd Gingrass (07:58): So, that's a big piece that goes into solving this. So, I'm not surprised. We may or may not come to a change of plans—what they thought about—but we may come to a better confirmation of their plan, too. That now, they thought it, but now, they really have concrete evidence as to why they're doing it. It might make it easier for them to secure some funds, they have a better written plan, or they just feel better about it. And the whole team is—everyone's got to buy in when they're making a big change or a small change, sometimes. You have to have buy-in and adoption, so that's another big part we always try and help and provide to the operators. Just making sure they're looking at the right facts and how it will affect them, and what other options are. And again, maybe the plan doesn't change, but they realize what the other options were and why they don't choose those, and they feel good about it.
Joe Smith (08:54): So, we’re talking to Todd Gingrass from CCI Systems about an article coming up that he's going to publish. It's really talking about the three misconceptions of DOCSIS upstream and how we approach that and take a look at that. So, number one was more upstream bandwidth only happens with a complete plant upgrade, not a good misconception. Number two.
Todd Gingrass (09:17): Number two looking at that you had to use DOCSIS 3.1 if we do expand our upstream. You can, and if you can, you should. It's a great thing to do, but you don't have to. Sometimes that's a little out of the reach of an operator in their first step of investment. They don't have to go to the final step, or that mid-step, and there are pieces that can be done that can give more bandwidth to an operator if they expand that upstream. While they work together, a lot of times operators compare what the standard says and what is capable with what they have to do, and those are two very separable things. We always want to make sure that people realize, just because I expand that upstream—maybe to an 85 megahertz or maybe 204 megahertz, if the plan allows—I don't have to use DOCSIS 3.1. People think that I have to do that, I have to change all my modems, I have to do all these things, and that starts really making— They see this waterfall effect of tons and tons of money. That's a quick project stopper right there when that happens, and it puts them into paralysis of not making a decision. They don't have to do that. We can walk them through a stairstep approach. That's a big piece.
Joe Smith (10:37): As we talked to Chad Kay (HFC vs PON and Predictive Planning) last week—just that idea of you have to go to PON to solve your problems, if you're an HFC operator. That's clearly not the case today. With all these lead times of fiber and different equipment—that keeps getting pushed out further, it may not even be an opportunity or a choice, right?
Todd Gingrass (10:56): Right, especially not right now. It puts a lot of those plans into question, and again, PON is not bad. It comes with an expense and a cost and it just depends on the operator. Where they need to be today, tomorrow, in a year, and in five years. Is everybody on a path to fiber of some degree? Absolutely. No doubt and no one's going to fight that. It's just when, where, and how do you get there, and how can you get there in a way where without regrettable spend that continues to lead you toward that path to fiber but keeping customers happy today. Definitely.
Joe Smith (11:33): All right. So, we're through two of the three. So Todd, number three, a third misconception.
Todd Gingrass (11:40): A lot of it is talking about the ability with an operator's video and if they have set-top boxes out on the plant. Something really to look at, people get really scared of that. That they can't do it, or their set tops can't move up to allow maybe an 85 megahertz migration. There's a lot that can. There's been a lot of misinformation, unintended misinformation in the industry of what can and can't happen. There's some simple testing and such we can do. We've migrated a lot of people that were told they couldn't do it, and they can get there. So, I would say there's a lot to look at with that and making sure you don't rule yourself out just by reading a few articles on the Internet—which is commonly what people do. They'll just check a few sources, and there's not a lot of great sources out there to find the information, besides people that have done it. But, besides ourselves and a few others, most people just don't walk around and brag about that they've done it. So, you don't find that information just openly on the Internet that's out there. And if they, again, don't have access to people that can really look at their network specifically and what they can do, it makes for some tough choices.
Joe Smith (12:57): So now that broadband providers and operators understand these three misconceptions, what should they do next?
Todd Gingrass (13:06): Well, again, it's looking at what do I need to accomplish? What are my subscribers saying I need? And then, obviously, competition. What else is happening? So, it's all about their situation is what they do next. But a quick and fast way, again, is to really step back and assess the network. We do assessments for operators all the time. They can do assessments themselves a little bit, too, and just really taking the technical out of it and with— It's almost a start with marketing. So, I'll give a shout to the marketing people at the operators. They need to look at, if they're able to find out what really are their subscribers looking for, and then, obviously again—like I said—competition and where their operational costs are. Those are the things you need to assess together. It's not just a technology decision that were happening here—because they all have to. It's a push/pull of all these different groups working with each other, not against. In many cases, it was an against—a lot of times—of marketing may want this, but technology says this, and you get an impasse. Well, how can I find a way to get there? We work with operators to assess their overall situation. Not their technology, not their finances, not their marketing, but the overall situation of really getting them to where they need to go next, and understanding how well is not the CMTS performing, but how well is your data product performing? That's the CMTS, that's the outside plant, especially when we're talking HFC here. It's all things in conjunction.
Todd Gingrass (14:46): How well are your technicians performing their job? Are they efficient? Is your OPEX high? Are there other things they can do? Talk about different techniques of proactive network maintenance that maybe someone just needs to help you understand how to use that a little better. There's all sorts of places to look at where, again, being efficient with your money. Not cheap, but efficient and leading. It all needs to be thought of as an investment, and I always caution—in operators—to not use the word cost. Use investment, and train your brain to think that way. Make sure you're making decisions out of investment, not of reactionary cost.
Joe Smith (15:26): So, I'm excited because in the coming month or more, October 4th through the 6th in Minneapolis, Minnesota is the NCTC's Independent Show. And like I mentioned more than once now, we had Chad Kay on last week, and we went over a tool that you guys use, a predictive planning report. And so, Chad's going to be at that show in our booth, you are going to be at that show, and we're going to take the time to show what that tool can do. That goes from showing the return on your investment in the HFC plant from a construction perspective and brings in a lot of the bandwidth needs that you're talking about, correct?
Todd Gingrass (16:05): Right, absolutely. Again, it's about comparing all those different areas of an operator's overall operation and understanding there's this pitted war of HFC versus PON and fiber to the home; and what should I do; and one is better than the other; and it's what we always talk about is, it's not a versus, it's a conversation. Again, fiber is inevitable, in some fashion form or delivery of it into your network. How much and when is the key and having that understanding, operators of HFC plants typically do have a path forward with the HFC plant for whatever the near-term is. And that term, "near-term", I could put quotes around that. Is that one year, is it five years, is it 10 years? It depends on what they need to do, what their business plan and outcomes need to be. But, it shows them how much can I invest and what can I get from that, and how much might these other types of solutions cost me or how do I turn them into investments? Because, again, is fiber to the home an expensive proposition? Sure. Is it too expensive? Maybe not. It might absolutely be the right solution. It's making sure there's an open mind and not a preconceived notion. And again, you can make that decision by having facts, and that's what we always try and provide is factual analysis. Whatever happens, happens. It doesn't matter to us. We want an operator to be able to make the right choice for their business.
Joe Smith (17:53): Let's look at the operator's strategy. Where do they want to get to? What are the conditions that are in their footprint today? What type of technology do they have put it all together? And that's the great thing about that report. It really takes, almost a CFO look, while combining all the necessary technologies within that to meet the strategies and the goals that the operator has.
Todd Gingrass (18:19): Absolutely.
Joe Smith (18:20): So please, if you're out there and you have any questions or even want to test the tool, stop by our booth CCI systems at the NCTC show, The Independent Show, October 4th through the 6th. We're going to have the right people in the booth and make an appointment today. We'd be happy to put time aside for you to make sure we get in the detail we need to. But if you're just coming by, stop by that show at our booth. We're really looking forward to showing off that tool this year at the event. One other thing that I mentioned before, and it really hit home when I saw Matt Polka, I think, is Ted Hearn’s email. Used to get that every week or so with great information from the ACA, but Matt was in that Steeler jersey. He was out in front of the stadium, he was all fired up, and he was really giving a plug for the show coming up because it is in Minneapolis. And I know the team you love, the Minnesota Vikings, there's going to be an event there at the state— Oh no! It's not the Vikings you like, it's the Packers, so hopefully Matt will wear his Steelers jersey. Maybe Todd, you could come in your Packers jersey, and fill that purple stadium up with every color but purple.
Todd Gingrass (19:34): Absolutely.
Joe Smith (19:36): There was one other thing in the ACA email from last week. And Todd, if you get a chance to look at that email, there was a cool video in there that they were highlighting HolstonConnect. They're out of Rogersville, Tennessee, a rural operator in the heart of the country. The video just tells about the importance of what rural broadband providers bring to the market, and how, really, it's about their subscribers and the service to those subscribers. So, for anybody who hasn't had a chance to look that up, check out HolstonConnect, and check out their video in the ACA report from Ted Hearn. It's worth the 3-to-4 minutes to see. But, you come in contact with operators like that all the time, and you'll see a lot of them at the NCTC show. Correct?
Todd Gingrass (20:21): Absolutely. Yep. That's the—if you want to call them the salt of the earth operators—this is the show that the NCTC provides along with the ACA for the small operator to be able to connect with each other and be able to learn, and to be able to talk about very similar problems that larger operators don't have to deal with.
Joe Smith (20:46): It's a great environment, great surroundings, and so many things and events to get together and talk about those problems. So again, we'll have a booth there, we're really fired up about it this year, because frankly, we just haven't been out and about with the conditions in the country—in the world—that we've been under. So please, if you are planning on attending that show, come and see us and check out our Predictive Planning Report. We'd love to go through that. But Todd, look forward to reading your upcoming article in the ACA on upstream bandwidth. You are also going to be on a panel discussion wrapped around a topic we discussed here, HFC and PON. Then, we also have some other things coming up as well. So, we're going to be in full force at NCTC. Look forward to seeing you there, Todd, and everybody else. So, thanks a lot, Todd.
Todd Gingrass (21:40): Absolutely. Thanks, Joe. Looking forward to it.
Joe Smith (21:43): All right. That's another episode of CCI’s “Make Life Better” podcast. Until next time, we will catch you very soon and hope to see you at The Independent Show in Minneapolis.