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Broadband Spotlight Will Continue to Shine in 2021

At the close of each year, we analysts like to simultaneously look forward and look backward, reviewing the predictions we got right or wrong from the previous year and then putting forth our best bets for which technology trends will define our coverage areas in the coming year.

I just re-read my post from last year, which was full of optimism for WiFi 6, mesh networking, and zero-touch provisioning for home networking, as well as XGS-PON, mid-, and high-split upgrade projects on the infrastructure side of things. While most of those predictions came true, the context surrounding them could not have been any more unexpected.

In the world of broadband access and home networking, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. Before the pandemic, fixed broadband network traffic was growing annually at a pretty predictable clip. But with the transition to teleworking and virtual education combined with a significant increase in video traffic related to streaming and online gaming, overall traffic and bandwidth surged by anywhere from 50-150% in just a matter of weeks. More importantly, the surge wasn’t just limited to peak busy-hour traffic. It extended throughout the entire day, putting a strain even on oversubscribed networks that forced network operators to reach quickly into their toolboxes to accommodate the consistent demand.

Cable operators responded to the increased traffic demands by segmenting their existing nodes and pulling forward mid- and high-split upgrade projects to increase upstream bandwidth. Those efforts will continue in 2021, resulting in continued increases in upstream channel license purchases. In particular, cable operators are expected to ramp up their purchases of OFDM-A licenses (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access) for their DOCSIS 3.1 networks. OFDMA improves spectral efficiencies for upstream traffic, providing significantly more upstream bandwidth for subscribers without necessarily having to move to a full high-split architecture.

Sticking with cable, 2021 will see a steady increase in operators adopting distributed access architectures (DAA), including both remote PHY and remote MACPHY products. As operators continue to look across their existing node base, they are going to run into situations where they have already segmented their nodes as much as they can. These nodes are the first ones that will be swapped out with DAA nodes or augmented by R-PHY shelves in order to continue to meet growing capacity demands among those service groups. Those R-PHY deployments will also result in a corresponding increase in vCCAP server and license purchases this coming year.

2021 will also see an increase in the deployment of vCCAP platforms for cap and grow applications not directly tied to DAA deployments. There are plenty of projects underway with multiple vendors to cap investments in traditional CCAP platforms to either reduce headend rack space or power consumption or, more practically, because operators have maxed out the switch fabric or line card capacity of their current platforms.

Fiber Expansion Will Continue

The switch from copper to fiber among the world’s largest telcos really became clear in 2020. That trend will accelerate in 2021, in particular, because of the investments made this year in new optical line terminal (OLT) ports. Operators throughout North America, EMEA, and CALA switched more of their capex towards expanding their fiber networks than sustaining their DSL networks. This was clear at Telmex, BT OpenReach, and others. Major projects at Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Proximus, and elsewhere will drive not only more fiber expansion but 10 Gbps deployments using XGS-PON.

Fiber access networks are on the verge of a major tipping point, driven by the simultaneous catalysts of the shift to next-generation fiber technology and the shift to openness, disaggregation, and automation. The world’s largest broadband providers are quickly realizing that the need for increased throughput is matched by the need for a highly-scalable network that can respond quickly to the changing requirements of the service provider, their subscribers, and their vendor and application partners. The need to provision and deliver new services in a matter of hours, as opposed to weeks or months, holds just as much priority as the ability to deliver up to 10Gbps of PON capacity. Although service providers might have completely different business drivers for the move to open, programmable networks, there is no question that the combination of data center architectural principles and 10G PON technology is fueling a forthcoming wave of next-generation fiber network upgrades.

The service providers that adopt the combination of 10Gbps PON and openness will be best prepared to accomplish three major goals:

  1. Deliver the advanced, 10Gbps capacity, and multi-gigabit services subscribers will expect and require using a cloud-native infrastructure that treats bandwidth and the delivered applications as workflows;
  2. Anticipate and whether rapid increases in traffic demand with a highly-targeted and elastic infrastructure that can be activated without a forklift upgrade;
  3. Develop an access network infrastructure that can process multiple workloads beyond broadband access, including hosted services that can be offered on a wholesale basis, as well as fixed-mobile convergence applications.

WiFi 6 Will Dominate the Home Networking Market

One of the biggest trends we will be talking about is a fundamental shift in how consumers and service providers think about home networking. There is a confluence of technologies all reaching the market at the same time that will positively impact the capabilities and management of home networks:

  • WiFi 6: For many years now, the evolution of WiFi has been focused on improving two key technical attributes: speed and range. WiFi 6, however, is the first iteration to take a more holistic view of wireless technology that encompasses not only improvements in speed and range, but also network intelligence, analytics, and power efficiency. WiFi 6 also has the capacity to dramatically improve how service providers will be able to provision, manage, troubleshoot, and analyze their in-home networking services. It provides options for the remote, zero-touch provisioning of devices and services, as well as the automatic adjustment of WiFi channels to ensure peak performance
  • 6GHz Spectrum and WiFi 6E: With so many new connected devices competing for available channels and bandwidth on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands, the WiFi Alliance is introducing WiFi 6E, which uses the unlicensed 6GHz band. In 2020, we expect that many countries will provide access to the 6GHz band, which will mean a huge chunk of unused spectrum for the growing number of residential and enterprise WiFi devices. More importantly for cellular operators rolling out 5G networks, the 6GHz spectrum band will allow them to provide seamless handoffs to mobile devices in homes and offices where their networks might have difficulty penetrating walls and treated windows. There has been much discussion around the pending boom in AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) applications for a number of years now. With the availability of the 6GHz spectrum, those applications can in theory be delivered without fear of latency due to channel contention. 6GHz will provide 14 additional 80MHz channels and 7 160MHz channels which will be needed for these intense, high-bandwidth applications.
  • Simplified Control: If you were to compare the UIs of home gateways and routers from just two years ago to those available today, you’d be hard-pressed to find an area that has seen a more positive evolution. But 2020 will see even more transformation in an effort to give subscribers total and intuitive control over their broadband subscriptions. One of the areas we expect to see the most growth is in voice control of broadband services. Google’s Nest WiFi mesh systems now include voice control and allow users to verbally turn on a guest network, reboot the system, and initiate parental controls and speed tests. Quietly before the end of 2019, Amazon announced Alexa-enabled voice control of its own eero routers, as well as those from ARRIS/Commscope, Asus, Belkin, Netgear, and TP-LINK. The feature is called Alexa WiFi Access and we expect to see this service integrated across a wider range of devices throughout the year, including being integrated into service provider-supplied gateways, particularly from US cable operators.

These technology developments, coupled with a ratcheting up of the competition between service providers and consumer electronics companies for home network dominance will result in consumers receiving substantially better control of their own WiFi networks in 2021.