Oct. 10, 2019

LightCounting Reports on the Recent SCTE Cabletec Conference and Exhibition


The Society of Cable Television Engineers (SCTE) held its annual   Cable-Tec engineering conference October 1-3 in New Orleans.  Attendance was definitely lower than the previous couple of years.  The lower attendance could be an indicator that companies have reduced discretionary spending due to weaker H1 2019 spending by MSOs (as reported by security analyst George Notter), and could also indicate fears of a prolonged economic slowdown. 

  • One theme of the show was fairly unified support by the vendor community for the CableLabs led ‘10G’ marketing initiative, which was officially launched at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this past January.  At first glance, CableLab’s ‘10G’ appeared to be just ‘DOCSIS 3.1 Full Duplex’ under a new name, but there is more to it than that. [Note: DOCSIS 3.1 can provide up to 10 Gbps downstream and 1 Gbps upstream.  DOCSIS 3.1 Full Duplex supports symmetric 10G upstream/downstream bandwidth.]
  • Recently (September 2019), CableLabs announced it would complete its DOCSIS 4.0 specification in early 2020, and confirmed that the updated standard will support both Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX) and Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD). The former supports symmetric 10Gbps data streams in the same spectral band, while ESD accomplishes the same symmetric 10G/10G by extending the usable RF spectrum from 1.2 GHz to 1.8 GHz, enabling the use of non-overlapping spectrum bands for upstream and downstream traffic.  In this context, ‘10G’ is CableLabs’ marketing name for ‘DOCSIS 4.0’. 
  • Brian Dietz of CableLabs told the audience at SCTE-CableTec that providing a better experience for online gamers was one of the big motivators for ‘10G’. Low latency is a critical requirement for online game playing, and CableLabs released a new DOCSIS latency spec in June 2019 under the 10G umbrella that is expected to provide sub-5-millisecond latency.  Another benefit of the very low latency spec is that it plays well to the requirements of mobile backhaul, midhaul, and fronthaul (a.k.a. x-haul),  so much so that CableLabs is calling the new specification ‘LLX’, or Low Latency Xhaul, and are including ‘LLX’ in their marketing for the ‘10G network’.  Implementing LLX does not require new modem hardware, and lab trials have already been completed. Field trials are expected in mid-2020, so if things go well vendors should have product ready for most mobile operators’ 5G deployment.
  • Yes, the meanings of “Gs” in 10G and 5G are completely different, but this will not stop the cable providers from advertising their 10G offering, while mobile operators are just start with 5G deployments.

A link to the full version of the research note was emailed to LightCounting subscribers. It includes additional sections on virtualization in cable networks, auto-tuning 10G transceivers and coherent optics.

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3D Sensing for Self-Driving Cars Reaches the Peak of Inflated Expectations

LightCounting releases a new report addressing illumination in smartphones and automotive lidarIn 2019, the market for VCSEL (vertical cavity surface-emitting laser) illumination in smartphones will exceed $1.0 billion – now nearly triple the size of the market for communications VCSELs. That’s quite remarkable for a market that didn’t exist three years ago.3D sensing in smartphones felt like an overnight sensation, but the technology foundations were laid down years ago with Microsoft’s Kinect – a motion-sensing peripheral for gamers released in 2010 but discontinued in 2017 after lackluster sales. Lumentum supplied lasers to the Kinect almost a decade before the iPhone opportunity emerged; the company was ready to profit from the iPhone X opportunity when Apple decided to launch 3D sensing for facial recognition in September 2017.

Figure: 3D depth-sensing meets the Gartner Hype Cycle

3D Sensing

Source: Gartner with edits by LightCounting

If all technologies follow the Gartner Hype Cycle, shown in the Figure above, then 3D sensing in smartphones is now moving up the slope of enlightenment. Android brands raced to add 3D sensing to their flagship phones in 2018 – the Xiaomi Mi8 Explorer and Oppo Find X phones were first – although these only sold in single digit million quantities. Huawei also brought out new phones with 3D sensing, but the ongoing U.S. export ban on the Chinese company must be hurting the company’s traction outside China. Apple continues to dominate the market as all new iPhones released by Apple since 2017 have included 3D sensing on the front of the phone. Apple is expected to introduce 3D sensing for ‘world-facing’ applications in 2020, which adds another laser chip to every phone.

Last year illumination for lidars were not included in our market forecast since LightCounting considered it unlikely that lidar would penetrate the consumer market to any great extent over the forecast period. All indicators now point to a market for lidar illumination ramping up in 2022 and beyond. Optical components firms are now shipping prototypes and samples of VCSELs, edge emitters and coherent lasers to customers developing next-generation lidar systems – many of them building on their expertise in illumination for optical communications and smartphones.

As was the case with smartphones, the foundations for lidar technology were laid down much earlier – in this case with the DARPA Challenge 2007, where the winning vehicle used a 64-laser lidar system from Velodyne Acoustics (now Velodyne Lidar). Lidar is considered by the majority of the industry to be an essential part of the sensor suite required for autonomous driving, helping the vehicle to navigate through the environment and detect obstacles in its path. The first commercial deployments have begun. In Germany, lidar on the Audi A8 enables the car to drive itself for limited periods under specific conditions. In Phoenix, Arizona, you can hail a ride in a Waymo robotaxi.

Investor enthusiasm for lidar is undeniable with nearly half a billion dollars invested in lidar start-ups in 2019 according to our analysis of publicly available investment data. Notable deals include $60 million for U.S. company Ouster in March, Israel’s Innoviz Technologies Series C round of $132 million in the same month, and $100 million for U.S.-based Luminar Technologies in July. Interestingly, these examples illustrate the variety of lidar approaches: each company is building a different type of lidar based on a different wavelength: 850nm for Ouster, 905nm for Innoviz and 1550nm in the case of Luminar. There’s an open technology battle and they can’t all be winners.

The automotive lidar market seems to be close to the peak of ‘inflated expectations’. It’s easy to understand why. The automotive industry is enormous, with nearly 100 million vehicles (including trucks) produced annually. Players like Baidu, GM Cruise and Waymo are backed by deep corporate pockets, and new entrants like Aurora and Pony.ai are attracting hundreds of millions in investment. Intel’s $15.3 billion purchase of Mobileye in 2017 was also directed at autonomous driving. Sensor company AMS is in a $4.8 billion battle to acquire German semiconductor lighting firm Osram with its eye firmly on lidar.

However, signs indicate that the descent into the trough of disillusionment could have already begun. Waymo has yet to roll out its robotaxi services more widely – and this summer admitted that its vehicles needed more testing in the rain. GM Cruise has delayed launch of commercial services for self-driving cars beyond 2019 and is reluctant to commit to a new timescale, with its CEO Dan Ammann observing that safety is paramount; automotive is not an industry where you can “move fast and break things” he said. A casualty of the slow pace was optical phased array lidar developer Oryx Vision, which closed its doors in August and started to hand money back to investors.

While lidar is being deployed commercially today, prices are not conducive to mass production, and there are open questions around regulation, safety, ethics and consumer acceptance. Do local laws prohibit self-driving cars? Will they really be safer than humans? Who is responsible for a crash? LightCounting remains skeptical about the pace of adoption of autonomous vehicles, but will be watching the market closely and with optimism.

More information on the report is available at: https://www.lightcounting.com/Sensing.cfm.

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