One topic covered extensively at the recent SCTE-ISBE Cable-Tec Expo in New Orleans was the ability of cable networks to deliver 10 Gbps broadband to customers. The fact that this is even being discussed is a testament to the fact that big ISPs all acknowledge the huge growth of demand from consumer and business broadband in the country.
Most urban cable companies just made the upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 in the last year or so that allows them to offer gigabit products to customers. Everybody acknowledges that the need for 10 Gbps products is likely at least a decade away, but now is the time to start the technology research needed to create a product in that timeframe.
It’s been clear for some time that cable companies don’t want to lose the speed battle and are working to compete against the introduction of fiber in urban markets. The number of households being passed by fiber continues to grow. AT&T built past millions of homes in the last few years, mostly in small pockets around existing fiber nodes. CenturyLink even built residential fiber for a few years before abandoning the concept to concentrate on building fiber to businesses. It’s not clear who might build urban and suburban fiber, but the fact that the cable companies are looking at 10 Gbps speeds means they think that somebody will do so.
Other than some limited cases, most fiber providers are still building fiber networks with 1 Gbps fiber speeds. Verizon is building a 10 Gbps fiber network to supply bandwidth to small cell sites but is not yet using the new technology in the FiOS network. The whole fiber industry is waiting for one of the big ISPs to embrace 10 Gbps products to help pull down equipment prices, but that doesn’t look likely to happen any time soon.
There are significant upgrades needed for the cable industry to offer 10 Gbps speeds. A 10 Gbps downstream data path requires 1.3 GHz of bandwidth, which is greater in capacity than all but a handful of cable networks. Adding a decent upload data stream and still carry TV channels means that cable systems will need to upgrade to 2 – 3 GHz of bandwidth. That’s a major upgrade and would likely require replacing most or all of the amplifiers and power taps in the outside coaxial cable network. This would also likely require some replacement of older coax cable. Upgrading to faster speeds would mean an upgrade to headends as well as to the millions of DOCSIS modems sitting in customer homes.
I’ve heard speculation that cable companies will consider an upgrade to fiber rather than going to 10 Gbps over DOCSIS. Almost every cable company is now using PON technology when building to greenfield subdivisions. While it’s expensive to build fiber to every home, almost every CEO of the big cable company has acknowledged that their eventual future is with fiber. Altice is already pursuing the upgrade to fiber and other cable companies will all eventually consider it.
There are always skeptics of the need for big bandwidth and many in the industry scoff at gigabit broadband today as nothing more than a marketing ploy. What the critics ignore is that the world grows into larger bandwidth over time. Residential broadband usage is currently growing at a rate of about 21% annually in terms of both total monthly downloads and of desired customer speeds. When gigabit products were first introduced, they were 40 times faster than the average broadband product at that time of about 25 Mbps.
There will inevitably be new uses of bandwidth that will require faster speeds. Just as one example, I saw that Verizon had acquired the products of the augmented reality firm Jaunt. We have all been promised the future ability to hold virtual hologram meetings, and when somebody develops such a product it’s going to sweep the country. When that happens, households will be bouncing up against the gigabit speed limit and asking for more. I also ask the cable companies to not forget my holodeck – I’m still waiting.