Earlier this year at the CES show in January the big cable companies discussed their vision for the future and introduced the concept that cable networks would be able to deliver 10-gigabit broadband in the future. They labeled the promotion at the show as 10G. I didn’t write about it at the time because I assumed this was a gimmick to give some buzz to this show in the middle of the pandemic. But lately, I’ve seen that they are still talking about the 10G initiative.
For once this is not just the big US cable companies. The US companies were accompanied in this big splash announcement by Rogers, Shaw Communications, Vodafone, Taiwan Broadband Communications, Telecom Argentina, Liberty Global, and smaller cable companies.
My first reaction to the name 10G was a chuckle because the cable companies are linking themselves to the deployment of 5G cellular, which turns out to not be any faster than 4G. But the cellular companies have hammered home the supposed advantages of 5G so relentlessly that I imagine the average person thinks 5G means faster speeds. I don’t think I would have chosen the cellular analogy as a symbol for faster speed.
The question I have to ask is why the companies want to talk about 10-gigabit broadband so early? It’s likely to be near the end of this decade before any of them actually can deliver that much speed to customers. The assertion is made because of the promise of the new DOCSIS 4.0 standard that was released by CableLabs a year ago. Comcast recently conducted the first lab trial of the technology and achieved speeds of about 4 gigabits.
But it’s a long way from the first breadboard lab trial to a working technology that will be deployed in cable networks. DOCSIS 4.0 is a fundamental change to cable networks and is going to be an expensive upgrade. It means changing most of the field electronics including cable modems. In many cases, it’s going to mean replacing old coaxial cable. And it might even mean having to convert to switched digital video to make this much bandwidth fit inside cable networks.
When DOCSIS 4.0 was first announced, the CTOs of most of the cable companies were cold to the technology, having just finished the upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 (at least for download speeds). There was a lot of speculation in the industry that cable companies would consider converting to fiber rather than go through another big patch on aging copper networks – most cable systems are nearing fifty years in age.
It’s not hard to understand what prompted this. Fiber providers are now starting to routinely deploy XGS-PON which has the capability of 10 gigabit symmetrical broadband. That means 10-gigabit is already here today in some markets, a full decade before cable companies can respond.
The cable companies are also quietly worrying about their lousy upload performance on cable networks. While the companies all crowed about how they survived the pandemic, they all know that many of their customers struggled badly trying to handle work and school from home. They failed the people who needed them the most.
Two decades after Verizon launched FiOS, the big telcos are finally laying fiber like crazy. The cable companies know that once customers change to fiber that they are likely never coming back to a cable company network. While fiber has been built to only a relatively small portion of urban America, it is relentlessly coming. The cable companies have to fear that over the next decade that fiber providers will do to them what they’ve been able to do to DSL competitors. The cable industry’s success over the last decade comes from taking customers from old telephone copper.
I think a peek into the future where there is a lot more fiber is likely what prompted the 10G promotion – that and perhaps a few too-clever marketing folks. But talking about 10G is not the same thing as delivering broadband that homes need today – and the cable companies know this.