A Disturbing View of Future Cable Broadband

There was a recent article in FierceTelecom that quotes a leading cable company consultant as saying that cable companies are not likely to universally upgrade broadband networks in the future. The consultant is Sean McDevitt, a partner at Arthur D. Little, a consulting firm that largely works for the giant ISPs.

In the past, when a cable company migrated from DOCSIS 1.0, to 2.0, and to 3.0 everybody in a community was upgraded to the latest technology. He says going forward that it’s almost certain that there will not be across-the-board upgrades. He says there will be neighborhoods upgraded to fiber, neighborhoods migrated to the next-generation DOCSIS 4.0, and neighborhoods that will see no upgrades at all.

I label this as disturbing because it raises the possibility of digital redlining in communities if cable companies start upgrading selectively. The upgrades to fiber or DOCSIS 4.0 will bring faster upload speeds to match fast download speeds. Any neighborhood left on the current DOCSIS 3.1 platform will be stuck with inadequate upload speeds, which was the predominant problem with cable broadband during the pandemic and continues to be a problem for the millions who want to work from home.

I suspect his statement was made to point out that companies will be prudent with capital spending – something that sounds like smart business. Both technology upgrades will be expensive, and a cable company could save a lot of capital spending by not upgrading everywhere. Perhaps he didn’t realize that he was outlining a plan for future discrimination against lower-income neighborhoods. Selective upgrading is also a scary possibility for towns outside the major metropolitan areas, and markets like county seats might get left behind.

In the past, all discussions of digital redlining were leveled against the big telcos, which often clearly upgraded to faster DSL in neighborhoods with higher household incomes. McDevitt outlines a future in which the cable company would likely be making those same kinds of selective upgrade decisions.

To be fair, cable company broadband networks are rarely the same today across larger communities. When we’ve helped communities take speed tests, we’ve often seen that performance on cable networks varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. This seems to mostly be due to varying conditions of the [hiscal plant. Some of the neighborhoods that got cable in the 1970s have much older coaxial cables than neighborhoods built more recently. Many cable companies have been loath to rip and replace wires for whole neighborhoods. It’s also likely that cable companies have taken shortcuts during upgrades, which require replacing all repeaters and power taps if done right. We also see cable markets are configured in what is called cascading, where neighborhoods are daisy-chained together – something that was probably done to save money in the past but which contributes to degraded broadband performance today.

It will be ironic if a decade from now, we’ll be talking about digital redlining from the cable companies while the telcos will have upgraded to symmetrical fiber. That would be a complete reversal of past history.

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