Categories
Technology

How Much Bandwidth Can a Cable TV System Deliver?

Cut showing the composition of a coaxial cable.
Cut showing the composition of a coaxial cable. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a number of techniques that are available for a traditional cable TV network to upgrade the bandwidth on the network available for customer data. If you are operating or competing against a cable TV system you should recognize that there are a number of upgrades that can when combined can drastically improve data speeds. Each of these upgrades comes at a cost, but you can’t discount the technical capabilities of an HFC network if data delivery becomes the primary goal of the network.

  1. Increase System Bandwidth. An example of this kind of upgrade is when a system is upgraded from 750 MHz to 1,000 MHz (or 1 GHz). This upgrade provides more bandwidth by widening the frequencies that are available on the coax. A system bandwidth can be a major upgrade and can involve replacing all of the power taps in the system, and in some systems even requires replacing the coaxial cable.
  1. Reducing Node Size. A node in an HFC system is a neighborhood of homes and/or businesses that share the same bandwidth. Typically there is fiber built to a node and then coax cable from the node to each customer. Historically, before cable modems, nodes were large, often at 1,000 homes or more. But many cable companies have deployed more fiber and reduced node sizes and some cable companies now have nodes in the 200 customer range. Making smaller nodes creates smaller pools of shared bandwidth, meaning there is more bandwidth available to customers at peak times.
  1. MPEG4 Compression. A lot of cable systems still use a compression technique known as MPEG2. This technology is used to compress the digital channels on a network today so that up to ten digital channels will fit into one 6 MHz analog slot. But with MPEG4 as many as 20 digital channels can fit into the same 6 MHz slot. The biggest issue with this conversion is that older set-top boxes won’t recognize MPEG4.
  1. Deploy DOCSIS 3.0. DOCSIS 3.0 is a bandwidth management technology that allows a cable modem to use a larger window of RF frequency for data. The way this works is that a cable system can ‘bond’ multiple channel slots together to that the cable modems can use more than one 6 MHz channel slow for data.
  1. Migrate Analog Channels to Digital. A cable provider can gain some bandwidth space by migrating analog channels to an existing digital line-up. There are often contractual requirements with programmers that make this difficult to achieve. However, as mentioned above, as many as 20 digital channels can fit in the same sized slot as an analog channel. There are always customer issues to also consider since this kind of conversion will shrink the analog offering and expand the digital tiers.
  1. Full Digital Conversion. In a full digital conversion all channels are converted to digital. Once completed, every customer needs a set-top box or other device in order to decode and view channels. There is now a device called a Digital Television Adapter (DTA) that is less costly than a set-top box that can support a customer remote. It is possible to send the ‘basic’ channels through the network un-encoded so that customers with a digital QAM tuner in their TV will be able to see these channels without a DTA.
  1. Deploy Data QOS. This technique does not increase system bandwidth, but rather allows the cable provider to sell faster data to some customers by allowing those customers to use a frequency allocation that is only used by these faster data customers. For example, Comcast advertises 100 Mbps service in most large cities, and they would deliver that kind of speed by giving the 100 Mbps customer priority over other customers in the node by having those customers send their data over a lesser-used frequency on the COAX. Of course, as the priority customer gets more bandwidth, everybody else in the node gets degraded service, and if too many premium services are sold then even the priority customer can’t get the promised bandwidth. But this technique does allow the cable company to selectively compete against fiber for selected customers willing to pay for the extra speed.
  1. Convert to IPTV. This conversion would allow a cable system to use more of the RF frequency on the network for bandwidth. On an IPTV system the programming, voice and cable modem service are all sent over shared bandwidth. An IPTV conversion does not automatically gain a lot of extra bandwidth and any savings come from the fact that the company does not have to broadcast all channels to all nodes all of the time, but rather can just those channels that somebody in the node is watching. There is a benefit, but it is not as large as the extra bandwidth gained by other strategies.
  1. Higher Spectral Efficiency. This technique involves converting to DOCSIS 3.1 and also changing the system modulation techniques. The traditional modulation technique is called QAM (Quadature Amplitude Modulation) and uses a 6 MHz frequency allocation.  The new technique is ODFM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) which uses a higher QAM modulation.  Where Current DOCSIS capabilities achieve approximately 6.3 bits per Hertz, DOCSIS 3.1 can achieve 10 bits per Hertz. New modulation techniques can create much larger bandwidth slots and can at the same time increase the bits to Hz efficiency of the frequency being used. In effect, this technology turns the cable system into a DSL system, with the difference being that there is more frequency available on a coaxial cable than is available on a telephone copper cable, but that a CATV node is then shared by multiple subscribers.

As can be seen, a cable company has a lot of options to increase bandwidth. So, how much bandwidth can be delivered? There are a lot of cable networks that have been upgraded through step 7 above. These systems can support some selected customers up to 100 Mbps download. But these systems probably only support 30 Mbps for all subscribers if the nodes are small enough. A system that is upgraded through step 8 can probably deliver 50 – 60 Mbps to most customers with selected customers being able to get much faster speeds. But a full upgrade to through step nine would allow a cable system to match the overall bandwidth delivered by a fiber PON system, although it is then shared with a lot more customers.

These upgrades are expensive. But if you are competing against a cable company, don’t assume that they are incapable of delivering very decent internet speeds if they are willing to make enough investment in their network.

If you have questions or want to discuss this further call Derrel Duplechin at CCG at (337) 654-7490.

Categories
Improving Your Business Technology

Data Mining – It’s Not What Customers Think

I know that when the public hears that their ISP is engaging in data mining that they assume this means that the ISP is reading their emails and monitoring their website viewing. And ISPs do have the ability to do those things although I don’t know any who spy on their customers in that way.

I can certainly understand why data mining scares the average consumer. Supermarkets get you to sign up for their loyalty programs so that they know everything you buy from them. And I know I get a spooky feeling when I express an interest about some product in one place on the Internet and then see ads for that product pop up on Facebook or my Google search.

But data mining is a valuable tool and every ISP should be using it – just not in the same way that the supermarkets and Facebook do it. In fact, we probably need to come up with a better terminology for doing the things I am suggesting below.

There are a number of tools around that let you look at data about customer usage and these tools allow an ISP to do the following:

  • Spambots. There is a wide array of spambots and other malware on the web that can infect customers’ computers. The worst of these, from a network perspective are spambots, which take over your customer’s computers and use it to send out spam. Most ISPs monitor email usage from their own domain and can spot when one of their users has been taken over by a spambot. But most customers these days do not use the email names and domains assigned by their ISP. Instead they web email addresses such as gmail or even the older AOL. And some spambots create new email addresses that the customer doesn’t even know about. And so data mining can be used to look for customers with unusual upload traffic. No customer is going to be offended if you ask them if they are uploading traffic 24 hours per day if in the process you help eliminate Trojan horses and spambots from their computer.
118 – Another File Sharing Session (Photo credit: erickespinosa)
  • Web servers. Most ISPs do not want a customer to be using a residential ISP account to run a commercial web server. A web server is a device that is being used to run a website or service that drives a large amount of download traffic. Such a website might be used for e-commerce for example. But far too often web servers are used to run porn sites. ISPs are not against web servers, but they do expect people who operate them to buy the proper business level service. A web server can be full 24-hours per day, and that is generally not the level of service that is intended for a shared residential product. Data mining can be used to identify web servers and the customer can be directed to a more appropriate (and appropriately priced) service.
  • Data Caps. Most ISPs have set some cap on the amount of usage that a customer can download in a month. And these caps do not have to be small. I have one client that has a 2 terabyte cap each month for residential downloads. But there is no sense in having a data cap if you can’t actually measure how much bandwidth each customer is using. Data mining tools are the way to measure customers’ usage.
  • File sharing. Most ISPs have terms of service that prohibit customers from sharing copyrighted materials with others. But realistically an ISP is not going to know what customers are sharing with each other unless you get a complaint from a copyright holder. But many ISPs still like to get a handle on file-sharing because such traffic can eat up a lot of system bandwidth. Data mining can help you identify customers who are probably involved in one of the common file sharing programs.  An awful lot of file sharing is done by teenagers. I have clients who send out friendly reminders to customers who they think are file sharing that say something like: “We notice by your internet usage that you are probably running a file sharing program. We would just like to remind you that it is illegal to share copyrighted material and that there have been cases where copyright owners have gotten significant settlements by suing people who were sharing their property.” Such notices cut down on a lot of file sharing traffic as parent pressure kids into doing the right thing.

So you should be data mining. But perhaps the things I have described could all better be classified as network management, a term that would not dismay your customers.

Categories
Improving Your Business Technology

Smart Upgrades

Every network faces periodic upgrades of electronics or key components. We have found that cutovers are the time when any network is the most vulnerable.

There are tried and true processes that can be used to minimize the chance or duration of network outages during upgrades. The following is a list of steps that we recommend for any network upgrade that puts customer service at risk. Following these steps is never a promise of 100% safety, but we have never seen a company that upgrades in this methodical and planned manner have major problems.

  1. Have a Project Manager for the Upgrade. It is vital to have one person in charge of the upgrade. They can get assistance in planning and doing the upgrade, but they need to be the one ready and authorized to react if things don’t go as planned.
  2. Develop a Checklist. You should develop a step-by-step checklist of everything to consider for the upgrade. Make sure that you understand every piece of equipment and software that will be affected by the upgrade. And then, most importantly, develop a step-by-step list of the steps required to perform the upgrade.
  3. Break the Upgrade into Manageable Steps.  If possible, the upgrade should be done in stages where progress can be measured and tested as each step progresses.
  4. Establish a Baseline / Establish a Go-Back Process. By this we mean that you need to completely understand the current network configuration, in detail. You need to know the exact settings of every piece of equipment. And once you understand the current network configuration develop a go-back process. This would be the steps needed to get the network back to the original configuration if something goes wrong during the upgrade. Ideally the go-back would be something really fast and we sometimes have seen this programmed such that it can be done in minutes.
  5. Understand the Traffic Flow (and then monitor during the cutover). During the upgrade process you might not get the same kind of alarms that you normally would expect. Also, changing traffic patterns due to the cutover can skew traditional measurements if you are rearranging the network. So it’s vital to understand your traffic flow before the upgrade. Then, have somebody monitor the traffic during the cutover since this might be the only way you will know that you have knocked customers out of service.
  6. Make Sure you have Vendor Support. For a major upgrade you should consider having a vendor representative on site. Otherwise, make sure ahead of time that somebody will be able to help you if you run into unexpected problems. I have seen clients schedule an upgrade over a holiday, not thinking that the needed expertise at the vendor is probably not going to be available.
  7. Pre-test Every Component before the Cut. Definitely test any new equipment before you introduce it into the network to make sure that it is operating properly. For complicated upgrades you ought to consider setting up a test lab where you can test the new equipment against components that will remain in the network for interoperability.
  8. Take Every Upgrade Seriously. I often see companies follow most of the above steps for major upgrades only to see them knock out their network for some simple upgrade like introducing new cards or something they thought was a simple upgrade. Any change that can knock down your network might knock down your network, so take every upgrade seriously.
  9. Define What Success Looks Like. You should establish the needed tests ahead of time that will let you check that every aspect of the network is working as planned. You don’t want to do an upgrade that is almost right only to find that you have created future problems. So establish a detailed test plan.

If you have questions about upgrades or want help developing an upgrade plan contact Derrel Duplechin of CCG at (337) 654-7490.

Categories
Technology The Industry

Will Telecom Investing Become Sexy Again?

Image via CrunchBase

Will the fact that Google is investing in fiber make it sexy again to invest in telecom? The last time that there was a big boom in investing in new telecom ventures was the late 90’s. At that time there were dozens of start-up CLECs, a number of which were able to issue IPOs and go public. Every smart investor had some telecom stocks in their portfolio.

But the new CLECs and telecom firms of that time almost all went bust with only a few of them still around today. There are a number of reasons for the bust. The business plans of many telecom startups depended upon arbitrage – using the facilities of the incumbent rather than making infrastructure investments. And many of the telecom start-ups had bad business plans that expanded into too many markets too quickly to do it well. And somehow the telecoms got tied in with the dot.coms and when those went bust the telecoms followed them down the tubes. And investors lost a lot of money and got soured on telecom. The lasting effect of the bust was that it became unsexy to invest in telecom.

And almost nobody has invested in telecom since then. It’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t recognize that the US is falling behind the rest of the world in telecom infrastructure, namely fiber. Since the telecom bust the only ones investing in fiber to whole communities have been Verizon, some municipalities and some smaller independent telephone companies. Verizon’s decision to build fiber was a bold one, but it didn’t drag anybody else along. And Verizon’s fiber build dwarfs all of the rest of the builders collectively. The vast majority of the country does not have fiber but wants it badly.

But now Google comes along and is boldly investing in fiber in large communities – Kansas City and Austin. What they are telling the world is that there is profit in fiber, profit in infrastructure investing. Kansas City was touted as a trial, but by having announced Austin so quickly it is obvious that Google thinks that their experiment is working. And while Google has made an announcement for Provo, Utah, that is a one-off since they were able to pick up an existing fiber network and customers at a very good price.

I keep hearing that there is a lot of money today on the sidelines, meaning money waiting to get invested in good projects. And this is interesting to me since there is such an obvious need in this country today for new and upgraded infrastructure. In addition to a huge need for fiber networks there is a huge demand for clean energy generation plus the usual things like bridges and roads. Perhaps at least to some small degree the Google decision to boldly invest in infrastructure can be the first step towards unleashing the private equity in the country to invest in infrastructure again. Google thinks such investing can be profitable and obviously it is good for the country. Will others follow?

Categories
Improving Your Business Technology

Hosted IP Centrex Service

In a few other blogs I have referred to IP Centrex as a new service for businesses, so I thought I ought to explain the service. Hosted IP Centrex service uses data-centric phone sets to replaces key system, PBX system or existing Centrex service. The IP Centrex phones can be controlled by a softswitch or by connecting an IP PBX to a legacy switch.

A number of CCG’s clients are having success selling IP Centrex to business customers. The product includes the best features of a large PBX plus many additional “value added” services that are only available through IP based phone service. The product can be integrated with a subscriber’s computer systems to provide such features as dialing from Outlook, common databases for all employees, etc.

There is a wide range of phone sets available that include a screen that allows a caller to manage their calling. The product requires a customer to buy new IP handsets and many of my clients lease sets as part of the price.

This product has a large potential market since it can be tailored for the very small or very large business. It is easy for the carrier or the subscriber to customize features for each phone or for the whole system.

There are a number of benefits of this product to both the carrier and to subscribers. Some of the biggest advantages:

Benefits to the Carrier

  1. Can be sold to any business subscriber regardless of what service they had before. It’s a good replacement for B1’s, trunks or traditional Centrex.
  2. Subscribers become stickier to the extent you can get them hooked on custom features not available elsewhere.
  3. Allows a carrier to sell service outside your traditional footprint. You just need to find businesses that have a decent high-speed data connection. This also means you can sell voice services to all branches of a customer’s business and not just to those in your footprint.
  4. It promotes the Company’s data products and is easily bundled with data.
  5. The product has a lot of pricing flexibility and can be sold to compete with multiple B1’s or traditional Centrex. You should be able to profitably beat the price of any traditional phone product.

Benefits to Business Subscribers

  1. The Subscribers get a telephone system that equals the features of a high-end PBX.
  2. The Subscriber no longer needs to buy or maintain a PBX. The customer can buy the IP phones or lease them from you.
  3. Subscribers can portray a unified professional image to the public. Employees at remote locations can be integrated into the telephone system. And small companies can act like bigger companies by the use of the various features. Remote employees can be made to feel like a part of the Company.
  4. Subscribers can tailor the phone system and each phone to meet their needs. There are hundreds of features available including many that were not available on analog systems.
  5. Subscribers can easily manage the features available on each set using the Subscriber portal that allows for easy and immediate changes to the features on any or all phones.
  6. Phones are portable and an employee can quickly move their phone from desk to desk or office to office and keep the same extension, voice mail and features.
  7. Phones can be programmed to be nomadic (portable, but not mobile). This means that an employee can take the phone out of the office and work at home or in a hotel as if they were in the office.  All features and functions of the phone remain unchanged.
Categories
Technology The Industry What Customers Want

“Dumb Pipe” versus Full-Service Provider

Broadband and cable TV companies have been looking at their long-term strategy and they are going to have to decide if they are going to be what we at CCG call either a “dumb pipe” provider or a full-service provider.

A “dumb pipe” provider is a broadband company that sells a very fast Internet connection as its primary product and not much of anything else. A perfect example of this is what Google is doing in Kansas City. Google is selling a 1 Gbps Internet connection there for $70 per month. That is far more speed than is possible from the competition, but it is also more expensive. The only other product available from Google is one cable TV package that is bundled with the data for $120. Google only offers one other data package for low-income homes. Google doesn’t offer different size cable packages. They don’t offer voice. They don’t offer security, or cloud services or any of the panoply of new services that can be provided over fiber.

In my opinion Google has looked into the future and they believe that most of the other services that they could be selling will be available to customers over the very fast Internet connection that Google is selling them. One of the primary advantages to Google of the dumb pipe strategy is that they have a very simple product mix to sell. Fewer products means less staff needed to market, sell, provision and support customers.

The downside to the dumb pipe provider is that they will have a much lower average revenue per user (ARPU) than the full service provider. But both types of providers have a very similar cost of the network. And this is at the heart of the discussion that many of my clients are having about the long-term trends in the industry.

Most providers in the industry today are full-service providers. They support the full residential triple-play, have multiple options for cable TV, have multiple options for voice. They also sell a wide range of other products and their marketing strategy is aimed at getting the highest ARPU from customers they can.

But the full-service providers are worried when they look at some of the trends in the industry. They have already seen a lot of voice customers drop off the network. They are starting to see cable customers leave the network and they look ten years down the road and see a very different cable market. And so full-service providers are faced with figuring out how to go from where they are today to where they think they must be in the future.

I am starting to see evidence of the shift in the strategy of full-service providers. In the last year I have seen data prices being increased all over the country for the first time. And this is not because the cost of providing data is growing, because the margins on data have grown steadily each year over the last decade and are still growing. I think the service  providers have embarked on a long-term upward shift in data prices so that they will be getting more revenue from the one product that is likely to survive into the future.

The companies with the biggest dilemma are these just entering the market for the first time. Do they make the leap straight to being a dumb pipe provider, like Google, or do they become a full-service provider and enjoy the remaining years of high ARPU before voice and cable TV losses pull those numbers downward? It is a hard decision and a conversation I am now having with every new service provider.

Categories
Improving Your Business Technology The Industry

HD Voice

A spectrogram (0-5000 Hz) of the sentence “it’s all Greek to me” spoken by a female voice (Image:en-us-it’s_all_Greek_to_me.ogg). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

HD voice (or wideband audio) is a technology that delivers the full frequency range of the human voice.  Traditional telephony has delivered a narrowband voice transmission and only transmitted sounds between 300 Hz and 3.4 kHz. However, the human voice extends between 80 Hz and 14 kHz, so traditional telephone has chopped off parts of every voice transmission.

The range of frequency was curtailed for traditional telephony based upon the limited bandwidth available for transmitting voice calls over a twisted copper pair. But voice that is sent over an IP path does not have those limitations and can send the full range of the human voice.

There has been an industry standard for wideband voice since 1987. However, until recently the only uses of the standard were in high-end video conferencing systems and for transmitting sports announcers back to the home station for rebroadcast.

But the industry is starting to use the HD voice protocol for calls made over VoIP. For example, Skype and some other PC-to-PC voice providers use the full HD voice bandwidth and the higher quality of the call can be experienced by a caller using a high-quality headset or handset. These same calls don’t sound better when listened to on a standard phone due to limitations in the speakers. There are also a number of vendors offering wideband telephones such as Avaya, Cisco, Grandstream, Gigaset, Polycom and others. These sets are capable of both sending and receiving a wideband voice signal, but the phones at both ends must be wideband capable to engage in an HD quality call.

So what are the business opportunities with HD Voice? Businesses are interested in having high-quality calls, particularly in conference rooms, noisy areas and other places where the quality can make a difference. The business opportunity is to make the phones available to businesses that are served with IP voice paths. HD Voice can then be sold as an add-on feature or as a more expensive voice line. A company that wants the higher quality calling is a great candidate for moving off of traditional TDM services onto VoIP, IP Centrex or other IP voice solution.

Categories
Meet CCG Technology

Physics of the Future

I highly recommend anybody interested in Technology to read ‘Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100’ by Michio Kaku. The book is well written and is an easy and accessible read.

Kaku is a theoretical physicist who researched for this book by talking to leading scientists in many fields of science and asked them where current research is taking their fields by the end of the century. Many scientists see practical and disruptive innovations coming from their own fields of study. But when taken all together, the changes that the scientists see coming look amazingly like Star Trek minus the transporters and the warp speed travel and the Vulcans.

At the turn of the 20th century the world was completely disrupted by inventions like the automobile, electric lights, airplanes, etc. At the end of the last century we saw the world changed drastically by the computer.

Some of the many changes that scientists see coming during this next century include:

  • Cheap fusion power, meaning almost unlimited, pollution-free power for everybody.
  • The ability to locally make things (like the Star Trek replicator) which we are already starting to see with the 3D printer industry.
  • Computer chips so cheap that they are built into everything.
  • A high likelihood of computer sentience.
  • Nanotechnology being used to constantly monitor your health from within and that will intercede to keep you healthy. Cancer won’t be cured so much as it will never be allowed to get started.
  • Space tourism will be routine and not just for the very rich.
  • Driverless cars wiping out gridlock in even the biggest cities.

This book is a fascinating read. The next century is going to see massive technology disruptions that will completely transform almost every industry. In the process many of our largest corporations will go the way of the buggy whip manufacturers.

The book made me think about the telecom industry. One thing that is obvious is that there is going to be massive amounts of data produced everywhere and for this data to be made sense of we will need fiber networks. The idea of gigabit networks will be a quaint idea of the past and we will be having discussions about whether terabit networks are fast enough.

One thing the book doesn’t postulate about is the human element. Certainly there will be a lot of people eager to take advantage of these new technologies. But one has to wonder what is going to happen if parts of society turn their back on such revolutionary breakthroughs and what that might mean for the future of the planet. One also has to wonder if these breakthroughs will be made available to everybody or just to the rich. I haven’t read a book in a long time that has given me more to think and dream about.

Categories
Technology

Faster Fiber

Exceeding the Speed of Light (Photo credit: IntelGuy)

Researchers at the University of Southhampton have demonstrated a new fiber technology that allows light to traverse fiber at 99.7 % of the speed of light. This is a vast improvement over current fiber technologies that pass light at about 70% the speed of light.

It has long been understood that the glass in a fiber optics cable slows the light signal and that light can travel much faster through air. The new technology creates hollow fiber-optic cable to create a trapped air-pocket for the transmission media.

An abstract of the research can be viewed in Nature Photonics.

As can be expected, it will be a few years before the faster fiber hits the street. But the market is going to want faster fiber since the primary benefit of the new technology will be the reduction of latency on long-haul fiber routes. Researchers also postulate that the first use for the fiber might be as wiring for supercomputers since electricity ‘crawls’ through wiring at about 2/3 the speed of light.