Cable Companies and 10 Gbps

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.

Are You Ready for 10 Gbps?

Around the world, we’re seeing some migration to 10 Gbps residential broadband. During the last year the broadband providers in South Korea, Japan, and China began upgrading to the next-generation PON and are offering the blazingly fast broadband products to consumers. South Korea is leading the pack and expects to have the 10 Gbps speed to about 50% of subscribers by the end of 2022.

In the US there are a handful of ISPs offering a 10 Gbps product, mostly for the publicity – but they stand ready to install the faster product. Notable is Fibrant in Salisbury, NC and EPB in Chattanooga. EPB which was also among the first to offer a 1 Gbps residential product a few years ago.

I have a lot of clients who already offer 10 Gbps connections to large business and carrier customers to serve large businessesn like data centers and hospital complexes. However, except for the few pioneers, these larger bandwidth products are being delivered directly to a single customer using active Ethernet technology.

There are a few hurdles for offering speeds over a gigabit in the US. Perhaps foremost is that there are no off-the-shelf customer electronics that can handle speeds over a gigabit – the typical WiFi routers and computers work at slower speeds. The biggest hurdle for an ISP continues to be the cost of the electronics. Today the cost of next-generation PON equipment is high and will remain so until the volume of sales brings the per-unit prices down. The industry market research firm Ovum predicts that we’ll see wide-spread 10 Gbps consumer products starting in 2020 but not gaining traction until 2024.

In China, Huawei leads the pack. The company has a 10 Gbps PON system that is integrated with a 6 Gbps WiFi 6 router for the home. The system is an easy and overlay on top of the company’s traditional GPON network gear. In South Korea the largest ISP SK Broadband has worked with Nokia to develop a proprietary PON technology only used today inside of South Korea. Like Huawei, this overlays onto the existing GPON network. In Japan the 10 Gbps PON network is powered by Sumitomo, a technology only being sold in Japan. None of these technologies has made a dent in the US market, with Huawei currently banned due to security concerns.

In the US there are two technologies being trialed. AT&T is experimenting with XGS-PON technology. They plan to offer 2 Gbps broadband, upgradable to 10 Gbps in the new high-tech community of Walsh Ranch being built outside of Ft. Worth. AT&T is currently trialing the technology at several locations within its FTTP network that now covers over 12 million passings. Verizon is trying the NG-PON2 technology but is mostly planning to use this to power cell sites. It’s going to hard for any ISP to justify deployment of the new technologies until somebody buys enough units to pull down the cost.

Interestingly, Cable Labs is also working on a DOCSIS upgrade that will allow for faster speeds up to 10 Gbps. The problem most cable networks will have is in finding space of their network for the needed channels to support the faster speeds.

There are already vendors and labs exploring 25 Gbps and 50 Gbps PON. These products will likely be used for backhaul and transport at first. The Chinese vendors think the leap forward should be to 50 Mbps while other vendors are all considering a 25 Mbps upgrade path.

The real question that needs to be answered is if there is any market for 10 Gbps bandwidth outside the normally expected uses like cellular towers, data centers, and large business customers. This same question was asked when EPB at Chattanooga and LUS in Lafayette, Louisiana rolled out the earliest 1 Gbps residential bandwidth. Both companies were a bit surprised when they got a few instant takers for the faster products – in both markets from doctors that wanted to be able to analyze MRIs and other big files at home. There are likely a few customers who need speeds above 1 Gbps, with doctors again being good candidates. Just as broadband speeds have advanced, the medical imaging world has grown more sophisticated in the last decade and is creating huge data files. The ability to download these quickly offsite will be tempting to doctors.

I think we are finally on the verge of seeing data use cases that can eat up most of a gigabit of bandwidth in the residential environment. For example, uncompressed virtual and augmented reality can require masses of downloaded data in nearly real-time. As we start seeing use cases for gigabit speeds, the history of broadband has shown that the need for faster speeds is probably not far behind.

More FCC Mapping Woes

The FCC has another new billion dollar grant program, this one aimed to improve rural cellular coverage. Labeled as the Mobility Fund II the program will conduct a reverse auction sometime next year to give $4.53 billion to cellular carriers to extend wireless coverage to the most remote parts of the country. For taking the funding a cellular carrier must bring 4G LTE coverage to the funded areas and achieve cellular download speeds of at least 10 Mbps. Funding will be distributed over 10 years with build out requirements sooner than that.

Just like with the CAF II program, the areas eligible for funding are based upon the FCC’s broadband maps using data collected by the existing cellular carriers. As you might expect, the maps show that the parts of the country with the worst coverage – those eligible for funding – are mostly in the mountains and deserts of the west and in Appalachia.

The release of the Mobility Fund II maps instantly set off an uproar as citizens everywhere complained about lack of cellular coverage and politicians from all over the country asked the FCC why there wasn’t more funding coming to their states. The FCC received letters from senators in Mississippi, Missouri, Maine and a number of other states complaining that their states have areas with poor or non-existent cellular coverage that were not covered be the new fund.

If you’ve traveled anywhere in rural America you know that there are big cellular dead spots everywhere. I’ve been to dozens of rural counties all across America in the last few years and every one of them has parts of their counties without good cellular coverage. Everybody living in rural America can point to areas where cellphones don’t work.

The issue boils down to the FCC mapping used to define cellular and broadband coverage. The maps for this program were compiled from a one-time data request to the cellular carriers asking for existing 4G coverage. It’s obvious by the protests that the carriers claim cellular coverage where it doesn’t exist.

In August, the Rural Wireless Association (RWA) filed a complaint with the FCC claiming that Verizon lied about its cellular coverage by claiming coverage in many areas that don’t have it. This is the association of smaller wireless companies (they still exist!). They say that the Verizon’s exaggerated coverage claims will block the funding to many areas that should be eligible.

The Mobility Fund II program allows carriers to challenge the FCC’s maps by conducting tests to identify areas that don’t have good cellular coverage. The smaller carriers in the RWA have been filing these challenges and the FCC just added 90 additional days for the challenge process. Those challenges will surely add new eligible coverage areas for this program.

But the challenge program isn’t going to uncover many of these areas because there are large parts of the country that are not close to an RWA carrier, and which won’t be challenged. People with no cellular coverage that are not part of the this grant program might never get good cellular coverage – something that’s scary as the big telcos plan to tear down copper in rural America.

The extent of the challenges against the Verizon data are good evidence that Verizon overstated 4G LTE coverage. The RWA members I know think Verizon did this purposefully to either block others from expanding cellular networks into areas already served by Verizon or to perhaps direct more of this new fund to areas where Verizon might more easily claim some of the $4.5 billion.

To give Verizon a tiny amount of credit, knowing cellular coverage areas is hard. If you’ve ever seen a coverage map from a single cell tower you’ll instantly notice that it looks like a many-armed starfish. There are parts of the coverage area where good signal extends outward for many miles, but there are other areas where the signal is blocked by a hill or other impediments. You can’t draw circles on a map around a cell tower to show coverage because it only works that way on the Bonneville Salt Flats. There can be dead spots even near to the cell tower.

The FCC fund is laudable in that it’s trying to bring cellular coverage to those areas that clearly don’t have it. But there are countless other holes in cellular coverage that cannot be solved with this kind of fund, and people living in the many smaller cellular holes won’t get any relief from this kind of funding mechanism. Oddly, this fund will bring cellular coverage to areas where almost nobody lives while not addressing cellular holes in more populated areas.

Do We Need 10 Gbps?

wraparound-glassesWe are just now starting to see a few homes nationwide being served by a 1 Gbps data connection. But the introduction of DOCSIS 3.1 cable modems and a slow but steady increase in fiber networks will soon make these speeds available to millions of homes.

Historically we saw home Internet speeds double about every three years, dating back to the 1980s. But Google Fiber and others leapfrogged that steady technology progression with the introduction of 1 Gbps for the home.

There are not a whole lot of home uses today that require a full gigabit of speed – but there will be. Home usage of broadband is still doubling about every three years and homes will catch up to that speed easily within a few years. Cisco recently said that the average home today needs 24 Mbps speeds but by 2019 will need over 50 Mbps. It won’t take a whole lot of doublings of those numbers to mean that homes will expect a lot more speed than we are seeing today.

There is a decent chance that the need for speed is going to accelerate. Phil McKinney of CableLabs created this video that shows what a connected home might look like in the near future. The home owns a self-driving car. The video shows a mother working at home with others using a collaboration wall, with documents suspended in the air. It shows one daughter getting a holographic lecture from Albert Einstein while another daughter is talking with her distant grandmother, seemingly in a meadow somewhere. And it shows the whole family using virtual / enhanced reality goggles to engage in a delightful high-tech game.

This may seem like science fiction, but all of these technologies are already being developed. I’ve written before about how we are at the start of the perfect storm of technology innovation. Our past century was dominated by a few major new technologies and the recent forty years has been dominated by the computer chip. But there are now literally dozens of potentially transformational technologies all being developed at the same time. It’s impossible to predict which ones will have the biggest influence on daily life – but many of them will.

Most of these new technologies are going to require a lot of bandwidth. Whether it’s enhanced reality, video collaboration, robots, medical monitoring, self-driving cars or the Internet of Things, we are going to see a lot of needs for bandwidth much greater than today’s surge due to video. The impact of video, while huge today, will pale against the bandwidth needs of these new technologies – particularly when they are used together as implied in this video.

So it’s not far-fetched to think that we are going to need homes with bandwidth needs beyond the 1 Gbps data speeds we are just now starting to see. I’m always disappointed when I see ISP executives talking about how their latest technology upgrades are making them future proof. There are only two technologies that can meet the kinds of speeds envisioned in McKinney’s video – fiber and cable networks. These speeds are not going to be delivered by telephone copper or wirelessly, and to think so is to ignore the basic physics underlying each technology.

Some of the technologies shown in KcKinney’s video are going to start becoming popular within five years, and within twenty years they will all be mature technologies that are part of everyday life. We need to have policies and plans that look towards building the networks we are going to need to achieve that future. We have to stop having stupid government programs that throw away money on expanding DSL and we need to build networks that have use beyond just a few years.

McKinney’s video is more than just an entertaining glimpse into the near-future; it’s also meant to prod us into making sure that we are ready for that future. There are many companies today investing in technologies that can’t deliver gigabit speeds – and such companies will grow obsolete and disappear within a decade or two. And policies that do anything other than promote gigabit networks are a waste of time and resources.