The Dirty Secret of Coaxial Broadband

The US has clearly pinned our hopes for providing modern broadband on the big cable companies. At the end of 2019, the big cable companies had almost 68 million customers compared to 33 million for the big telcos. Any discussion of broadband in urban markets is mostly a discussion of big cable company broadband. Cable companies will continue to grow market dominance as urban DSL customers continue to migrate to cable modem. In 2019 the big cable companies added 3.1 million customers while the telcos lost over 600,000 customers.

The big cable companies have all advertised to their customers that they had upgraded to the latest technology in DOCSIS 3.1 and can now provide gigabit broadband – for an expensive price in most markets set well over $100 per month.

It’s easy to think of urban cable systems as up-to-date and high tech and ready and able to deliver fast broadband speeds. While this is true in some cities and in some neighborhoods, the dirty secret of the cable industry is that their networks are not all up to snuff. Everybody is aware of the aging problems that have plagued the telephone copper network – but it’s rare to hear somebody talking about the aging of the cable company copper networks.

Most of the cable networks were built in the 1970s, with some even a little older. Just like with telephone copper networks the coaxial networks are getting old and a network built around 1970 is now fifty years old.

Cable coaxial networks suffer more from deterioration than do telephone copper networks. The copper wires in a coaxial system are much larger and the wires hanging on poles act like a giant antenna that can receive a range of different frequencies. Any physical opening into the wire through a splice point or from aging creates a new ingress point for external frequencies – and that equates to noise on the coaxial network. Increased noise translates directly to decreased performance of the network. The capacity of the older coaxial networks is significantly lower than when the networks were first constructed.

Another issue with coaxial networks is that the type of coaxial cable used has changed over time and some of the coax used in the early networks can’t handle the capacity needed today. Some older coax has been replaced in urban networks, but not all. Coaxial networks in smaller towns still can contain a lot of older-generation coaxial cables.

These issues mean that coaxial networks don’t always perform as well as is touted by the cable companies. I can use the network in my city of Asheville NC as an example. Charter announced nationally that when it upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1 that it had a goal of raising broadband speeds everywhere to 200 Mbps. My speed at the modem is 135 Mbps. I’m not complaining about my speed and I’m glad they increased my speed, but there must be issues in the local network that stopped Charter from achieving its 200 Mbps goal.

We undertake surveys and citywide speed tests across the country and we often see that the performance of coaxial networks varies by neighborhood. We’ve seen neighborhoods where there are more outages, more variance in download speeds, and overall slower speeds than the rest of the city. These problems are almost certainly due to differences within a city of the quality of the coaxial network.

Cable companies could bring older neighborhoods up to snuff, but such upgrades are expensive. It might mean replacing a lot of drops and any runs of older coaxial cable. It might mean replacing or re-spacing amplifiers. It often means replacing all of the power taps (the devices that connect homes to the distribution cables). The upgrading effort is labor-intensive, and that means costly.

I think this means that many cities will never see another unilateral increase in broadband speeds unless the cable companies first make big investments. The cable companies have increased speeds every few years since 2000 to keep ahead of the telcos and to make customers happier with their service. I fear that since cable companies are becoming de facto monopolies in most cities that they have lost the incentive to get faster if that means spending money. The coaxial networks and speeds that we have in place today might be what we still have a decade from now, only with coaxial networks that are another ten years older.

Who is a Cable Company?

wikipedia:RG-6 Wikipedia:Coaxial cable

wikipedia:RG-6 Wikipedia:Coaxial cable (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are regulatory battles that tackle issues of great importance, but there are also battles, which if brought to the public’s attention would leave them shaking their heads. Currently there is one such battle going on at the FCC.

The battle is a simple one that defines who is a cable company. This kind of regulatory battle comes up all of the time because of the nature of the way that regulation is written. Traditional cable TV has been around since the 1950’s when it brought network channels to remote rural markets which had no over-the-air reception. But the industry as we all now know it exploded in the 70’s when the industry was deregulated and new programming was created in the form of the many networks we now all watch.

As often happens, the FCC regulations concerning cable TV were written to be very technology specific. For many decades there was only one way to be a cable television provider, and that was to string coaxial cable to deliver cable signal to homes. The original cable technology got a major upgrade when fiber was brought into the network and most cable companies upgraded to hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) systems. But the new HFC technology still delivered the cable signal to the home using the same coaxial cables.

But then, as invariably happens with technology, something new came along. First were the satellite providers. They don’t use any wires and instead put satellites into low orbits and send the signal down to everybody that is under the satellites. And more recently came IPTV (IP-based delivery of cable signal using either DSL over copper wire or fiber). IPTV differs from traditional cable TV in that it typically only sends the signal to the customer for the channel they are watching while traditional cable transmits all of the channels all of the time. And there have been other technologies used during the years, such as several cable systems that were developed that beamed the signal to customers using a spectrum referred to as MMDS.

One would think that as new technologies are developed that do the same things as older technologies that regulations would just be changed as needed. After all, the general public doesn’t much care about the technology used to deliver their cable programming. I think most people would agree that a cable TV company is one that brings MTV and ESPN to their television.

And the technology is about to get a lot more complicated. First, many cable companies are upgrading their networks to become more digital and there are already trials of cable companies that are upgrading to IPTV across their coaxial cables. They are doing this to save more bandwidth to use to provide faster cable modem service. Would this mean they are no longer cable companies? And then there is the whole issue of people getting programming over the Internet. If I watch The Daily Show on my cellphone, is that cable TV? My guess is that no matter what the FCC does to change the definition of cable TV that it will be out of date in just a few years.

Technology differences are at the heart of a lot of FCC issues. For example, there are different rules now that apply to traditional long distance telephone companies versus those who use IP and the Internet to deliver telephone calls. A lot of the reason for these issues is that the FCC doesn’t get to make up its own rules in a vacuum. Many of the underlying rules that the FCC enforces are derived from bills passed by Congress. The FCC has a certain amount of leeway to interpret such rules, but they are also restrained to a great degree by stepping too far outside of Congress’s original language and intentions in the various laws.

As is often the case, this current dispute boils down to money. The FCC charges a fee per cable customer to pay for the cost of operating its Media Bureau, which oversees cable TV providers. Currently this fee is only assessed to traditional cable TV operators that deliver their signal to customers using coaxial cable. But the fee is not charged to the satellite and the IPTV providers. And both of those groups are huge. For instance if AT&T U-verse, which uses IPTV was classified as a cable company they would be the seventh largest cable provider. And the satellite companies are huge with over 34 million subscribers in 2012.

As usual, the various companies argue that there are differences that should keep them from being regulated as cable companies. For example the satellite providers don’t get involved in issues concerning hanging cables on poles. But honestly those kinds of distinctions are silly. There are differences everywhere among companies in every regulated industry. For example, there are many FCC rules that apply to the very large telephone companies that don’t apply to tiny telephone companies, and vice versa. And yet they are all considered to be telephone companies.

The similarities among cable providers are obvious. They all deliver a nearly identical product to consumers and they all pay a lot of money to programmers to get the content they transmit. And they are all regulated by the Media Bureau. Common sense tells me that any company that delivers cable programming to homes is a cable company and ought to kick in for the cost of regulation. I am not sure that I have ever seen any regulatory issue that makes me think, “If it quacks like a duck it must be a duck”.