Categories
The Industry

Here Comes FWA

Broadband industry statistics have been compiled by the Leichtman Research Group which provides an interesting new narrative for the industry. The biggest ISPs added just over one million new broadband customers in the first quarter of 2022, but half of the new customers went to the FWA products from Verizon and T-Mobile.

FWA stands for Fixed Wireless Access and is home broadband delivered using cellular frequencies. T-Mobile and Verizon are aggressively marketing the product, which is touted to have download speeds over 100 Mbps. The market is going to get hotter when Dish gets its launch underway soon. AT&T has also been promising a major new marketing effort to sell the product.

 1Q 2022 1Q Change % Change
Comcast 32,163,000 262,000 0.8%
Charter 30,274,000 185,000 0.6%
AT&T 15,533,000 29,000 0.2%
Verizon 7,400,000 35,000 0.5%
Cox 5,560,000 30,000 0.5%
Lumen 4,470,000 (49,000) -1.1%
Altice 4,373,200 (13,000) -0.3%
Frontier 2,819,000 20,000 0.7%
Mediacom 1,468,000 5,000 0.3%
Windstream 1,176,000 11,300 1.0%
Cable ONE 1,057,000 11,000 1.1%
T-Mobile FWA 984,000 338,000 52.3%
Breezeline 719,608 2,830 0.4%
TDS 495,200 4,900 1.0%
Verizon FWA 433,000 194,000 81.2%
Consolidated 380,150 (850) -0.2%
   Total 109,305,158 1,065,180 1.0%
Total Cable 75,614,808 482,830 0.6%
Total Telco 32,273,350 50,350 0.2%
FWA 1,417,000 532,000 60.1%

FWA was originally touted as the replacement for rural DSL. However, both T-Mobile and Verizon report having success selling the product in urban areas and competing with cable companies. This means that FWA success is going to bring down customer counts for other ISPs.

Over the past several years, Comcast and Charter have been accounting for most of the growth in broadband customers. In the first quarter, the two FWA providers and Comcast and Charter together account for 92% of net increases in broadband customers.

There are some interesting numbers inside this report.

  • Frontier has clearly turned it around after steady losses for several years and saw growth of 0.7% for the quarter.
  • The big loser is now Lumen, which lost over 1% of its broadband customers in the quarter.
  • We know that AT&T has been selling fiber connections at a hot pace but is still seeing significant losses of DSL customers to net out at a small positive growth.
  • The biggest percentage gainer among landline companies for the quarter is CABLE ONE, with quarterly growth of 1.1%.
  • Altice continues to struggle and lost broadband customers for the quarter.
Categories
Technology

Update on DOCSIS 4.0

LightReading recently reported on a showcase at CableLabs where Charter and Comcast demonstrated the companies’ progress in testing the concepts behind DOCSIS 4.0. This is the big cable upgrade that will allow the cable companies to deploy fast upload speeds – the one area where they have a major disadvantage compared to fiber.

Both companies demonstrated hardware and software that could deliver a lot of speed. But the demos also showed that the cable industry is probably still four to five years away from having a commercially viable product that cable companies can use to upgrade networks. That’s a long time to wait to get better upload speeds.

Charter’s demonstration was able to use frequencies within the coaxial cables up to 1.8 GHz. That’s a big leap up from today’s maximum frequency utilization of 1.2 GHz. As a reminder, a cable network operates as a giant radio system that is captive inside of the coaxial copper wires. Increasing the range of spectrums used means opening up a big range of additional bandwidth capacity inside of the transmission. These new breakthroughs are akin to the creation of G.Fast which harnesses higher frequencies inside the telephone copper wires. While engineers can theoretically guess how the higher frequencies will behave, the reason for these early tests is to find all of the unexpected quirks of how the various frequencies interact inside of the coaxial network in real-life conditions. A coaxial cable is not a sealed environment and allows interference from the outside world that can interfere unexpectedly with parts of the transmission path.

Charter used equipment supplied by Vicma for the node, Teleste for amplifiers, and ATX Networks for taps. The node is the electronics that sit in a neighborhood and converts the signal from fiber onto the coaxial network. Amplifiers are needed because the signals in a coaxial system don’t travel very far without having to be amplified and refreshed. Taps are the devices that peel signals from the coaxial distribution network to feed into homes. A cable company will have to replace all of these components, plus install new modems, to upgrade to a higher frequency network – which means the DOCSIS 4.0 upgrade will be expensive.

One of the impressive changes from the Charter demo was that the company said it could overlay the new DOCSIS system over top of an existing cable network without respacing. That’s a big deal because respacing would mean moving existing channels to make room for the new bandwidth allocation.

Charter was able to achieve a download speed of 8.9 Gbps download and 6.2 Gbps upload. They feel confident they will be able to get this over 10 Gbps. Comcast achieved speeds on its test of 8.2 Gbps download and 5.1 Gbps upload. In addition to researching DOCSIS 4.0, Comcast is also looking for ways to use the new technology to beef up existing DOCSIS 3.1 networks to provide faster upload speeds earlier.

Both companies face a market dilemma. They are both under pressure to provide faster upload speeds today. If they don’t find ways to do that soon, they will lose customers to fiber overbuilders and even the FWA wireless ISPs. It’s going to be devastating news for cable stock prices in the first quarter after Charter or Comcast loses broadband customers – but the current market trajectory shows that’s likely to happen.

Both companies are still working on lab demos and are using a breadboard chip designed specifically for this test. The normal lab development process means fiddling with the chip and trying new versions until the scientists are satisfied. That process always takes a lot longer than executives want but is necessary to roll out a product that works right. But I have to wonder if cable executives are in a big hurry to make an expensive upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 so soon after upgrading to DOCSIS 3.1.

Categories
The Industry

Stock Buybacks

All of the big ISPs brag to the public about how much they spend on their networks. There is barely a press release when they don’t remind the public how much money they are pouring back into making their networks better. Even at the local level, it’s rare to ask a big ISP to a local government meeting where they don’t open the conversation by reminding local politicians how much money they have spent in a given town or county.

The story is often just the opposite when problems with networks are pointed out, and communities ask the ISPs to beef up networks and improve service. That’s when we hear that money for capital spending is tight, but an ISP will make upgrades a priority in the future.

What’s never heard in conversation about capital spending is how much big ISPs spend to buy back shares of their own stock. This is a practice where big ISPs (and many other large corporations) use profits to purchase and retire stock. The transaction reduces the number of shares of outstanding stock and consequently nudges up the announced earnings per share. The first time I encountered the practice, I was flabbergasted.

Let’s consider the Comcast stock buybacks. Comcast paused stock buybacks in 2019, but in 2021 repurchased 73.2 million shares of stock for $4 billion. The company has over 4.5 billion outstanding shares of stock, so the buyback reduced the shares of outstanding stock by 1.6%. Comcast earnings for 2021 were announced as $3.06 per share for the year. Without the stock buyback, the earnings would have been $3.01.

The theory is this small nudge is good for investors. But it’s hard to envision a worse use for cash. Comcast could have gotten a far better return for investors from using that money to extend networks around their current markets, upgrading older networks to keep customers loyal, or marketing to add new customers. Those kinds of changes would result in long-term value gain for shareholders. Comcast recently announced that it is increasing the stock buyback in 2022 to $10 billion. To put that into perspective, Comcast’s capital spending for the last two years was $11.6 and $12.1 billion.

ISPs vary in the amount put towards stock buybacks according to their current cash situation and Board philosophy. Here are a few other stock buyback plans for large ISPs.

  • Charter has actively been buying back its stock. The company repurchased $15.4 billion of its own stock in 2021 and $11.2 billion in 2020.
  • T-Mobile has plans to really step up stock buybacks and plans to repurchase $60 billion of its own stock between 2023 and 2025.
  • AT&T is not currently buying back stock and only repurchased $104 million of stock in 2021.
  • Verizon told investors it would buy back 100 million shares of stock in 2022 – the stock is currently trading at $54 per share.
  • The one that is hardest to understand is Lumen. The company generated $700 million in free cash flow in 2021 and spent $1 billion to buy back its stock. That probably demonstrates the pressure that Wall Street is exerting for stock buybacks.

This makes me wonder if corporations that are engaging in stock buybacks should be allowed to get federal grants. For example, should we have allowed a company like Charter to get $1.2 billion in RDOF funding in 2020 at a time when the company was spending $11 billion to buy back its own stock? Did Charter really need a federal subsidy, or does grant funding just allow a company to even further increase stock buybacks? I don’t have an answer for that other than it just doesn’t feel right.

Categories
The Industry

Comcast Busts on FWA

One of the best ways to know when a new technology is a threat is when one of the big telcos or cable companies begins talking badly about it. The most recent case in point comes from a recent conference covered by LightReading where Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said that Comcast is not worried about competition from FWA (cellular wireless) technology. He was quoted as saying that FWA is an “inferior technology” that will not remain viable for the long term.

Realistically, Comcast and the other big ISPs have to be concerned about FWA technology. T-Mobile added 546,000 customers to the product in 2021, and Verizon added 173,000 – with most of the additions coming near the end of the year. MoffettNathanson says that FWA broadband accounted for 38% of all broadband customer gains in the fourth quarter. Bloomberg says that FWA accounted for 22% of all new broadband customers for the whole year of 2021. T-Mobile said that much of its growth came from urban and suburban customers formerly served by cable companies.

The FWA market is just getting started. T-Mobile says it has a target of serving seven to eight million homes by the end of 2026. Verizon says it is already passing 15 million homes with the technology and plans to be passing 30 million homes by the end of 2023. We don’t know the specific goals for Dish, but the newest big cellular carrier will start hitting the market this summer, and the company says it plans to have aggressive pricing.

Roberts is right in that FWA bandwidth cannot compete with the speeds of cable broadband. Comcast has increased its download speeds to a minimum of 200 Mbps for a new broadband connection and has a top speed of 1.2 Gbps. But that misses the point. FWA is targeting those households that have modest broadband needs or who want to save money. If a Comcast customer isn’t getting any discounts, the cost of basic broadband is over $90 when adding in the $14 charge to get a broadband modem. FWA products are priced between $50 and $60, and Dish is likely to be even lower. The FWA companies are competing for the households that care about price more than speed.

However, many houses will find the FWA product to be fast enough. Ookla speed test results for February 2022 show the nationwide average download speed for FWA at 146 Mbps, with the average upload at almost 21 Mbps. It’s worth noting that the FWA upload speeds are faster than the average speeds I’ve seen in any market for cable companies – which typically is closer to 15 Mbps.

It’s somewhat ironic for a cable company to say that the FWA technology is inferior because the cable companies have spent the last year lobbying hard not to set the definition of broadband to be any faster than 100/20 Mbps. That means Comcast believes that what FWA service is broadband.

Roberts’s major objection is that FWA is not a future-looking technology. That sounds like a valid point since the growth in broadband demand will probably mean that a decade from now we’ll think that 150/20 Mbps will feel like a slow broadband product. I’m not sure that carriers a lot of legs for customers who want to save money today.

But what Roberts is failing to acknowledge is the pending upgrade in six or seven years to real 5G. That technology will be able to right-size broadband connections for each customer according to the demand, and it’s likely that 5G speeds might eventually climb to as much as a gigabit – although that’s going to require the cellular companies to dump a lot of broadband into each neighborhood small cell site. But speeds on FWA will certainly be much faster a decade from now. In my mind, that’s the real threat of FWA to cable companies.

Of more immediate concern for cellular companies will be maintaining the 150/20 Mbps speeds recently measured by Ookla. These FWA products are being delivered by the same cell sites that deliver voice and data to cellphones, and the cellular carriers have all said that their cellular customers will get first priority at cell sites. If the cellular carriers sell too many FWA customers from a given cell site, there is a good chance that those customers will collectively drag down the overall speeds at a cell site. As long as this service is using 4G LTE technology, there are absolute caps on the amount of broadband a given cell site can deliver at a given time. Cellular carriers can make sure this is not a problem by not selling too many FWA customers in a given neighborhood. But that would require restraint, and I can’t think of a time when any big ISP ever restricted sales.

Categories
Uncategorized

National Broadband Growth is Slowing

Leichtman Research recently released the broadband customer statistics for the end of the fourth quarter of 2021. The numbers show that broadband growth has slowed significantly for the sixteen largest ISPs tracked by the company. LRG compiles these statistics from customer counts provided to stockholders, except for Cox which is privately owned.

Net customer additions sank each quarter during the year.  The first quarter of 2021 saw over 1 million net new broadband customers. That dropped to just under 900,000 in the second quarter, 630,000 in the third quarter, and now 423,000 in the fourth quarter. The statistics for all of 2021 and for the fourth quarter are as follows:

Annual % 4Q %
4Q 2021 Change Change Change Change
Comcast 30,574,000 1,327,000 4.3% 213,000 0.7%
Charter 28,879,000 1,210,000 4.2% 190,000 0.6%
AT&T 15,384,000 120,000 0.8% (6,000) 0.0%
Verizon 7,129,000 236,000 3.3% 28,000 0.4%
Cox 5,380,000 150,000 2.8% 20,000 0.4%
CenturyLink 4,767,000 (248,000) -5.2% (70,000) -1.5%
Altice 4,389,600 (3,400) -0.1% (1,900) 0.0%
Frontier 2,834,000 (35,000) -1.2% 10,000 0.4%
Mediacom 1,438,000 25,000 1.7% (3,000) -0.2%
Windstream 1,109,300 55,200 5.0% 17,500 1.5%
Cable ONE 992,000 63,000 6.4% 25,000 2.4%
Atlantic Broadband 698,000 18,778 2.7% (222) 0.0%
WOW! 498,800 12,900 2.6% 2,200 0.4%
TDS 493,300 32,700 6.6% 3,200 0.6%
Cincinnati Bell 436,100 3,900 0.9% 1,000 0.2%
Consolidated 401,357 (16,793) -4.2% (6,097) -1.6%
Total 105,403,457 2,951,285 2.8% 422,681 0.4%
Cable 72,849,400 2,803,278 3.8% 445,078 0.6%
Telco 32,554,057 148,007 0.5% (22,397) -0.1%
           
Fixed Wireless 874,000 719,000 82.3%    

There are a few interesting things to keep an eye on in the future. The growth for Comcast and Charter have slowed significantly and my prediction is that there will come a quarter within a year where one or both of them will lose net customers. For several years running, Frontier has been bleeding customers but seems to be turning it around. The big loser is now CenturyLink.

For some reason, LRG is leaving out fixed cellular customers. At the end of 2021, T-Mobile reported 646,000 fixed cellular customers, with 546,000 added in 2021. Verizon is up to 228,000 fixed cellular customers, up by 173,000 during 2021. The two companies, along with AT&T, are making a major push in this market and expect to add millions of customers in 2022 – many at the expense of the other ISPs on the list. It’s an odd choice to exclude these customers since the speeds on fixed cellular are faster than the DSL delivered by the telcos on the list. Also missing are other big providers that are probably larger than Consolidated, like a few of the largest WISPs and fiber overbuilders like Google Fiber.

But even after counting the growth of fixed cellular broadband, it’s obvious that the broadband market growth has cooled. The burst of new customers in 2020 and the first half of 2021 were clearly fueled by homes buying broadband during the pandemic.

It’s also worth noting that the numbers for WOW! and Atlantic Broadband (now Breezeline) have been adjusted for the sale of customers by WOW!.

Categories
The Industry

Multi-gigabit Broadband

AT&T recently announced multi-gigabit broadband plans on its fiber connections. The company has priced 2-Gbps broadband at $110 per month and 5-Gbps broadband at $180. AT&T isn’t the first company to offer multi-gigabit broadband speeds and joins other large ISPs:

  • Google Fiber has the most affordable 2-Gbps plan that I can find at $100 per month.
  • Ziply Fiber, which purchased and is upgrading the former Frontier properties in the northwest is selling 2.Gbps broadband for $120 and 5-Gbps broadband for $300.
  • Comcast has priced a 3 Gbps broadband connection at $300. The 3-Gbps product is likely only available where Comcast has built fiber.
  • There are smaller ISPs, municipalities, and cooperatives offering speeds faster than 1 Gbps.

For now, multi-gigabit broadband is mostly a marketing gimmick. It’s a way for an ISP to tell the public that its networks are fast. But the same thing was said about Google Fiber in 2012 when the company introduced one-gigabit fiber at a time when the primary broadband products provided by cable companies were at 30 Mbps and 60 Mbps. In the decade since the Google Fiber announcement, the gigabit broadband product has been embraced by the public. OpenVault reported that at the end of the third quarter of 2021 that 11.4% of all U.S. households were subscribed to gigabit broadband products.

I hear from skeptics often who say that no home needs a gigabit broadband connection, let alone something faster. But the market is telling us that people are willing to pay for gigabit speeds. The subscriptions to gigabit broadband leaped during the pandemic. My guess is that a lot of homes using cable companies upgraded to faster speeds to find a broadband product that would allow them to better work from home. People found the upload speeds on normal cable products to be limiting and upgraded to faster broadband packages to get better performance. I’ve always wondered if that worked, because from many of the speed tests results I’ve seen, even the gigabit products on cable companies often have measured uploads speeds of only 20 Mbps, with the fastest I’ve ever seen at 40 Mbps.

Gigabit products on fiber are a totally different broadband product than what is offered by cable companies. Most fiber broadband products have symmetrical upload and download speeds – and even the ones that aren’t symmetrical are far faster than products offered by the cable companies. Fiber has lower latency and jitter, so data transmissions are clean and fast. I’ve always wondered why homes with a symmetrical 250 Mbps or 400 Mbps fiber connection would upgrade to something faster – but ISPs tell me that people are ponying up for a gigabit.

There is one benefit of fast broadband speeds that we don’t talk about enough. A lot of homes have serious challenges in deploying WiFi. There can be major issues in propagating WiFi in homes with multiple stories, older homes built with plaster walls, or homes that want WiFi to reach nearby sheds and barns. A stronger broadband input means that the WiFi signal will be stronger throughout the house.

It’s unlikely, for now, that ISPs will be selling very many subscriptions to multi-gigabit broadband. The most likely to succeed is Google Fiber, which has priced 2-gigabits at $100. It’s obvious that companies that set the price at $300 per month don’t expect many folks to buy. But I have to wonder if in ten years that 2-gigabit broadband will be a common product?

Categories
The Industry

U.S. Broadband Prices – High or Low?

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of studies that ask how U.S. broadband prices stack up against the rest of the world. Interestingly, in 2021 I saw reports at both ends of the spectrum. One report says that U.S. broadband prices are among the most expensive in the world. At the other extreme is a report that claims that U.S. broadband prices are low and that prices are falling.

Let’s start with the high price claim. The most recent look comes from CompareTheMarket that claims that the average U.S. residential price for broadband is $66.13 and is the ninth most expensive in the world. The study compares a broadband product in each country that offers unlimited bandwidth and that delivers speeds of at least 60 Mbps download. According to this report, the only places with higher prices than the U.S. are Ethiopia, UAE, Qatar, Zimbabwe, Oman, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, and Iceland.

The calculated $66.13 price seems realistic to me and is similar to numbers I’ve been gathering all year through surveys. The CompareTheMarket price is only for broadband and doesn’t include a WiFi modem. I’ve been seeing average prices that include the WiFi modem generally range between $70 and $75 per month. It’s worth noting that the big ISPs have been quietly burying the cost of broadband in the modem fee, with one of the highest fees being the $14 monthly fee from Comcast.

There is another report that claims that U.S. Broadband prices are not only affordable but are falling from year to year. This comes from the 2021 Broadband Pricing Index Report published by USTelecom, the lobbying arm of the biggest ISPs in the country. That report makes some outrageous claims. For example, it claims that the price of the most popular tier of broadband declined by 7.5% between 2020 and 2021 – something that’s impossible to believe when Comcast and Charter, which together are half of the broadband industry, each had a significant rate increase during that period.

It’s impossible to understand what USTelecom is comparing since there are zero statistics cited to back up its numbers. It seems to be relying on the fact that the price per megabit has been decreasing – which I don’t think anybody disputes.  It’s clear that consumer broadband speeds have risen at a faster pace than prices. But that’s not what the report is implying – a casual reader would have to assume the report means that out-of-pocket prices to customers are dropping.

USTelecom puts out this report every year, and I always find it rankling. There is no consumer in the U.S. who thinks their ISP is cutting broadband prices. Some ISPs still negotiate with customers that ask for lower rates, but overall, broadband prices from the big cable companies that control most of the market keep rising year after year.

Comcast just announced an overall 3% price increase across the board for January 2022, but I haven’t yet seen this expressed in specific product prices. This comes on top of the basic broadband at Comcast that I calculate to cost $90. That’s $76 for the basic standalone broadband package (100 Mbps or 200 Mbps in most markets), plus $14 for the WiFi modem. The rate increase would put the new price at around $93.

I have to think that the USTelecom report is aimed at providing cover for politicians that support the big ISPs. There are no consumers who feel like broadband prices are dropping – unless perhaps they are in a market where a new competitor showed up during the last year. But USTelecom and the big ISPs want politicians to think the ISPs are looking out for the public during the pandemic.

I know I shouldn’t get worked up over these kinds of shenanigans from the big ISPs. But it’s aggravating to see them peddle such blather since the purpose behind these untruths is to lobby policymakers. This is a story the ISPs want legislators to hear to tell at a time when the big ISPs know that the FCC is likely to reintroduce broadband regulation. The message from the big ISPs is clear, “Why regulate us? Look how well we’re taking care of the public without regulation”. Tell that to the families paying $90 per month for Comcast broadband – assuming they don’t exceed Comcast’s data cap and pay even more.

Categories
Regulation - What is it Good For?

The FCC and Broadband Outages

Comcast had a widespread network outage in early November. The problems started in San Francisco and spread the next day to Chicago, Philadelphia, parts of New Jersey, and three other states. The outage knocked out broadband customers along with Comcast cellular customers. Comcast has never disclosed the reason for the outage and announced only that it was due to a ‘network issue’.

In 2020 CenturyLink suffered an even larger outage that not only knocked out CenturyLink customers but spread into other networks, including Amazon, Cloudflare, and Hulu. The problem was blamed on a software update that blocked the establishment of Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) sessions and impeded broadband traffic routing.

T-Mobile also had a major network outage in 2020 that knocked out broadband customers and also cut off some voice calls and most texting for nearly a whole day. T-Mobile blamed the issue on problems with a leased circuit that was compounded by two previously undetected flaws in third-party software. Reports at the time said that the electronics failed on a leased circuit, and then the backup circuit also failed. This then caused a cascade that brought down a large part of the T-Mobile network.

In 2019 CenturyLink had perhaps the largest outage that knocked out much of its network and customers that relied on the Level 3 network for transport. The company blamed the outage on a bad circuit card in Denver that somehow cascaded to bring down a large swath of fiber networks in the West, including numerous 911 centers.

The FCC investigates big outages from time to time and opened an inquiry in October 2020 in a few of the outages listed above. The FCC also recently adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to investigate the disaster resiliency plans of major telecom providers to take a harder look at how cellular and broadband carriers make repairs after big storms.

Interestingly, the FCC recently fined T-Mobile $19.5 million for the 2020 outage, but not the other carriers. This is not because T-Mobile’s outage was worse than the others. T-Mobile was fined because they are a cellular carrier and still fully regulated by the FCC. But Comcast and CenturyLink are ISPs and under different regulatory rules.

Oddly, the FCC has very little power to do anything about ISP network outages because the FCC has very little regulatory authority over ISPs in general. The FCC abrogated its authority to regulate ISPs when it killed Title II regulation and handed a few vestiges of regulation to the Federal Trade Commission. The FCC only regulates ISPs tangentially through the specific authority given directly by Congress. Any authority the FCC once had as a result of claiming Title II regulatory authority is gone.

The process has finally started to seat a fifth FCC Commissioner, and the industry speculates that one of the early acts with five Commissioners will be to reinstate Title II authority. This effort might be a little more streamlined in the past because federal courts have already ruled that the FCC can choose to regulate or not regulate broadband.

Unfortunately, any move to regulate ISPs and broadband will only last until we have another shift in administration that wants to kill regulation again. We have ended up in an absurd regulatory merry-go-round where regulating or not regulating ISPs depends on the party that controls the White House. It makes no sense to not regulate ISPs at a time when cable companies have nearly total monopoly power in some markets. Overall, broadband might be the most important industry in the country because it powers just about everything else. Local jurisdictions around the country regulate occupations like nail salon technicians, plumbers, and masseuses, and yet we can’t get our act together as a country to regulate an industry where a handful of giant ISPs openly manifest monopoly behavior.

There is a really simple fix for this. Congress could give authority to the FCC to regulate broadband so that future FCCs or administrations could not undo it. It would only take a simple law that says something like, “The FCC shall regulate the broadband industry for the benefit of the citizens of the United States.” Obviously, lawyers could word this to be more ironclad – but giving the FCC the authority to regulate broadband doesn’t have to be complicated.

Categories
The Industry

Comcast Offers New Work-from-home Product

The pandemic has forced millions of people to work from home. This instantly caused heartburn for the IT departments of large corporations because remote workers create new security vulnerabilities and open companies to cyberattacks and hacking. Big companies have spent the last decade moving data behind firewalls and suddenly are being asked to let thousands of employees pierce the many layers of protection against outside threats.

Comcast announced a new product that will alleviate many of the corporate IT concerns. Comcast, along with Aruba has created the Comcast Business Teleworker VPN product. This product creates a secure VPN at an employee’s home and transports the VPNs for all remote workers to a remote datacenter where corporate IT can then deal with all remote workers in one place.  This isolates the worker connections from the corporate firewalls and employees instead deal with copies of corporate software that sit in a datacenter.

There is a perceived long-term need for the product since as many as 70% of companies say that they are likely to continue with the work-from-home model after the end of the pandemic. Working from home is now going to be a routine component of corporate life.

At the home end, the Comcast product promises to not interfere with existing home broadband. The only way for Comcast to do this is to establish a second data stream from a house using a separate cable modem (or utilizing modems that can establish more than one simultaneous connection). This is an important aspect of the product because one of the biggest complaints about working from home is that many homes have problems accommodating more than one or two workers or students at the same time. This new product would be ill-received by workers if implementing it means less bandwidth for everybody else in the home.

By routing all remote employees to a common hub, Comcast will enable corporate IT staff to mimic the work computing environment for remote workers. Many companies are currently giving remote employees limited access to core software systems and data, but this arrangement effectively establishes the Comcast hub as a secure node on the office network.

This is something that any ISP with a fiber network should consider mimicking. An open-access network on fiber already does this same thing today. An open-access network creates a VPN at each customer of a given ISP and then aggregates the signals, untouched, to deliver to the ISP. On a fiber network, this function can be done by fairly simple routing.  Fiber ISPs can also provide the home working path separate from the consumer path by either carving out a VPN or else providing a second data path – something most fiber ONTs already allow.

Comcast has taken the extra step of partnering with Aruba to enable a corporation to establish a virtual corporate data center at a remote site. But fiber ISPs don’t have to be that complicated and rather than offering this to only large corporate clients, a fiber network could deliver a secure path between home and office for a business with only a few remote employees.

This could even be provided to sole proprietors and could safely link home and office on a VPN.  That allows for the marketing of a ‘safe office’ connection for businesses of any size and would provide the average small business a much more secure connection between home and office than they have today.

Every fiber provider that serves both residential communities and business districts ought to develop some version of this product by year-end. If working from home is a new reality, then fiber-based ISPs ought to be catering to that market using the inherent robustness and safety of a fiber network to create and route VPNs over the local fiber network.

Categories
Technology

Network Function Virtualization

Comcast recently did a trial of DOCSIS 4.0 at a home in Jacksonville, Florida, and was able to combine various new techniques and technologies to achieve a symmetrical 1.25 Gbps connection. Comcast says this was achieved using DOCSIS 4.0 technology coupled with network function virtualization (NFV), and distributed access architecture (DAA). Today I’m going to talk about the NFV concept.

The simplest way to explain network function virtualization is that it brings the lessons learned in creating efficient data centers to the edge of the network. Consider a typical data center application that is to provide computing to a large business customer. Before the conversion to the cloud, the large business network likely contained a host of different devices such as firewalls, routers, load balancers, VPN servers, and WAN accelerators. In a fully realized cloud application, all of these devices would be replaced with software that would mimic the functions of each device, all operated remotely in a data center consisting of banks of super-fast computer chips.

There are big benefits from a conversion to the cloud. Each of the various devices used in the business IT environment  is expensive and proprietary. The host of expensive devices, likely from different vendors are replaced with lower-cost generic servers that run on fast chips. A host of expensive electronics sitting at each large business is replaced by much cheaper servers sitting in a data center in the cloud.

There is also a big efficiency gain from the conversion because inevitably the existing devices in the historic network operated with different software systems that were never 100% compatible. Everything was cobbled together and made to work, but the average IT department at a large corporation never fully understood everything going on inside the network. There were always unexplained glitches when software systems of different devices interacted in the work network.

In this trial, Comcast used this same concept in the cable TV broadband network. Network function virtualization was used to replace the various electronic devices in the Comcast traditional network including the CMTS (cable modem termination system), various network routers, transport electronics for sending a broadband signal to neighborhood nodes, and likely the whole way down to the settop box. All of these electronic components were virtualized and performed in the data center or nearer to the edge in devices using the same generic chips that are used in the data center.

There are some major repercussions for the industry if the future is network function virtualization. First, all of the historic telecom vendors in the industry disappear. Comcast would operate a big data center composed of generic servers, as is done today in other data centers all over the country. Gone would be different brands of servers, transport electronics, and CMTS servers – all replaced by sophisticated software that will mimic the performance of each function performed by the former network gear. The current electronics vendors are replaced by one software vendor and cheap generic servers that can be custom built by Comcast without the need for an external vendor.

This also means a drastically reduced need for electronics technicians at Comcast, replaced by a handful of folks operating the data center. We’ve seen this same transition roll through the IT world as IT staffs have been downsized due to the conversion to the cloud. There is no longer a need for technicians that understand proprietary hardware such as Cisco servers, because those devices no longer exist in the virtualized network.

NFV should mean that a cable company becomes more nimble in that it can introduce a new feature for a settop box or a new efficiency into data traffic routing instantly by upgrading the software system that now operates the cable network.

But there are also two downsides for a cable company. First, conversion to a cloud-based network means an expensive rip and replacement of every electronics component in the network. There is no slow migration into DOCSIS 4.0 if it means a drastic redo of the underlying way the network functions.

There is also the new danger that comes from reliance on one set of software to do everything in the network. Inevitably there are going to be software problems that arise – and a software glitch in an NFV network could mean a crash of the entire Comcast network everywhere. That may sound extreme, and companies operating in the cloud will work hard to minimize such risks – but we’ve already seen a foreshadowing of what this might look like in recent years. The big fiber providers have centralized network functions across their national fiber networks, and we’ve seen network outages in recent years that have knocked out broadband networks in half of the US. When a cloud-based network crashes, it’s likely to crash dramatically.

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