Pushing Back Against Municipal Broadband

As a cautionary tale to any city that provides broadband, the incumbent ISPs are always going to push back on city initiatives. The following is a story from the summer that slipped off my radar. The city of Tucson, Arizona, launched a free wireless network to bring broadband to students in homes without broadband. As would be expected, the incumbent cable company, Cox Communications, fought against the city-provided broadband.

The city recognized the need for the network when it got requests for over 7,000 wireless access points from students during the pandemic. The city decided that the best long-term solution to the large numbers of unserved students was to create a private network using CBRS spectrum. We tend to think of municipal wireless networks as slow, but the city’s network rivals the broadband speeds offered by other cellular carriers in the city.

The city is using 4G LTE technology, which provides for the same indoor coverage as received by cell phones. The city identified 20 square miles of the city with the greatest number of students without home broadband. The initial network consisted of 40 small cell sites, and there are plans to add more. Broadband is received in the home through a typical cellular receiver and a SIM card that identifies the network. Broadband speeds are more than adequate to support a single student with download speeds over 50 Mbps and upload speeds over 3 Mbps. This network avoids the problem of having multiple students in a household sharing the network because it provides a receiver for each student.

The network has some interesting features. It supports basic network slicing which gives the school board the ability to prioritize school broadband traffic over other uses by students. The city is now looking at how to use this network for smart city purposes since the network provides broadband everywhere. The city is considering using the technology for monitoring the water system (critical infrastructure in arid Tucson), for providing ubiquitous broadband in parks, for connecting to all firefighters and other first responders, and for controlling traffic lights.

As might be expected, Cox Communications, the incumbent cable company, pushed back against the city network. When the wireless network was first discussed publicly, Cox made a proposal to provide 10 Mbps broadband to students in some selected parts of the city. When told that the wireless network would be delivering speeds of at least 50 Mbps, Cox countered that it would also be able to match the higher speed. But the first Cox offer is typical of most cable company low-income broadband programs – the speeds offered are far slower than what is delivered to a basic broadband customer.

Cox also sent a letter to the Tucson city council that warned about the problems that would be caused by broadband competition from the city. The letter included the same refrains we have seen elsewhere. The city shouldn’t be competing against the public sector. Cox warned that the city would have a hard time maintaining its new network. Cox also offered to partner with the city to build broadband in parts of the city not reached by Cox (with the city paying for the expansion).

I’m not sure that we should expect incumbents to act differently. As the cable company, Cox has a virtual monopoly on broadband since Cox largely competes only against DSL – and monopolies always fight to maintain monopoly power. Cable companies fight against all competition. They try every trick in the book to delay new commercial ISPs from building networks. But cable companies roll out a full press against city initiatives because they hope there is a political pressure point that will cause the city to reconsider. They know it’s a smart tactic because there are many cities that have canceled broadband plans after heavy lobbying by the incumbents.

In this case, the city didn’t back down and has launched the first phase of the wireless network. This became much easier for the city to finance after it received ARPA money from Congress that can be used to pay for broadband infrastructure. I am positive that the city will derive huge benefits from this network far past the day when the pandemic is behind us.

Will Cable Companies Ignore Pleas for Faster Uploads?

One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic on broadband networks has been that homes suddenly care about upload speeds. Homes that largely lived off of downloading video transitioned to having adults and students at home and simultaneously trying to connect to remote work and school servers. People who were happy with their broadband speeds pre-pandemic suddenly found their broadband connection to be inadequate. Industry statistics show that huge numbers of people have upgraded to faster broadband products hoping to improve the home broadband performance without realizing that their performance bottleneck is due to inadequate upload speeds.

The cable industry has largely ignored upload bandwidth in the past. DOCSIS technology that operates the cable broadband networks allows as much as one-eight of total bandwidth to be dedicated to uploading. However, many cable broadband connections are configured with something less than that, because very few homeowners, other than perhaps photographers or others professionals who routinely send big files have ever cared about upload speeds. To make matters worse, the cable industry generally has squeezed the upload data stream into the portion of a cable network spectrum that has the most noise and interference. That never mattered to most people when sending files, but it matters when trying to maintain a steady connection to a work or school WAN.

But suddenly upload speeds matter to a lot of households. Some of the current pressure on upload speeds will be mitigated as K12 students eventually return to the classroom, but there seems to be widespread consensus that we’re going to see more adults permanently working from home.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the big cable companies react to the upload crisis. I’ve not seen many of them talking about the issue publicly and I suspect they are hoping this will go away when the pandemic ends. The cable companies have to know that they will be competing against technologies that offer faster upload data speeds. AT&T built fiber in the last few years to pass over 12 million homes. Telcos like CenturyLink and Windstream are quietly building fiber in some communities. Verizon says it’s going to pass 30 million homes with its fiber-to-the-curb technology using millimeter wave spectrum. And private ISPs are edging fiber into cable markets all over the country.

The cable companies have possible solutions on the horizon. Cable Labs recently announced the release of the DOCSIS 4.0 standard that will allow cable companies to offer symmetrical bandwidth. The gear for this technology ought to hit the market starting next year, but industry tech writers who interview cable company management seem to agree that the big cable companies have no appetite for paying for a new round of upgrades.

The cable companies all upgraded to DOSCSIS 3.1 in the last few years that added the capability for a gigabit download product. The web is full of pronouncements from the CTOs of the big cable companies saying that they hope to get a decade out of this last upgrade. Are any of these companies going to be willing to make a major new investment in new technology so soon after the last upgrade? In many markets the cable companies have become de facto monopolies, and that inevitably leads to milking technology upgrades for as long as possible.

There are a few other technology upgrades on the horizon that could provide relief for upload speeds. There has been a move by several vendors to explore expanding the bandwidth used inside a coaxial cable. A coaxial cable network acts like a captive radio network that uses a big range of different frequencies. Cable systems historically used as much as 1 GHz of total spectrum. In recent years with the advent of DOCSIS 4.0 that’s been expanded to 1.2 GHz of total spectrum. The technology now exists to upgrade cable networks to 1.8 GHz. That would provide a huge additional pile of spectrum that could be dedicated to bandwidth. But such an upgrade would require changing out a lot of network components such as amplifiers, power taps, and modems. Such an upgrade might be nearly as expensive as a shift to DOCSIS 4.0.

The bottom line is that any significant changes to create more upload bandwidth inside cable networks will cost a lot of money. I bet that the big cable companies will stick with the current technology migration plan that would keep DOCSIS 3.1 for the rest of this decade. Likely the only thing that might prompt cable companies to upgrade sooner would be competitors mass deploying technologies that are marketed for having faster upload speeds. The most likely future is that the big cable companies will introduce DOCSIS 4.0 selectively in the few markets where they are feeling competitive pressure, but that most of households are not going to see the upload speeds that people now want.