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The Industry

What We’ve Learned About Upload Bandwidth

Until the pandemic hit, I rarely thought about upload bandwidth. I mostly used upload bandwidth to send files to people, and I rarely cared if they received the files immediately – I was happy as long as files got sent. But the pandemic changed everything for millions of people. All of a sudden, homes were unable to function well due to problems with uploading.

The big change from the pandemic came when many millions of people were sent home to work while students were sent home to attend school remotely. It turns out that connecting to schools and offices requires steady and reliable upload bandwidth, and many homes found they didn’t have that. My consulting firm has done several surveys per month during the pandemic, and we routinely have seen that at least 30% of those working or schooling from home, including those using cable company broadband, say that their bandwidth was not adequate for the needs created by the pandemic. Homes that tried to accommodate multiple people working online at the same time had the worst experiences.

We also changed a lot of other behavior during the pandemic that uses more upload bandwidth. Many who work from home started using software that automatically saves all work in the cloud. We started using collaborative software to connect to others working from home. And we began making Zoom calls to such an extent that this is now the largest use of upload broadband nationwide and has grown from practically nothing to consume over 15% of all upload broadband usage. Spending more time at home led millions to take up gaming – an activity that just started transitioning to the cloud before the pandemic.

We also got a stark reminder that broadband technologies are shared services. We saw that even homes with only one person working at home could suffer if the bandwidth for the whole neighborhood got bogged down from overuse.

It seems that everybody started collecting speed tests to figure out what was going wrong. Local governments, States, and the NTIA started gathering and looking at speed test results. We know that an individual speed test result is not reliable, but we’ve seen that masses of speed tests tell a great story about a given ISP in a given community.

We also learned that broadband networks vary by neighborhood – something that I don’t recall ever being discussed before the pandemic. Speed tests often showed that the performance of a cable company in a city could be drastically different by neighborhood. There have always been those who complained about cable company broadband, but they weren’t taken seriously by those in the same town that had adequate broadband. But we now often see some parts of cities with speeds drastically lower than the rest of the city – something cable companies have known about but never fixed.

We learned how awful rural broadband technologies can be when most rural folks had problems working and schooling from home. We figured this out when speed tests showed that rural upload speeds are often less than 1 Mbps.

Lately, I’ve been learning more about jitter, which measures the variance in broadband signal strength. Many people learned about jitter the hard way when they often got booted from school connections or Zoom calls when broadband signal strength fluctuated and hit a low point.

We also learned how the cable companies use the worst spectrum on a cable system to transmit upload speeds. They use spectrum inside the coaxial cables to transmit data, and the portion of the network used for upload is where natural interference from microwave ovens, small engines, and natural background radiation causes the most interference.

We’ve also learned that the pandemic has been good for the ISPs, although they aren’t talking about it. Millions of homes upgraded to faster broadband to try to get enough bandwidth during the pandemic. Unfortunately for many of them, their problem was not the download speeds, but the upload speeds, and the upgrade may not have brought much of a solution.

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The Industry

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.

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The Industry

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.

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