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.

How Important are Data Upload Speeds?

cheetah-993774I’ve recently seen that the cable industry is working towards a solution that will provide what they call “full-duplex,” or, what the rest of the industry calls, “symmetrical” data speeds. Currently cable networks are capable of download speeds of up to a gigabit, but the technology supports relatively tiny upload speeds.

It looks like the solution for full-duplex won’t be cheap. Cisco says that their solution will require having additional fiber to the last active component in the network, which either means more fiber to nodes, or in some cases even past the nodes. It’s also going to require setting aside a few more empty channels from the cable network unless the duplex operates by cannibalizing the downstream data.

This raises the question of how important upload speeds are. Are they important enough for big cable companies to implement an expensive network upgrade? Already today cable companies have built (or plan to build) fiber to larger businesses or to sizable business communities. The DOCSIS cable networks have been unacceptable for business broadband for many years, except perhaps to smaller businesses that use the web in ways similar to home users. Most of the large cable companies have also begun building fiber to greenfield communities rather than extend their coaxial network.

But there is no doubt that upload speeds are vital to businesses. There are huge numbers of businesses served with cable modems today that would benefit from faster upload speeds. The case for symmetrical residential speeds is harder to make.

There are only a few types of residential customers that need fast upload speeds. One is gamers. They don’t necessarily need superfast speeds, but everything I read shows that they love speeds somewhere between 25 – 50 Mbps. There are also lots of folks that work from home that need faster broadband. For example, I know several photographers who send out massive files of pictures and videos to customers and who struggle if they are on slow upload broadband.

In my work I sometimes send fairly large files and attachments. And yet, except for those few times when somebody is on the phone waiting for the files while we talk, I’ve never much cared if it takes a little longer to send files. I’ve always figured that’s how most people feel. One of the services we offer at CCG is conducting consumer surveys and I’ve never reviewed a survey that showed a big consumer demand for fast upload speeds – most survey respondents say that it doesn’t matter.

Many of you probably suppose that once somebody buys fiber broadband that they get blazingly fast upload speeds. But when I look at my small clients that is not the case. I would guess – without sitting and counting –  that 60% to 70% of my clients with fiber networks do not offer symmetrical data speeds.

But there is obviously a lot of marketing advantage in offering symmetrical speeds. Verizon FiOS converted all of their products to symmetrical speeds late in 2014. CenturyLink built fiber past a million homes this year and is offering symmetrical data speeds. And of course, Google Fiber made the huge splash a few years ago by offering a symmetrical gigabit product for $70. The first symmetrical data products I can remember were from municipal providers like the ones in Chattanooga and Lafayette.

It will be interesting to watch to see if the cable industry decides to implement full-duplex. By doing so they might be able to wipe out the perceived advantage that fiber has in the marketplace today. I would think today that a lot of consumers would view a 100/100 Mbps product as superior to a 100/25 Mbps product even if they never use the upload capabilities. And perhaps it is that marketing perception that most matters, and maybe that is what will drive the cable companies to make the investment, at least in the markets where they have competition.