The Price for Faster Upload Speeds

I’ve always been impressed by the marketing folks at the big cable companies. They are masters of extracting money from customers willing to pay for better broadband. The latest example comes from Comcast. The company is introducing a new product in the Northeast that offers faster upload speeds – for a price.

Comcast knows that its biggest weakness is upload speeds. The current upload speeds for products with download speeds up to 300 are only at 10 Mbps. The upload speeds for the current 600 Mbps and 800 Mbps products are at 20 Mbps.

Comcast is increasing download speeds across the board for no extra charge – this will catch the Northeast up to much of the rest of the country where speeds have already been increased.  But rather than highlight the deficiency of the technology, Comcast has created a new ‘premium’ product labeled as xFi to bring faster upload speeds. Comcast will charge $25 per month to upgrade the upload speeds to as fast as 100 Mbps.

The following chart shows the download speeds today and the speeds after the automatic speed upgrade. The chart also shows the associated upload speeds – both the current speeds and what will be provided by customers willing to spend an extra $25 per month. Existing gigabit customers won’t see a download speed increase but will be able to buy faster upload speeds for the $25 price.

Download Upload
Current Upgraded Current xFi
50 Mbps 75 Mbps 10 Mbps 75 Mbps
100 Mbps 200 Mbps 10 Mbps 100 Mbps
300 Mbps 400 Mbps 10 Mbps 100 Mbps
600 Mbps 800 Mbps 20 Mbps 100 Mbps
800 Mbps 1 Gbps 20 Mbps 100 Mbps
1.2 Gbps 35 Mbps 100 Mbps
2 Gbps 100 Mbps 200 Mbps

The upgrades in download speeds are supposed to happen over the next few months. The upload upgrades will come at some unspecified time next year.

To make it even more expensive, the xFi upgrade will only be available to customers who are also leasing a Comcast Wi-Fi 6E modem that costs $14 per month. The faster upload speeds won’t work on customer-owned modems. That brings the total cost to get faster upload speeds to $39 extra per month.

For years I’ve been saying that the big cable companies are going to be charging $100 for basic broadband. It looks like Comcast has gotten there sooner than I predicted with this upgrade – at least for customers willing to buy broadband that works.

The Comcast price today for the standalone basic 100 Mbps broadband product is $80. Customers who want to get faster upload speeds with xFi will now be paying $105, plus another $14 for the mandatory modem to get the faster upload – a total of $119. You have to give Comcast credit for being audacious and going for the big price increase all at once. Of course, many Comcast customers get a bundling discount, and new customers get promotional discounts – but with xFi, even those prices are likely to be at $100 or more.

This is just speculation, but I’m guessing that Comcast can’t give everybody faster upload speeds due to network limitations. Rather than admit a network deficiency, the Comcast marketing folks have prettied this up as a premium product. Doling this out only for those willing to spend more will extract the highest new revenues possible without bogging down the network.

One thing that is not being mentioned is that giving some customers faster upload speeds probably means a little slower uploads for everybody else – which will drive even more folks to pony up the extra money.

There is an easy way to get faster upload speeds without paying extra. Many homes in the Northeast can already get symmetrical broadband speeds on Verizon FiOS, and anybody thinking of paying extra to Comcast ought to consider that switch. But for customers in non-FiOS areas, this upgrade is probably the only way to get an upload link that works for a family with multiple broadband users. This new pricing is crying out for new fiber competition. An ISP can build fiber, charge $80 or $90 for symmetrical gigabit, and still bring savings to customers. I always expected that to happen, but not this soon.

It’s likely that Comcast will roll out this product in the rest of the country, and the other Comcast areas have the added burden of paying for data caps. Comcast never put data caps into the Northeast because of Verizon FiOS, but in the rest of the country, any consumers that use more than a terabyte of data in a month pay even more.

Will Cable Companies Tackle Faster Upload Speeds?

The number one complaint I’ve been hearing about broadband during the pandemic is that people found that they were unable to conduct multiple online sessions for working or doing schoolwork from home. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have been taking turns using broadband, which is an unsatisfactory solution for everybody involved. This phenomenon became instantly apparent for people with slow rural broadband connections, but a lot of people in towns using cable company broadband hit the same roadblock.

Cable companies have always been stingy with upload speeds because it hasn’t really mattered to the public. Only a handful of customers who wanted to upload large data files ever cared much about upload speeds. But connecting to a school or work server or talking on Zoom requires dedicated upload connections – and when those functions suddenly became a part of daily life, people suddenly cared a lot about upload broadband speeds.

By now, most cable companies have upgraded their networks to DOCSIS 3.1. This allowed upgrades of download speeds from a maximum of perhaps 200 Mbps up to a gigabit. Unfortunately, as part of this upgrade, many cable providers did nothing to improve upload speed.

People may not realize that the signals inside of a cable company network use radio frequencies to transmit data, meaning a cable network is essentially a captive radio network kept inside of the copper coaxial wires. As such, the signals inside a coaxial system share the same characteristics as any wireless network. Higher frequencies carry more data bits than lower frequencies. All of the signals are subject to interference if external frequencies leak into the cable transmission path.

The DOCSIS specification for cable broadband sets aside the lowest frequencies in the system for upload bandwidth – the spectrum between 5 MHz and 42 MHz. This happens to be the noisiest part of cable TV frequency – it’s where outside sources like appliances or motors can cause interference with the signal inside the cable network.

The DOCSIS 3.0 specification, released in 2006 allowed for other parts of the spectrum to be used for upload data speeds, but very few cable companies took advantage of the expanded upload capability, so it’s laid dormant. This DOCSIS 3.0 standard allowed a mid-split option to increase the frequency for upload to 85 MHz. or a more-aggressive high-split option to assign all of the bandwidth up to 204 MHz to data upload. DOCSIS 4.0 is going to offer even a wider range of upload speeds, as high as 684 MHz of spectrum.

It’s been widely reported during the pandemic that millions of households have upgraded to faster broadband packages in hopes of solving the upload problem. But upgrading download speed from 100 Mbps to 200 Mbps won’t help a household if the upload path is the same with both products.

Cable companies are faced with a big cost dilemma. It’s costly to upgrade a cable network from today’s stingy upload speeds to the mid-spit or hi-split option. Rearranging how the bandwidth is used inside of a cable network means replacing many of the key components of the network including neighborhood nodes, amplifiers, and power taps. It could mean replacing all cable modems.

It’s hard to know what cable companies will do. They might be hoping that the issue blows over when people and students move back out of the home. And to some extent that could happen. We saw the average monthly download bandwidth used by homes drop this year from 404 gigabytes in March to 380 gigabytes in June after home-schooling ended for the spring school year. There is likely going to be some relief for upload bandwidth demand when the pandemic is finally over.

But there is a lot of evidence that the increased demand for upload bandwidth will never drop to pre-pandemic levels. It seems likely that millions of jobs are going to permanently migrate to the home. It seems likely that schools will more freely allow students with illnesses to keep up with schoolwork remotely.  High school students are likely to see more options for advanced placement classes online. It looks like video conferencing is here to stay.

Will cable companies make a big investment just to improve upload speeds? Most of don’t plan to upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 until near to the end of this decade and might decide to spend no other capital until then – since that future upgrade will mean replacing all components of the network again. The cable companies have the ability to greatly increase upload speeds today – but my bet is that almost none of them will do so.