December 7, 2022

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Innovation Leader

Faster cable internet speeds are coming, even if you don’t really need them

Houstonians are lucky that there is competition for home internet service in most parts of the city. It has long been a battle between traditional providers such as Comcast and AT&T, but now there are newcomers offering wireless residential internet, including Verizon and T-Mobile.

Cable companies, which for some time have been the top dog in terms of speed, are challenged by providers touting fiber-optic cable technology or 5G wireless. AT&T’s fiber service offers speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, as does Verizon’s 5G Home product – where they are available, anyway.

In Houston, Comcast’s mainstream residential service maxes out at 1.2-Gbps download speed. But late this year or early next, cable providers will begin to sell a much faster service thanks to a new cable-modem standard called DOCSIS 4.0. In theory, it will allow for download and upload speeds of up to 10-Gbps.

To put that in perspective, that’s 74 times the median download speed for fixed broadband service in the United States at 135.53 Mbps, according to the latest Speedtest Global Index survey from Ookla.

DOCSIS stands for Data Over Cable Services Interface Specification, and the version in use by Comcast and most other cable companies is 3.1. The standard is overseen by CableLabs, of which Comcast and other major cable providers are members. CableLabs has dubbed the technology 10G for its top speed of 10 Gbps, not to be confused with the wireless industry’s 5G, which stands for Fifth Generation.

While the 3.1 standard can provide excellent bandwidth for common residential usage – web surfing, streaming video, teleconferencing, gaming, file downloads – it may be inadequate for what’s coming next.

That’s because DOCSIS 3.1 has serious limitations, not the least of which is that upload speeds that are much slower than downloads. If you have a Comcast Xfinity internet plan of 300 megabits per second or less, your upload speeds are a measly 5 Mbps. For 600 Mbps plans, uploads are 10 Mbps; for 900 Mbps plans, uploads are 15 Mbps.

You don’t get a substantial jump in uploads until you have Comcast’s 1.2-Gbps service, and even then uploads are a fraction of downloads, at 35 Mbps. (Comcast does sell in Houston a 3-Gbps service that has symmetrical upload and download speeds, but it’s $300 a month and uses a fiber-optic, rather than coaxial, connection.)

Distinct disadvantage

This puts cable operators at a distinct disadvantage to fiber and high-speed wireless providers who can offer symmetrical download and upload speeds. For example, on its website, AT&T lists its Internet 1000 fiber service as having “actual” speeds of 998.2 Mbps down and 911.3 Mbps up. Verizon’s 5G Home service, while it doesn’t have symmetrical download and upload speeds, does beat Comcast’s maximum uploads at 50 Mbps.

DOCSIS 4.0 is still in the testing phase. Earlier this month, Comcast announced it had completed a test using prototype 4.0 equipment and achieved 4-Gbps speeds for both downloads and uploads. In an interview, Elad Nafshi, Comcast’s executive vice president and chief network officer, called the test a “massive technical and product milestone.”

Nafshi said one of the benefits to DOCSIS 4.0 is that it works over much of cable operators’ existing network. It can be delivered into the home via cable coax, so “we don’t need to rip up streets and set up towers, we can use our existing digital plant,” he said.

The new standard may not cause Comcast to tear up the street outside your house, but you will need to replace your in-home equipment. DOCSIS 4.0 will require a new cable modem, and Comcast will happily rent to you a modem-and-router combo when that time comes. Fortunately, as you can do now with the cable company’s current setup, you’ll still be able to avoid that rental fee by buying your own modem, Nafshi said.

But while DOCSIS 4.0 is an industry standard, it has already forked into two different technologies, said Alan Breznick an analyst and cable/video practice leader at Light Reading, a publication that covers the telecommunications industry. Comcast is using an approach called full duplex to achieve the symmetrical speeds, while other cable companies are using a technology known as extended spectrum.

And while Comcast is relying on some of its existing network and coaxial lines for DOCSIS 4.0, it also has been using fiber on its network, and “pulling it closer and closer to people’s homes,” Breznick said.

“They may not have to dig new trenches (as do fiber operators), but they will have to go into the existing trenches and exchange the coax for fiber,” he added.

Indeed, one downside for fiber-based internet is that its availability can be spotty. AT&T has been aggressive about expanding its fiber service in Houston, but it’s not everywhere. Older neighborhoods, apartment and condominium complexes and sparsely populated areas are less apt to have fiber service.

Coming soon?

So, when will Houston cable customers get a shot at DOCSIS 4.0? Breznick said the current timeline for the standard is that it should begin to become available at the end of 2022, with a bigger rollout coming next year. But Comcast’s Nafshi would not commit to a timeline in our conversation.

“We are not quite ready to talk about when it might go live,” he said.

Breznick said many cable customers with existing, higher-tier connections don’t necessarily need all the speed they’re paying for. But that may be about to change, particularly for those jonesing for faster upload speeds as they work and learn from home in the pandemic.

“Between videoconferencing and gaming and some other uses coming down the pike, upstream is more important than it used to be,” he said.

Those “uses coming down the pike” include technologies such as 360-degree spherical cameras, holographic video and virtual/augmented reality, Breznick said.

Hype-du-jour

These are the building blocks of what has come to be known as the metaverse, in which virtual reality is used to build a simulation of real life, including potentially lucrative e-commerce. It is the latest hype-du-jour and a sci-fi-inspired fever dream of Silicon Valley denizens, but whether it ultimately springs to life or dies a fad’s death is the subject of fierce debate between evangelists and skeptics.

But if the metaverse does come to pass, the ongoing competition between internet providers will ensure the speeds it will require.

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https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/article/Faster-cable-internet-speeds-are-coming-even-if-16789056.php