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Comcast Boosting Speeds Across Central U.S.; Most Will Get 25-100Mbps Service

Phillip Dampier November 15, 2017 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 4 Comments

Comcast is raising broadband speeds across its expansive Central Division, which covers customers in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

  • Performance Starter (10Mbps) increases to 25Mbps;
  • Performance (25Mbps) will now be 60Mbps;
  • XFINITY Blast! (75Mbps) rises to 100Mbps.

Customers subscribed to the Performance tier will see the biggest speed jump, rising by more than double the current speed.

The new speeds are gradually rolling out to customers in these states from mid-November until mid-December. In some cases, customers will need to briefly unplug their cable modems to get the free speed upgrade.

 

Outage Hits Comcast, Other Internet Customers; CenturyLink’s Level 3 Takes Responsibility

Phillip Dampier November 6, 2017 CenturyLink, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments

The culprit?

A major internet outage is affecting internet users nationwide since this morning, particularly those subscribed to Comcast’s internet service.

“Some customers are having issues with their XFINITY Internet service. We apologize & appreciate your patience while we work to fix,” Comcast tweeted to its customers this morning.

The outages are not just affecting Comcast customers, however, with sporadic slowdowns and problems also reported by Charter/Spectrum, AT&T, and Verizon customers.

One factor that may explain the outage affecting customers beyond Comcast is CenturyLink’s Level 3, which provides backbone services for several ISPs.

Outages affecting Level 3 just happen to be in major Comcast service areas.

Level 3 eventually did take responsibility for the outage in a statement to the media:

On Monday, Nov. 6, our network experienced a service disruption affecting some customers with IP-based services. The disruption was caused by a configuration error. We know how important these services are to our customers. Our technicians were able to restore service within approximately 90 minutes.

On Nov. 1, Level 3 officially became part of CenturyLink, as part of a $30 billion acquisition. Hopefully CenturyLink will spend a bit more and build additional redundancy into Level 3’s network.

As of 30 minutes ago, Comcast claims the internet outage has eased.

Mich. Lawmaker Seeks Ban on All Community Broadband Networks (And Blocks Stop the Cap!)

Rep. Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton) doesn’t care much for community broadband, so she introduced a bill in the Michigan legislature that is as stark as it is short:

House Bill 5099:

The bill is remarkable for its brevity — most proposed community broadband ban bills avoid outright bans, preferring to use forced complicated referendums or operational limitations that usually make municipal broadband projects untenable. But Rep. Hoitenga’s bill leaves no doubt she wants private cable and phone companies left unmolested by publicly funded alternatives. Although the Michigan Republican chairs the House’s Communications and Technology committee, she appears confused about the difference between upload and download speeds. Her bill would define a “qualified” internet service as one offering at least 1/10Mbps service. Yes — 1Mbps download speed and 10Mbps upload speed.

Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin asked Rep. Hoitenga about the oddity of the language in her bill:

When asked about this on Twitter, Hoitenga said she would have to “speak with the attorneys who wrote the bill” to determine whether the listed speed was a mistake. “I will speak with the attorneys who wrote the bill. They changed the language I submitted but will ask why they changed it,” Hoitenga wrote.

Rep. Hoitenga

Rep. Hoitenga used her Twitter account to promote and defend her bill, pointing out the district she represents had “37 providers” to choose from — a fact she gleaned from an online AT&T Yellow Pages directory. Stop the Cap! investigated that claim and found the majority of the providers cited did not offer internet access to members of her district, provided service only in adjacent communities, or sold commercial internet services to businesses only. In fact, for the overwhelming majority of her constituents, there are only two providers to choose from — AT&T or Comcast. Both are top donors to Rep. Hoitenga’s campaign, but more on that later.

Michigan has never been a hotbed of community broadband initiatives, despite having uneven broadband service in suburban and rural areas across the state. Michigan law already includes several significant roadblocks for public broadband projects, notes Lisa Gonzalez from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance:

“Michigan already has a significant state barrier in place; municipalities that wish to improve connectivity must first appeal to the private sector and can only invest in a network if they receive fewer than three qualifying bids. If a local community then goes on to build a publicly owned network, they must comply with the terms of the RFP, even though terms for a private sector vendor may not be ideal for a public entity.

“Nevertheless, several communities in Michigan have dealt with the restrictions in recent years as a way to ameliorate poor connectivity. They’ve come to realize that their local economies and the livelihood of their towns depend on improving Internet access for businesses, institutions, and residents.”

Although Rep. Hoitenga’s bill offers the possibility for “public-private” partnerships, her bill would bring a significant chilling effect because the proposed law fails to define how such partnerships should be structured.

Rep. Hoitenga told Stop the Cap! the bill would put a stop to tax dollars being spent on broadband service, something she felt was unwarranted. We asked the Michigan representative, “Did you know the phone and cable companies receive taxpayer subsidies already in the form of PILOT agreements, and other incentives?” which received the non-sequitur response that her office’s phones were ringing constantly with callers praising her new bill.

But that isn’t what Rep. Hoitenga told her Facebook fans.

“Many individuals have reached out to my office in regards to HB5099; with the belief that I am attempting to limit broadband expansion,” Hoitenga wrote. “This could not be further from the truth. One of my main goals as the Chair of the House Communications and Technology committee is to make internet access more easily obtainable. This legislation does indeed prevent cities from using tax dollars to subsidize ISPs; especially without a vote of the people. While at first glance government operated networks may sound like a good idea, the argument in support of them crumbles with an in depth look into the financial and long-term investment side of implementing such a network.”

So we remain unsure if the wave of phone calls Hoitenga referenced were in support of her proposed bill or opposed to it. Either way, the Michigan representative mischaracterized her own three-paragraph bill by claiming it would prevent cities from using tax dollars for internet service, “without a vote of the people.” But no provision for such a vote exists or would be allowed by her existing bill. Hoitenga’s bill also clearly makes internet access less obtainable, especially in communities where a for profit provider does not exist and a community is seeking to provide an alternative.

Hoitenga later states communities may not need to worry about internet accessibility because, “there is also a package of bills in the senate regarding Small Cell Technology (which also attempts to reduce barriers),” she wrote. That provision is backed by AT&T, which is currently one of the two ISPs serving her district.

She then picks up familiar talking points distributed by public broadband opponents:

“There are examples throughout the state and nation of taxpayers being on the hook for failed networks. There is also concern that some of these networks are in towns where employee pensions are severely underfunded, causing layoffs and cutting services, yet there seems to be money for high risk broadband investments. It’s time to address these issues.

“My colleagues and I have introduced legislation that aims to remove some of the current barriers (HB5096-5098), and help streamline the broadband expansion and installation process for private providers. Municipalities should not be allowed to push out the free markets with unlimited tax payer resources and unfair advantages but could partner with providers to offer fiber for expansion to unserved areas.”

She also cited a 2017 study critical of municipal broadband networks authored by University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Christopher Yoo and co-author Timothy Pfenninger. Neither author or Rep. Hoitenga disclosed the group that produced the study is funded by AT&T and Comcast, among other large telecom companies and their respective lobbying organizations.

After opening a dialogue with the Michigan representative, she did not take kindly to questions or criticism about her bill, and summarily blocked Stop the Cap! from seeing her Tweets or communicating with her further — the first time anyone has blocked our group on Twitter. Shortly after that, she changed her Twitter channel to be viewable by invitation only, limiting her potential audience to her 284 current followers. At the moment, the only social media outlet that seems to be still open to communicating with Rep. Hoitenga is Facebook, where she is taking heat from her constituents about her bill.

The Michigan representative has been behind several controversial bills introduced in the current session of the Michigan House, including a proposal to allow concealed pistols to be carried in public and a ban on Sharia law being practiced in the United States.

Her top donors for the current legislative session include:

#2 – Telecommunications Association of Michigan PAC, $3,000
#4 – AT&T Michigan, $1,500
#11 – Comcast Corp. & NBC Universal, $500

Cable Operators Talk Broadband Capacity and Upgrades

With many cable operators reporting a need to double network capacity every 18-24 months to keep up with customer traffic demands, the industry is spending time and money contemplating how to meet future needs while also finding ways to cut costs and make networks more efficient.

Top technology executives from five major cable operators answered questions (sub. req’d.) from Multichannel News about their current broadband networks and their plans for the future. Some, like Mediacom, are aggressively adopting DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband upgrades for their customers while companies like Cox and Comcast are deploying multiple solutions that use both traditional hybrid fiber-coax network technology and, on occasion, fiber-to-the-home to boost speed and performance. But at least one cable company — Charter Communications — thinks it can continue operating its existing DOCSIS 3 network without major upgrades for several years to come.

Cable Broadband Traffic Can Be Handled

“We’ve been on a pretty steady path of doubling our network capacity every 18-24 months for several years, and I don’t see anything that makes me think that will change,” said Tony Werner, president of technology and product at Comcast. “We’ve been strategically extending fiber further into our network to meet customer demand, and that effort, combined with our commitment to deploying DOCSIS 3.1 has given us a network that’s powerful, flexible, and ready for what’s next.”

J.R. Walden, senior vice president of technology at Mediacom was more aggressive.

“We have completed the removal of all the analog channels. That was the big step one,” Walden said. “Step two was to start transitioning high-speed data over to DOCSIS 3.1, so we’re not adding any more 3.0 channels, and reuse spectrum for 3.1, which is a bit more efficient. The whole company is 3.1, all the modems we’re buying since June have been 3.1, so we’ve begun that next transition.”

Walden added Mediacom is also trying to improve broadband performance by reducing the number of customers sharing the same connection.

“We average about 285 homes to 290 homes per node as an average,” he said.

Mediacom is also scrapping older technology on the TV side to open new bandwidth. The cable company is getting rid of MPEG-2-only set-top boxes so the company can transition its video lineup to MPEG-4. But even that won’t last long. Walden admits the company will then quickly start moving less-viewed channels and some premium networks to IP delivery.

Traditional cable broadband service relies on a hybrid fiber-coax network.

In its European markets, Liberty Global has adopted Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) equipment across its footprint. CCAP technology saves cable operators space and operates more efficiently, and supports future convergence of technologies that cable operators want to adopt in the future. CCAP has helped Liberty Global deal with its 45% traffic growth by making upgrades easier. The company is also using advanced features of CCAP to better balance how many customers are sharing a connection. The next step is adopting DOCSIS 3.1.

“Seventy to 80% of our plant will be DOCSIS 3.1 ready by the end of next year, giving us a path to even greater capacity expansion allowing us to continue to increase the available capacity across our access network, upstream and downstream,” said Dan Hennessy, chief architect of network architecture for Liberty.

Charter is prioritizing maximizing performance on the network it already has.

“Our priority is to constantly balance capacity against demand. It’s a never-ending quest,” said Jay Rolls, Charter’s chief technology officer. “We watch it very closely, and we’re very pragmatic about it — the volume of tools, metrics and ways to see what’s really happening, and invest accordingly, is really deepening in ways that matter.”

Is Fiber-to-the-Home in Your Future?

While some cable operators like Altice’s Cablevision are scrapping their existing hybrid fiber-coax networks in favor of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), America’s largest cable operators are not in any hurry to follow Altice.

Comcast has expanded its fiber network closer to customers in the last few years, but sees no need to convert customers to FTTH service.

“I feel pretty strongly that the best path ahead is to leverage the existing coaxial network and DOCSIS resources to the fullest, then inch towards FTTH, over time Why? Because we can. We don’t have to build an entire network just to turn up one customer.”

The next generation of cable broadband service may depend on CCAP – technology that will cut operator costs and lay the foundation for changing the way video and other services are delivered to customers.

Cox has a 10-year Network 2.0 plan that will bring fiber closer to customers, but not directly to every home. More important to Cox is having the option to support symmetrical speeds, which means delivering upload speeds as fast as download speeds.

“We’re also thinking about the fiber investment and fiber deep as it relates to our wireless strategy, enabling some of our customers with a small cell strategy but also positioning ourselves to take advantage of that in the future, as well as thinking about fiber deep to benefit both residential and our commercial customers simultaneously,” said Kevin Hart, Cox’s executive vice president and chief product and technology officer.

Liberty/Virgin Media’s Project Lightning is bringing cable broadband and TV service to places in the UK that never had cable service before.

In Europe, Liberty Global’s “Project Lightning” network expansion initiative is building out traditional cable service in the United Kingdom. Most of the UK never adopted cable service, favoring small satellite dish service instead. Now Liberty Global is putting cable expansion on its priority list. But decades after most North Americans got cable service for the first time, today’s new buildouts are based largely on fiber optics — either fiber to the home or fiber to the neighborhood, where coaxial cable completes the journey to a customer’s home.

Charter admits the technology it will use in the future partly depends on what the competition is offering. Rolls says the company can eventually roll out DOCSIS 3.1, take fiber deeper, or offer symmetrical download/upload speeds presumably targeted towards its commercial customers. But he also suggested Charter’s existing network can continue to deliver acceptable levels of service without spending a lot on major upgrades.

“It’s a rational approach, where we’re trying to balance the needs, the available technologies, and the costs,” Rolls said. But he also suggested DOCSIS 3.1 isn’t always the answer to upgrades. “DOCSIS 3.1 has some pretty remarkable capabilities, but it’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast reason to not take fiber deeper, for instance [allowing for additional DOCSIS 3 node splits]. Different situations drive different capacity decisions.”

Walden agreed, and Mediacom customers should not expect more than DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades for the near future.

“[Fiber deep] is a bit further out, at least as a large-scale type of project,” Walden told Multichannel News. “I think fiber deep for multi-dwelling units, high-density areas and some planned higher end communities doing deeper fiber or fiber-to-the-home [is happening]. But as a wholesale [change] and going to node+0 kind of architecture, I don’t see that in the next two years.”

Are Symmetrical Speeds Important for Customers?

Verizon’s fiber to the home service FiOS uses symmetrical broadband speeds to its advantage in the marketplace.

Many fiber to the home networks offer customers identical upload and download speeds, but cable broadband was designed to favor downstream speeds over upstream. That decision was based on the premise the majority of users will receive much more traffic than they send. But as the internet evolves, some are wondering if cable broadband’s asymmetric design is now outdated and some competitors like Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service now use its symmetrical speed advantage as a selling point.

Cox Communications does not think most customers care, even though its network upgrades are laying the foundation to deliver symmetrical speeds.

“It’s a little but further out on the horizon,” said Hart. “The upstream growth rate is ticking up a couple of notches, but not to the tune that we would need significant additional capacity and/or a complementary need for symmetrical bandwidth. [A]t this stage, the symmetrical is a nice-to-have for residential and definitely will be a good option for our commercial customers.”

Rolls isn’t sure if symmetrical speeds are important to customers either and Charter has no specific plans to move towards upload speed upgrades.

“The world of applications and services continues to evolve, obviously, but so far we’ve been able to meet those needs with an asymmetrical topology,” Rolls said. “That said, things like real-time gaming, augmented and virtual reality, and the Internet of Things — some of those will likely drive more symmetry in the network. It remains to be seen.”

Despite Net Neutrality, Providers Launch Fiber Spending Spree

Despite claims from some industry-backed researchers and former members of Congress that Net Neutrality has reduced investment in telecommunications, a new research note from Deutsche Bank shows America’s top telephone and cable companies are spending billions on fiber upgrades to power wireless, business, and consumer broadband.

“Telecoms have become much more public signaling their intent to increase fiber investment, with AT&T and Verizon leading the spending ramp,” reports Deutsche Bank Markets Research.

Verizon has been on a fiber spending spree in the northeastern United States, signing contracts with Corning and Prysmian worth $1.3 billion to guarantee a steady supply of 2.5 million miles of fiber optic cable Verizon plans to buy over the next three years. Much of that spending allows Verizon to lay a foundation for its future 5G wireless services, which will require fiber to the neighborhood networks. But in cities like Boston, Verizon is also once again expanding its FiOS fiber to the home service to consumers.

AT&T is committed to connecting 12.5 million homes to gigabit-ready fiber broadband by 2019 — part of a deal it made with the FCC to win approval of its acquisition of DirecTV. AT&T claims it has already connected 5.5 million homes to its gigabit AT&T Fiber network, expected to reach 7 million by the end of this year.

Deutsche Bank thinks providers’ future drive towards 5G service will also simultaneously benefit fiber to the home expansion, because the same fiber network can power both services.

“To support the upcoming innovations such as autonomous driving, IoT, smart cities, the US needs to densify its fiber network,” Deutsche Bank said. “The U.S. fiber penetration rate is 20% vs. 75% for leading OECD countries, which suggests a large gap needs to be closed.”

Altice founder Patrick Drahi (second from left) and Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei (center) visit a Cablevision fiber deployment on Long Island, N.Y.

The bank predicts companies will spend around $175 billion over the next 10 years building out their fiber networks, with most of the spending coming from the phone companies, who may see fiber buildouts as their best attempt to level the playing field with cable operators’ hybrid fiber-coaxial cable networks. As cable operators expand their networks to reach more business parks, they have been gradually stealing market share for phone and data services from phone companies. Consumer broadband is also increasingly dominated by cable operators in areas where phone companies still rely on selling DSL services.

FierceCable notes Comcast and Altice have stepped up aggressive spending on fiber networks for their consumer and business customers. Altice is planning to decommission Cablevision’s existing coaxial cable network and move customers to fiber-to-the-home service. Comcast is deploying fiber services while still selling traditional cable broadband upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1, which supports substantially faster broadband speeds. The two networks co-exist side-by-side. Customer need dictates which network Comcast will use to supply service.

Customers benefit differently in each state, depending on what type of service is available. Comcast’s large footprint in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, is usually served by traditional coaxial cable. Verizon still sells DSL in much of the state. In Massachusetts, Verizon is building out its FiOS network to serve metro Boston while Comcast will depend on DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades to speed up its internet service. In New Jersey, long a battleground for Verizon’s FiOS service the company stopped aggressively expanding several years ago, Comcast has announced DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades for the entire state.

Independent phone companies are also seeing a bleak future without fiber upgrades. Both CenturyLink and Windstream are planning moderately aggressive fiber expansion, particularly in urban service areas and where they face fierce cable competition. Frontier continues its more modest approach to fiber expansion, usually placing fiber in new housing developments and in places where its copper facilities have been severely damaged or have to be relocated because of infrastructure projects.

None of the companies have cited Net Neutrality as a factor in their future broadband expansion plans. In fact, fiber networks have opened the door to new business opportunities to the companies installing them, and the high-capacity networks are likely to further reduce traffic/transit costs, while boosting speeds. That undercuts the business model of selling digital slow and fast lanes.

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