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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.”

Cox Introducing $50 Option to Waive Data Caps: The ‘Freedom from Extortion Plan’

As Cox Communications continues to expand its arbitrary data cap program on its broadband customers, the company has announced a ‘cap relief’ option for customers willing to pay $50 more for the same service they enjoyed last year without a data cap.

Company insiders tell DSL Reports Cox will introduce a new $50 option to avoid the data caps and overlimit fees the company began imposing in 2015 starting in its Cleveland, Ohio service area.

On Wednesday, Cox is expected to introduce two add-on options to help avoid the bill shock likely if customers exceed 1TB of usage per month and face the $10 overlimit fee for each 50GB of data consumed:

  • $30 a month for 500GB of extra data;
  • $50 a month to avoid data caps altogether and get back unlimited service.

Cox customers in Cleveland were unimpressed with Cox’s data caps when they were introduced in 2015.

These fees are in addition to whatever Cox customers currently pay for broadband service.

“An overwhelming majority of data is consumed by a very small percentage of internet users,” a memo to employees documenting the changes reads. “The new choices are great options for the small percentage of heavy users who routinely use 1TB+ per month and prefer a flat monthly rate, rather than purchasing additional data blocks. In Cox markets with usage-based billing, the less than two percent of customers who exceed the amount of data included in their plan still have the option of paying $10 for each additional 50GB of data when they need it.”

Such claims raise the same questions Stop the Cap! has always asked since we began fighting data caps in 2008:

If data caps only impact <2% of customers, why impose them at all?

Is the actual revenue earned from overlimit fees worth the expense of introducing usage measurement tools, billing system changes, and the cost of customer dissatisfaction at the prospect of an unexpectedly high bill?

What technical reasons did Cox choose 1TB as its arbitrary usage allowance other than the fact Comcast and other operators chose this level first?

Time Warner Cable executives privately admitted in internal company documents obtained by the New York Attorney General’s office that internet traffic costs represent little more than “a rounding error” in expenses for cable companies. But for most consumers, $30-50 to buy a bigger data allowance is hardly that.

In short, the “solution” Cox has decided on this week comes in response to a problem the company itself created — imposing arbitrary, unwanted data caps and overlimit fees on a product that is already intensely profitable at the prices Cox has charged for years. This internet overcharging scheme is just another way to gouge captive customers that will likely have only one alternative — the phone company and its various flavors of DSL or a U-verse product that cannot compete on speed unless you are lucky enough to live in a fiber-to-the-home service area.

NY Post: Charter Wants to Buy Cox Communications; Alaska’s GCI Will Eventually Become Charter

Three unnamed sources told the New York Post Charter Communications is seeking to acquire privately held Cox Communications, despite repeated assertions from the family owned Cox it is not for sale.

“Tom wants to buy Cox,” said one “highly placed cable source.” Another confirmed the news, but notes Charter has not yet approached Cox with a deal. “If they’re going to sell it to anyone, they’re going to sell it to an old cable guy.”

Cox is America’s third-largest cable company with 6.2 million subscribers. A combination with Charter would still leave Comcast as the nation’s largest cable company. Wall Street has pushed cable companies towards further consolidation, and if Charter doesn’t approach Cox, it is highly likely Altice USA will.

Cox told the newspaper all of this attention is unwanted.

“Cox has been very clear and consistent that we are not for sale and, in fact, we’re aggressively investing in our network, products and strategic partnerships and investments of our own,” Cox spokesman Todd Smith told The Post on Wednesday.

But some cable watchers expect Cox may not want to stay in the family if the price is right. In April, Alex Taylor, the great-grandson of founder James Cox was named Cox’s next CEO, starting Jan. 1, 2018.

Charter may also eventually grow by at least 100,000 new subscribers as John Malone’s Liberty Interactive’s ownership of Alaska-based GCI might not last long. Cable watchers predict Malone will flip GCI to Charter Communications after the deal closes, which would result in a likely quick rebrand of GCI as Charter/Spectrum.

As Expected, Altice’s IPO Raising Money for Possible Cox, Mediacom Acquisitions

Altice USA today revealed the terms of its long-expected initial public offering likely to bring more than a billion dollars to the company’s merger and acquisition fund that many Wall Street analysts now expect will be spent to acquire privately held Cox Communications and/or Mediacom.

Cox has long claimed it is not for sale. But Altice founder Patrick Drahi has a history of being willing to overpay for the companies he covets, including Cablevision, which was a reluctant seller for at least a decade before Altice made an offer the Dolan family that founded Cablevision couldn’t refuse.

Telsey Group analyst Tom Eagan told his Wall Street clients he expected Altice would be “active” in American cable consolidation, with Cox and Mediacom systems being likely targets. Other analysts have downplayed potential interest in Cable ONE, another likely target, because of the company’s recent aggressive rate increases and the fact its systems are often in economically depressed areas. An acquisition of Cox and/or Mediacom would make Altice the third largest cable company in the country, but it would still be far behind Comcast and Charter Communications, which hold first and second place respectively.

Any acquisition would likely not get much scrutiny on the federal level by the FCC and Justice Department, and most states would likely give the deal only a perfunctory review before approving it.

Altice USA has applied to be listed as “ATUS” on the New York Stock Exchange.

Cox Feels Safe Expanding Its Usage Cap Ripoff Scheme That ‘Affects Almost Nobody’

In an effort to keep up with Comcast, Cox Communications has quietly expanded its internet overcharging scheme to customers in Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Omaha, Neb, and Sun Valley, Ida. (perhaps the only community that can afford Cox’s threatened overlimit fees). Cox’s customers have noticed and told DSL Reports about the forthcoming highway robbery.

These unlucky customers join those in Cleveland, Oh., Florida and Georgia who have already been enduring Cox’s usage cap and penalty fee system.

Cox hasn’t shown any interest in listening to customers who do not appreciate usage allowances and have repeatedly told the company they want unlimited access, especially considering how much they already pay Cox for service.

“It’s a total ripoff and customers have no option to keep unlimited, unless they move to the next city over where Charter/Spectrum offers internet access without any data caps,” notes Cleveland resident Shelly Adams.

Cox has followed Comcast by boosting most usage allowances given to customers to 1TB, an amount many believe was set high enough to avoid threatened regulatory scrutiny of stingy data caps by the FCC under the former Obama Administration.

As with every provider that has ever conjured up an internet overcharging scheme, no matter what the allowance is, the company always claims it is generous and impacts almost nobody. Cox claims 99% of their customers will never hit the cap, which always begs the question, if it affects so few customers why spend time, money and energy creating a data cap, usage measurement tools, and billing scheme for only a handful of customers? Is that Cox’s idea of innovation?

Usage caps for one and all.

In fact, Comcast has claimed the same thing, but their math came into question when more than 13,000 Comcast customers managed to stumble their way to the FCC’s complaints bureau in one year and write a formal protest about Comcast’s own overlimit fee scheme. We are certain there are many more customers with overlimit fees on their bills than that, and guess only a small fraction took the time to write a complaint and submit it.

As Stop the Cap! has said for almost a decade, beware of cable company “generosity” because it usually comes with fine print.

“Cox High Speed Internet packages include 1 TB (1,024 GB) of data to provide you with plenty of freedom to stream, surf, download, and share,” the company writes on its support website (its much rarer Gigablast gigabit plan includes 2TB). For now, if you use Cox Wi-Fi or CableWiFi hotspots, usage on those networks does not count toward your data plan.

Cox reserves itself some extra freedoms, such as automatically charging customers who exceed their allowance a $10 overlimit penalty for each 50GB of usage they incur until the next billing cycle begins. Cox’s generosity ends with the unused portion of your allowance, which Cox keeps for itself, not allowing customers to roll over unused data to the following month.

In an effort to get customers to accept the scheme, Cox calls it a “data plan,” similar to what wireless customers might pay, and says other companies have data caps too. But none of this justifies the practice.

You’re over our arbitrary usage limit!

In another “generous” move, Cox is offering a grace period for two consecutive bill cycles before it slaps overlimit penalties on customer bills for real in Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Omaha, and Sun Valley. The grace period window begins with bills dated on or after Feb. 20, 2017. To make sure you get the message, the company will bill you the overlimit fee it claims almost nobody will ever pay along with a corresponding grace period credit for two months, just to put the scare in you. After May 22, it is time to pay up.

Cox will make sure you can’t claim you “didn’t know” you ran through your allowance by harassing you with data usage messages via Cox browser alert, email, text message, or an automated outbound call when you have used about 85% and 100% of your monthly data plan. You will receive additional alerts when you have reached 125% of your monthly data plan, at which point Cox will throw a party in your honor with thanks for allowing them to run up your bill.

Coincidentally, Cox isn’t testing their scheme in markets rife with competition from providers like Verizon FiOS, where usage is effectively unlimited. In many of Cox’s usage-capped markets, customers have AT&T as their alternative, and they have a 1TB usage allowance as well.

Incoming FCC chairman Ajit Pai is on record opposing any involvement in regulating usage-based pricing schemes, claiming it amounted to government meddling in business. But customers can complain directly to Cox and threaten to cancel service. It may be a good time to renegotiate your cable bill to win discounts that may help cover any overlimit fees that do make it to your bill.

There remains little, if any justification for a company like Cox to peddle data plans with usage allowances to their customers. The company is moving towards gigabit broadband speeds but apparently lacks the resources to manage customers that want a hassle-free unlimited experience? If Cox is being honest about how few customers will ever be affected by the cap, there is no reason the company cannot continue an unlimited plan at current prices.

Cox’s scheme does shine light on the uncompetitive broadband marketplace that continues to afflict this country. As one reader pointed out, customers are constrained by the offerings of whatever provider has set up shop in a city that typically has, at best, one other choice (usually a phone company selling DSL or up to 24Mbps U-verse). A truly competitive market would give customers a wide choice of “data plans” that include unlimited plans customers enjoyed for years and want to keep. But safe in their broadband duopoly, cable companies like Cox have no incentive to treat customers to a better or even fair deal.

The real reason for usage caps and data plans with penalty pricing was exposed by Wall Street analysts like Jonathan Chaplin, a research analyst for New Street Research LLP. Although he was speaking to a cable company executive at the time, his words traveled to our ears as well:

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin said. new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment).”

“The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business,” Chaplin added. “Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

Exactly.

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