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Spectrum Puts DOCSIS 4 Speed Upgrades on Hold Until 2022; “There’s No Rush”

Facing no significant new competitive pressure, Charter Communications has put DOCSIS 4, capable of bringing dramatically faster internet service to Spectrum customers, on hold until 2022.

Speaking at today’s Bank of America 2020 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference, Charter chief financial officer Chris Winfrey reassured Wall Street Charter had no plans to surprise shareholders with unplanned increased investment in its broadband service and is in no hurry to deliver DOCSIS 4’s faster internet to its customers.

“We’ll continue to develop the path for DOCSIS 4.0, but […] there’s no rush,” Winfrey said. “There’s still a lot to be excited about DOCSIS 3.1. It’s relatively untapped in terms of the throughout it can give us.”

Charter’s last significant upgrade effort was rolling out DOCSIS 3.1, a project that ended in 2018. Since that time, Charter has done little to raise internet speeds for all of its customers. Spectrum residential customers in some areas of the country receive 100/10 Mbps service while others receive 200/10 Mbps for the same price. Spectrum has dragged its feet on upgrading the remaining half of its footprint to 200 Mbps service, and there is no sign if or when it will upgrade the rest.

At the same time, Charter is petitioning the FCC to end important pro-consumer deal conditions that were required as part of the FCC’s approval of the 2016 merger between Charter and Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. The company is seeking to end a prohibition on implementing data caps. 

Although the company denies it has any immediate plans to implement compulsory data caps, Charter’s announcement it has no plans to announce any new material spending on DOCSIS 4 for the next two years might leave customers with stagnant internet speed and the eventual introduction of data caps.

Winfrey assured investors the company does not have to rush investment on DOCSIS 4.0 upgrades.

“We’ll make sure [upgrades occur on] a normal cycle as opposed to a big bang upgrade,” Winfrey said. “I don’t think it will dramatically change our capital intensity profile.”

AT&T, one of Charter’s largest competitors, has concluded its fiber expansion project, which means Charter’s only new, near-future competitive threat will come from a handful of independent fiber overbuilders that offer gigabit internet speed in some cities at competitive pricing. But most overbuilders are capital constrained, limiting the pace of their expansion. That may explain why Charter does not feel any pressure to upgrade service, especially when the only alternative is slow speed DSL service from the phone company.

Cable Companies Slowing Down Upgrades; DOCSIS 3.1 Now ‘Good Enough for Most of Decade’

The standard is ready, but cable operators looking to cut costs and network investments are not.

Although major cable operators will gradually begin buying more advanced DOCSIS 4.0-compatible equipment to power their hybrid fiber-coaxial cable networks, some cable engineers are predicting no big hurry for the next cable broadband upgrade, suggesting the existing DOCSIS 3.1 standard is probably good enough for most of this decade.

A favorable regulatory climate under the Trump Administration has given cable companies a reprieve from pressure from Washington regulators and politicians pushing for more upgrades and competition. Cable operators have successfully slowed investment and upgrade schedules, convinced they are likely not going to face traffic congestion or serious threats from new competitors anytime soon.

DOCSIS 4.0 would double the maximum internet speed available from current cable broadband platforms to 10,000 Mbps download and 5,000 Mbps upload speed. The new standard would also dramatically cut network latency, an important factor for applications like video games. But equipment manufacturers and some cable operators don’t see a big hurry for upgrades on the horizon.

Tom Cloonan, chief technology officer of network solutions at CommScope told an audience at the Light Reading-hosted two-day virtual event: Cable Next-Gen Technologies & Strategies, DOCSIS 3.1 is adequate enough for cable operators to stick with through most of this decade, but “it will eventually run out of gas.”

Jeff Finkelstein, executive director of advanced technologies at Cox Communications, agreed, claiming DOCSIS 3.1’s useful life at Cox is at least five to seven years — up to a decade on certain more advanced cable systems equipped to devote more spectrum for upstream traffic.

Until cable operators decide customers need more broadband capacity and faster speeds, many will stick with DOCSIS 3.1 while they gradually upgrade portions of their network to be DOCSIS 4.0 ready. The key factor that will eventually push most operators to upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 is internet traffic demand. If providers continue to see exponential traffic growth similar to the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, upgrades will have to come in the next few years. If internet traffic growth can be slowed down, operators can stall upgrades until after 2025. Slowing upgrades will save operators money and DOCSIS 4.0 is designed to be launched at a relatively low cost, especially if network prerequisites can be gradually put into place.

It is also clear most major cable operators with the exception of Altice USA see at least a decade or more of useful life left in their existing hybrid fiber-copper coaxial cable networks. After that, some may elect to begin a move towards fiber to the home service.

Early Speed Tests of SpaceX’s Starlink Are Underwhelming; Alpha Testers Leaking Info Protected by NDAs

SpaceX’s Starlink service is unlikely to compete in the same arena as fiber and cable internet service providers, if leaked early speed test results are an accurate indication of the service’s performance.

A sub-Reddit for Starlink, the low earth orbiting (LEO) satellite internet service, is buzzing with activity after one or more anonymous users in Washington State shared speed test results in a public forum, in apparent violation of the non-disclosure agreement SpaceX insists alpha testers sign.

Starlink’s current alpha test, open to rural areas in Washington State only, will give SpaceX data on how well the platform performs in the marketplace. As beta tests begin later this year, testers will be required to have an unobstructed view of the northern sky, live within 44 and 52 degrees latitude, be willing and able to complete multiple surveys about the service over a two-month period, and agree to receive and properly install the equipment. All alpha and beta testers will receive the service for free, but will be asked to pay $1 to test Starlink’s billing system.

Testers are supposed to keep information about their Starlink experiences private, as per a detailed non-disclosure agreement that each tester must sign. But anonymous leaks about the service, along with ‘telling’ questions, have frequently appeared in a public forum about the satellite service, frustrating SpaceX. The satellite provider has reportedly issued multiple “takedown requests” to remove violating content.

Last week, Starlink began requesting more detailed information from those seeking to enroll in future beta tests, a sign it is gearing up to test the service more widely soon.

So far, Starlink testers in Washington State willing to leak their experiences are reporting download speeds no better than 60 Mbps, with upload speed averaging between 10-15 Mbps. Latency, a constant problem with satellite internet, was a more impressive 50 ms on average, but can vary between 31-94 ms.

Only a small number of people in Washington State are estimated to be taking part in current trials, which started before SpaceX’s entire satellite fleet is in orbit. SpaceX previously claimed the service was designed to deliver “blazing fast speeds” up to 1,000 Mbps. That clearly is not happening at the moment. Some testers have been told that speed will increase as more satellites are placed into orbit, but others are wondering if early results are good enough, especially considering they are conducted on satellite infrastructure that currently has a light load with almost no users.

Starlink’s speed and performance will be crucial indicators of how the broadband industry will respond to the emerging market of LEO-based satellite internet. If 60/10 Mbps service is what many users can expect to get, that might deflate SpaceX’s boasts that its Starlink platform could be a competitive game-changer. Cable and fiber providers will likely dismiss Starlink as a serious competitor in the urban and suburban markets they serve, noting wired internet performance is already considerably faster. Still, the project could provide much-needed internet service in exurban and rural areas bypassed by cable companies, leaving consumers with a current choice of <10 Mbps DSL from the phone company or no service at all.

FCC Releases New Speed Test App That Will Better Track Performance of Mobile Networks

The Federal Communications Commission has announced a new updated version of its FCC Speed Test app, helping consumers evaluate their internet connection while also sharing performance data with the Commission.

The new version is designed with more accurate measurements of users’ mobile internet connections in mind, including emerging 5G services.

“This new and improved app is an important tool that will empower consumers to collect information about the services they are receiving,” said Monisha Ghosh, the FCC’s chief technology officer. “These improvements will build on the success of this effort over the years and help the FCC bridge the digital divide.”

Versions are available for iOS in the Apple App Store and Android in the Google Play Store.

Users running the app will be able to check upload and download speed, network latency, packet loss, and jitter on both wired and wireless networks. Results are shared anonymously with the FCC, which compiles network performance data as part of an agency mandate, the Measuring Broadband America program. That program reports whether the nation’s service providers are delivering internet speeds that match their advertising claims.

Verizon Launches 4G LTE Home Broadband Service Without Data Caps, Starting at $40/Month

Verizon is introducing a new wireless home broadband service that will target customers that can get good cell phone reception from home but are stuck with slow speed DSL from the phone company, or no internet access at all.

Verizon’s new LTE Home Internet will offer customers speeds of 25-50 Mbps without data caps on Verizon’s already built 4G network. The service launched this week in Savannah, Ga., Springfield, Mo., and Tri-Cities, Tenn./Va./Ky. Starting today, Verizon says it will expand home internet access to customers outside of its existing Fios and millimeter-wave 5G Home footprints, primarily to reach rural customers.

“With LTE Home Internet, our most awarded 4G LTE network will provide internet connectivity for customers in more rural parts of America who may not have access to broadband internet service – a critical need, especially now, when so many are counting on reliable connectivity for remote work and educational needs,” said Frank Boulben, senior vice president of Consumer Marketing and Products at Verizon.

The service and equipment are sold at different prices depending on how much business you already do with Verizon:

LTE Home Internet Service Pricing

  • If you do NOT have an active Verizon mobile plan and DO NOT WISH to enroll in paper-free billing and auto-pay, the service costs $70/month.
  • If you do NOT have an active Verizon mobile plan or one that costs less than $30/month and ARE WILLING to enroll in paper-free billing and auto-pay, the service costs $60/month.
  • If you DO have an active Verizon mobile plan that costs $30/month or more and DO NOT WISH to enroll in paper-free billing and auto-pay, the service costs $50/month.
  • If you DO have an active Verizon mobile plan that costs $30/month or more and ARE WILLING to enroll in paper-free billing and auto-pay, the service costs $40/month.
  • The required LTE router costs $240 or $10/month for 24 months (0% interest) on Verizon’s Device Payment Plan. If you order the router using “device payments,” you will receive a $10/month promotional credit for the next 24 months, making the router free of charge if you stay with the service for two years. If you cancel service early, the remaining payments will become due immediately.

Although the service cannot match the speeds offered by modern cable and fiber broadband networks, Verizon’s wireless speeds do appear to qualify as “broadband service” and for the first time on a 4G LTE network, do not include any data caps or sneaky speed throttling, making it a potentially respectable option for those in rural areas looking for something better than phone company DSL.

Verizon offers this coverage check tool to determine if service is available in your area. If not, you can leave your e-mail address and phone number and Verizon will contact you as the service expands.

This Verizon-provided video introduces the company’s new LTE Home Internet service, a wireless broadband option without data caps for those looking for rural access or something better than phone company DSL. (1:25)

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