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Cable Industry Ends Disagreement Over DOCSIS 4.0: Two Different Approaches Will Co-Exist

The next standard for cable broadband is now due by 2020.

For over a year, the cable industry has been stalled after deciding to slash investment in broadband while enduring indecision and confusion over the next generation of cable broadband.

At issue is a simmering disagreement — rare for the usually unified cable industry — about the next generation of cable broadband, dubbed DOCSIS 4.0.

Two sides have emerged. Cable giant Comcast has spent years gradually preparing its network for perhaps the last iteration of coaxial copper-delivered cable internet service. It has spent at least five years gradually pushing optical fiber closer to its customers, retiring additional coaxial cable and the amplifiers and other equipment associated with that technology. The result is a company ready to embrace Full Duplex DOCSIS, known as “FDX.”

FDX is designed to allow upload and download traffic to share the same spectrum, letting cable companies put internet service bandwidth to full use with maximum efficiency. Comcast wants FDX to be a central part of DOCSIS 4.0. The company has been working through a long-term plan to offer much faster internet service, including symmetrical broadband — unified upload and download speeds. This would erase the cable industry’s broadband Achilles’ heel: download speeds much faster than upload speeds.

To achieve FDX, cable companies have to push fiber much deeper into their networks, sometimes right up to the edge of neighborhoods. It also means eliminating signal amplifiers that help keep signals robust as they travel across older coaxial cable infrastructure. Engineers call this concept “Node+0” architecture, which means a network with zero amplifiers.

FDX gives the cable industry the opportunity of running a more robust broadband network, easily capable of 10 Gbps with an upgrade path to 25 Gbps later on. The downside is that it can be very expensive to implement, especially if a cable company has under invested in upgrades and not incrementally laid a foundation for FDX. Wall Street may balk at the upgrade costs. The logistics of readying degrading older infrastructure to launch FDX may be so onerous, some cable systems may find it more cost effective to scrap their existing hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) networks and switch to a state-of-the-art fiber to the home network instead. That is precisely what Altice USA is doing with its Cablevision/Optimum system in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Charter Communications, along with many other smaller cable operators, have been pushing an alternative to FDX that is likely to cost much less to implement. Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD) is designed to work over existing cable systems, including those that still rely on amplifiers and aging coaxial cable. Instead of allowing internet traffic to share bandwidth, ESD follows the existing standard by keeping upload traffic on different frequencies than download traffic. It simply extends the amount of bandwidth open to both types of traffic, which will allow cable systems to raise speeds. ESD will dedicate frequencies up to 3 GHz (and higher in some cases) for internet traffic. DOCSIS 3.1, the current standard, only supports internet traffic on frequencies up to around 1.2 GHz. ESD will also allow cable companies to raise upload speeds and should support up to 10 Gbps downloads. But there are some questions about how well ESD will support 25 Gbps speed and the condition of the cable company’s existing coaxial network will matter a lot more than ever before. A substandard network will cause significant speed degradation and could even disrupt service in some cases.

Despite the limitations of ESD, many cable companies consider its low implementation cost a principal reason to support it over FDX.

For much of this year, cable companies have put upgrades on hold as the industry sorts out which direction DOCSIS 4.0 will take. Equipment manufacturers and vendors have resorted to layoffs and cutbacks and have signaled neither Comcast nor other cable companies are big enough to justify different DOCSIS standards supporting FDX or ESD.

Comcast and Charter are the two largest cable companies in the United States.

Therefore, the cable industry has informally decided DOCSIS 4.0 will need to support both FDX and ESD under a single specification, with next generation cable modems and equipment capable of supporting either technology. At a joint pre-Cable-Tex Expo conference held on Monday, executives from Comcast and Charter appeared to support the new unified approach to DOCSIS 4.0.

John Williams, vice president of outside plant engineering and architecture at Charter Communications, told attendees cable companies need to support both FDX and ESD and stop taking an “either/or” approach.

“In order to do this, we need to look at the synergies and embrace ESD and FDX as the next generation of HFC,” Williams said. “It’s all about scale.”

Charter has been significantly challenged historically because its own legacy cable systems were often behind the times and sometimes dilapidated. Its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks only complicated things further, because neither operator had a reputation for using state-of-the-art HFC technology. Costly upgrades have been underway at many Charter-owned cable systems since the merger closed, some still ongoing.

Robert Howald, part of Comcast’s network upgrade team, called the emerging DOCSIS 4.0 standard a “perfect complementary pair” of FDC and ESD. He noted both approaches will allow cable systems to boost speeds to at least 10/10 Gbps, with faster speeds in the future.

Howald pointed out Comcast is already testing FDX technology in Connecticut and Colorado, working out bugs and unexpected technical challenges.

“We feel like we’ve significantly de-risked some of the technology components of FDX,” Howald said. “We felt really good about what we saw in the field.”

What is Full Duplex DOCSIS? This video from CableLabs explains the technology and how it differs from other DOCSIS cable broadband technology. (1:58)

Comcast Internet-Only Customers Can Now Get XFINITY Flex Streaming Box for Free

Comcast internet-only customers that used to pay $5 a month for an X1-powered streaming video box with an X1 voice remote will now get their first box for free.

The XFINITY Flex Streaming Box, capable of streaming 4K video from Comcast’s own streaming video platform and supported streaming apps from services like Amazon Prime Video, Epix, Hulu, HBO, and Netflix, is Comcast’s solution for cord-cutters that might be thinking about switching internet providers or could be lured back to an inexpensive video package if the price is right.

The platform should be familiar to former Comcast video customers that used to use Comcast’s X1 set-top box, and includes access to Comcast’s large TV Everywhere on-demand content library, which includes over 10,000 free, advertiser-supported movies and TV series.

In fact, the only services not available on the platform are Comcast’s live TV streaming competitors like AT&T TV Now, YouTube TV, and similar services.

The first box is now bundled with internet-only service, with each additional box priced at $5/month.

XFINITY Flex is now bundled with Comcast’s internet-only service, with the first box available for free. (0:37)

Californians Complained More About Telecom Companies Than Wildfire Outages Caused by PG&E

More Californians are complaining to state officials about their cable television, internet, and phone service than the energy utilities implicated in causing deadly wildfires that left customers without power for days or weeks.

California’s Office of Senate Floor Analyses prepared a report for elected officials contemplating extending deregulation of the state’s top telecommunications companies. It found deregulation has not always benefited California consumers, noting that several companies have been fined for allowing traditional phone service to fall below required service quality standards. As service deteriorates, lawmakers have tied the hands of state officials trying to enforce what service standards still exist. The report found that the telecom industry has been especially good at covering itself through lobbying and litigation to isolate and disempower consumers seeking redress.

“Many companies, including telecommunications providers, include arbitration clauses in their contracts that limit a consumer’s ability to form a class with other consumers to seek remedies for unfair business practices related to contracts,” the report notes. “These clauses frequently limit consumers to a specified arbitration process that limits the types of remedies consumers can obtain for unfair business practices.”

Customers with unreliable phone service pursuing complaints on the federal level with the Federal Communications Commission have also been dealt a blow by the Trump Administration and its Republican majority control of the FCC.

“It is unclear what kind of remedies consumers can obtain since the FCC has adopted an order limiting its own ability to establish requirements for these services,” the report found.

Deregulation has not stopped Californians from trying to get help from the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), however. The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch recorded 1,087 complaints about the state’s phone and cable companies in January 2019, compared with 677 complaints against the state’s energy utilities and 53 lodged against water utilities.

The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch reported communications-related complaints were significantly higher than other utilities. (Image: California Office of Senate Floor Analyses)

“Despite the occurrence of wildfires in which utility infrastructure was implicated, complaints regarding energy utilities remained largely consistent between November 2018 and January 2019,” the report found. “The data indicates that the communications sector generates a greater number of complaints to the CPUC than other utility sectors on average, and a much greater percentage of those complaints are for customer issues over which the CPUC has no regulatory jurisdiction.”

Earlier this year, California’s largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), filed for bankruptcy protection after estimating it was liable for more than $30 billion in damages from recent wildfires. An investigation found equipment owned by PG&E was responsible for starting the worst wildfire in California history. The November 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. Yet the Customer Affairs Branch received fewer complaints about PG&E than it received regarding AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Frontier, Cox, and Comcast XFINITY.

Unintended consequences of deregulation have also caused several high profile scandals among telecom companies in the state. Some of the worst offenses were committed by cable and phone companies that further traumatized victims of catastrophic wildfires. An effort to implement new consumer protections for fire victims forced to relocate met fierce resistance from cable and telephone industry lobbyists. Some of those same telecom companies continued to bill wildfire victims for months for service at addresses that no longer existed. AT&T even billed customers that died in the fires.

A recent San Francisco Superior Court decision (Gruber v. Yelp) also found another consequence of deregulation. A judge ruled The California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) does not apply to calls made or received on “digital” phone lines better known as Voice over IP (VoIP). The judge found that since the CPUC does not regulate VoIP calls, and such calls are not legally defined as a traditional phone call, CIPA cannot apply.

More than six months after devastating wildfires swept across the North Bay in 2017, AT&T was still billing customers that died in that fire. KGO-TV reports. (3:31)

After promising to never again erroneously bill wildfire victims, AT&T did it again to those traumatized by the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and wiped the town of Paradise off the map. KOVR in Sacramento reports on one family pleading with AT&T to stop billing them for landline service at an address that no longer exists. (2:15)

FCC, Wireless Industry Take Aim At C Band Satellite Spectrum for 5G

Phillip Dampier September 9, 2019 Public Policy & Gov't, Video, Wireless Broadband No Comments

A major battle between satellite owners, broadcasters, and the telecom industry has emerged over a proposal to repurpose a portion of C Band satellite spectrum for use by the wireless industry.

Multiple proposals from the wireless and cable industry to raid C Band satellite frequencies for the use of future 5G wireless networks suggest carving up a band that has been used for decades to distribute radio and television programming.

Before the advent of Dish Networks and DirecTV, homeowners placed 6-12′ large rotatable satellite dishes in backyards across rural America to access more than a dozen C Band satellites delivering radio and television programming. Although most consumers have switched to much smaller fixed satellite dishes associated with Dish or DirecTV, broadcasters and cable companies have mostly kept their C Band dishes to reliably receive programming for rebroadcast.

Now the wireless industry is hoping to poach a significant amount of frequencies in the C Band allocation of 3.7-4.2 GHz to use for 5G wireless service. Competing plans vary on exactly how much of the satellite band would be carved out. One plan proposed by Charter Communications and some independent cable companies would take 370 megahertz from the 500 megahertz now used by C Band satellites and sell it off in at least one FCC-managed auction to the wireless industry. A more modest plan by an alliance of satellite owners would give up 200 megahertz of the band, allowing wireless companies to acquire 180 megahertz of spectrum. To reduce the potential of interference, both major plans offer to set aside 20 megahertz to be used as a “guard band” to separate satellite signals from 5G wireless transmissions.

Satellite dish outside of KTVB-TV in Boise, Ida. (Image courtesy: KTVB-TV)

Much like the FCC’s repack of the UHF TV dial, which is forcing many stations to relocate to a much smaller number of available UHF TV channels, most proposals call on the FCC to subsidize dislocated satellite broadcasters and users with some of the auction proceeds to help pay the costs to switch to fiber optic terrestrial distribution instead.

Broadcasters and satellite companies claim the cable industry proposal would leave U.S. satellite users drastically short of the minimum 300 megahertz of satellite spectrum required to provide radio and television stations with network programming. Many rural broadcasters have complained that the cable industry plan calling for a shift to fiber optic distribution ignores the fact that there is no fiber service available in many areas. Other objectors claim fiber outages are much more common than disruptions to satellite signals, putting viewers at risk of a much greater chance of programming disruptions.

With spectrum valued at more than $8 billion at stake, various industry groups are organized into coalitions and alliances to either support or fight the proposals. The Trump Administration has made it known it is putting a high priority on facilitating the development of 5G services to beat the Chinese wireless industry, which is already moving forward on a major deployment of next generation wireless networks. The FCC, with a 3-2 Republican majority, has signaled it is open to reallocating spectrum to wireless carriers for the rollout of 5G service. Unfortunately, much of this spectrum is already in use, setting up battles between incumbent users threatened to be displaced and the wireless industry, which sees big profits from acquiring and deploying more spectrum.

With serious money at stake, strains are emerging among some individual members of the different industry groups. Late last week, Paris-based Eutelsat Communications quit the largest satellite owner coalition, the C-Band Alliance. The move fractured unity among the world’s satellite owners, just as the FCC seems ready to move on a reallocation plan. Eutelsat will now lobby the FCC directly, reportedly because of concerns among shareholders that splitting off significant amounts of C Band spectrum is inevitable and could drastically reduce the value of Eutelsat’s share price. Eutelsat reportedly wants to independently participate in the FCC’s proceeding, potentially securing a larger amount of compensation from the FCC for the spectrum it will give up as part of a final reallocation plan.

Whatever compensation plan emerges will run into the billions of dollars. Satellite dishes will probably require new equipment to shield signals from interference, may require re-pointing to a different satellite (which could prove problematic for some equipment originally installed in the 1980s), and may even require the launch of additional satellites to provide more capacity in the newly slimmed C Band.

The FCC is expected to decide on the reallocation proposals this fall, with a signal repack likely to take between 18-36 months before the frequencies can be cleared for use by wireless operators.

Satellite owners, mobile carriers, and cable operators discuss reallocating part of the satellite C Band for use by 5G wireless networks. Sponsored by the industry-funded Technology Policy Institute. Sept. 3, 2019 (44:10)

Southern California Getting 200 Mbps Standard Internet from Charter Spectrum

Phillip Dampier September 4, 2019 Broadband Speed, Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video No Comments

Spectrum customers in Southern California are gradually getting a free upgrade to 200 Mbps — twice the usual Standard speed, starting with new customers.

Spectrum has been running commercials in the region promoting the company’s new entry-level internet speed of 200 Mbps, along with a free cable modem and no data caps. The current new customer promotion offers $44.99/mo for internet service for 12 months, or a package of TV and internet for $89.98 a month for 12 months (which does not include equipment fees or the significant Broadcast TV Fee, which will add at least $20 more to the TV side of your bill).

Some current customers in legacy Time Warner Cable areas are successfully getting the speed upgrade by asking customer service to re-provision their cable modem. Others are finding the new speed after briefly unplugging their modem, while others are still waiting for any upgrade at all. It is clear the company is soft-launching the speed upgrade and is taking some time before publicly announcing it to all of their existing broadband customers in the area.

About 45% of Charter Spectrum’s footprint supports 200 Mbps as the entry level internet speed, mostly in AT&T landline service areas in the Midwest. Charter has not said when the rest of their service areas will get the free upgrade, but considering the company is about to raise internet prices, bringing faster speeds soon might make the price hike sting a little less.

Spectrum is running this advertisement in Southern California, promoting 200 Mbps internet service. (0:59)

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