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Cable Industry Has Low Latency Software Upgrade for DOCSIS 3.1; <1ms Possible

Phillip Dampier June 24, 2019 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Cox 1 Comment

CableLabs has published a new specification for the DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband platform that will support <1 ms latency, optimal for online gaming and virtual reality.

The new specification, dubbed low-latency DOCSIS (LLD), costs little to implement with a simple software upgrade, but some cable companies plan to charge customers nearly $15 a month more to enable the extra performance.

CableLabs Blog:

VR needs incredibly low latency between head movement and the delivery of new pixels to your eyes, or you start to feel nauseated. To move the PC out of the home, we need to make the communications over the cable network be a millisecond or less round trip. But our DOCSIS® technology at the time could not deliver that.

So, we pivoted again. Since 2016, CableLabs DOCSIS architects Greg White and Karthik Sundaresan have been focused on revolutionizing DOCSIS technology to support sub-1ms latency. Although VR is still struggling to gain widespread adoption, that low and reliable DOCSIS latency will be a boon to gamers in the short term and will enable split rendering of VR and augmented reality (AR) in the longer term. The specifications for Low Latency DOCSIS (as a software upgrade to existing DOCSIS 3.1 equipment) have been released, and we’re working with the equipment suppliers to get this out into the market and to realize the gains of a somewhat torturous innovation journey.

Your provider may already have LLD capability — the updates were pushed to cable operators in two stages, one in January and the most recent update in April. It will be up to each cable company to decide if and when to enable the feature. Additionally, low latency is only possible if the path between your provider and the gaming server has the capability of delivering it. Cable companies may need to invite some gaming platforms to place servers inside their networks to assure the best possible performance.

Cable operators are already conceptualizing LLD as a revenue booster. Cox Communications is already testing a low-latency gaming add-on with customers in Arizona, for which it charges an extra $14.99 a month. But reports from customers using it suggest it is not a true implementation of LLD. Instead, many users claim it is just an enhanced traffic routing scheme to reduce latency using already available technology.

A Cox representative stressed the service does not violate any net neutrality standards.

“This service does not increase the speed of any traffic, and it doesn’t prioritize gaming traffic ahead of other traffic on our network,” said CoxJimR on the DSL Reports Cox forum. “The focus is around improving gaming performance when it leaves our network and goes over the public internet, like a Gamer Private Network. No customer’s experience is degraded as a result of any customers purchasing Cox Elite Gamer service as an add-on to their internet service.”

CableLabs is treating LLD as a part of its “10G” initiative, expected to upgrade broadband speeds up to 10 Gbps. Among the next upgrades likely to be published is full duplex DOCSIS, which will allow cable operators to provide the same upload and download speeds.

The Downside to Modem Fees: Customers Hold On to Legacy Owned Modems Forever

Arris/Motorola’s SB6121 SURFboard DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem used to be considered “eXtreme,” but now most cable companies consider it obsolete.

The legacy of the hated modem rental fee is coming back to bite providers that charge $10 a month or more for a device that likely cost the company well under $100.

To opt out of the fee, a growing percentage of customers buy their own equipment, but now many of those modems are becoming functionally obsolete and customers are wary of efforts by providers to convince them to accept a newer, company-supplied modem.

With the arrival of DOCSIS 3.1 and faster speeds, the problem is only getting worse for companies like Comcast, Charter Spectrum, and Cox. With an installed base of hundreds of thousands of obsolete modems, customers frequently can no longer get the internet speed they pay for, and the equipment’s limitations can cause congestion on cable broadband networks, because older modems cannot take advantage of the exponential increase in available “channels” that help share the load on the neighborhood network.

“Some customers have cable modems that are incompatible (such as DOCSIS 2.0 and DOCSIS 3.0 4×4 modems) with the current class of service or internet speed that they’re receiving. As a result, these customers may not be experiencing the full range of available bandwidth that they’re paying for,” Comcast informs their customers. “If a device is no longer supported by Comcast or has reached its end-of-life (EOL), this essentially means that we will no longer install the device, either as a new or replacement device. In addition, we will no longer recommend that customers purchase the device, whether new or used.”

But many Comcast customers do not realize their equipment is effectively obsolete until they visit mydeviceinfo.xfinity.com and sign in to their account or enter a device make and model in the search bar on the homepage or hear directly from the company. Comcast will send online alerts to customers verified to still be using outdated equipment and occasionally send notifications through the mail. Customers can order new equipment online or swap out old equipment in a cable store. Comcast prefers its customers rent its Xfinity xFi Wireless Gateway ($13/mo) or xFi Advanced Gateway ($15/mo). As an incentive, Comcast is testing offering free unlimited data in some central U.S. markets to those choosing its more costly Advanced Gateway.

Charter Spectrum sold its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks partly on its argument that modem fees would no longer be charged. Despite that, many former Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers still use their own modems, which has been a problem for a company that raised the standard internet speed available to residential customers from 15 Mbps to 100 Mbps (200 Mbps in some markets, mostly those also served by AT&T). Older modems often cannot achieve those speeds. Spectrum notifies affected customers in periodic campaigns, offering to replace their obsolete equipment, but many customers suspect hidden fees may be lurking in such offers and discard them.

“Some modems that were issued years ago have become outdated. If you have a modem that was issued by us and hasn’t been swapped in the last six years, it might need to be replaced,” Spectrum tells customers. “To get a replacement modem, contact us or visit a Spectrum store. Please recycle your old modem or bring it to a Spectrum store for proper disposal. If you do a modem swap with us, you’ll receive a mail return label in your package, which can be used to return your old modem.”

Cox is also in a similar predicament. It runs seasonal checks on its network to identify customers using older DOCSIS modems, often DOCSIS 3.0 4×4 modems, which can only support four download channels. When it finds customers eligible for an upgrade, it mails postcards offering a “free modem upgrade,” usually supplying a SB6183 or SB8200 modem that can arrive in 24-48 hours. But many Cox customers suspect trickery from Cox as well, or run into poorly trained customer service representatives that reject the postcards, claiming the customer is ineligible.

“DOCSIS 3.0 8×4 or higher (or a DOCSIS 3.1) devices are required for all new Cox High Speed Internet customers,” Cox tells their internet customers. “Current Cox customers should ensure they have a minimum of a DOCSIS 3.0 device in order to consistently receive optimal speeds. Additionally, Ultimate customers are required to have a minimum of a DOCSIS 3.0 device with a minimum of 16×4 or higher channel bonding to achieve package speeds.”

In fact, most modem upgrade offers from your provider are likely genuine, but customers need to pay attention to any fine print.

Customers can also purchase their own upgraded modem if they want to avoid Comcast’s Gateway fee. Cox does not charge customers for modems sent as part of a free upgrade offer, but watch for erroneous charges on your bill and report them at once if they do appear. Charter Spectrum has recently introduced a $9.99 modem activation fee, applicable to new customer-owned or company-supplied cable modems. We do not know if that fee would apply in cases of an obsolete modem upgrade. Be sure to ask, and if the answer is no, make a note of the representative’s name in case a dispute arises later on.

14,000 Consumers Cut Cable TV’s Cord Every Day Says New Study

The top 10 service providers in the United States collectively lost over 1.25 million paid television customers in the first three months of 2019, providing further evidence that cord-cutting is accelerating.

Multiscreen Index estimates if that trend continues, an average of 14,000 Americans cancel their paid cable or satellite television service daily.

AT&T suffered the greatest losses, primarily from its satellite television service DirecTV. More than a half-million satellite customers canceled service in the first quarter of the year. AT&T lost another 89,000 streaming customers as news spread that the service was increasing prices and restricting generous promotions to attract new subscribers. DISH Network, DirecTV’s satellite competitor, also lost more than 250,000 customers.

Many cable television providers announced this quarter they would no longer fret about the loss of cable TV customers, and many have dropped retention efforts that included deeply discounted service. As a result, customers are finding it easier than ever to cancel service. Comcast lost 107,000 TV customers, while Charter Spectrum lost 152,000. Spectrum recently increased the price of its Broadcast TV Fee to $11.99 a month and has pulled back on promotions discounting television service.

United States
Service Change
quarter
Subscribers
(millions)
1,280,200 81.90
AT&T TV/DirecTV -544,000 22.36
Comcast -107,000 20.85
Charter Spectrum -152,000 15.95
DISH Network -266,000 9.64
Verizon FiOS -53,000 4.40
Altice USA -10,200 3.30
Sling TV 7,000 2.42
DirecTV Now -89,000 1.44
Frontier -54,000 0.78
Mediacom -12,000 0.76
Source: informitv Multiscreen Index.

“There were losses across the top 10 television services in the United States, with even the DirecTV Now online service losing customers following previous heavy promotion. Between them, they lost over one-and-a-quarter million subscribers in three months. They still command a significant number of customers but the rate of attrition has increased,” said Dr. William Cooper, the editor of the informitv Multiscreen Index.

The total figures for the quarter show roughly 81.90 million Americans are still paying one of the top-10 providers for cable or satellite television service, amounting to less than 70% of television homes — a significant drop. Privately held Cox Communications is excluded because it does not report subscriber numbers or trends.

Virginia Capitulates on Providers Revealing Their Broadband Service Gaps

Virginia officials cannot get broadband providers to reveal full details about their actual service areas, so the state now believes cable and phone companies will be more forthcoming if they can quietly share that information with each other, keeping the state government in the dark.

Virginia Public Radio reports that there are more than 600,000 residents that have no access to high-speed internet, because the state’s dominant telecom companies — Verizon, Cox, and Comcast, choose not to provide service. But the state’s efforts to fund rural broadband projects to reach the unserved have been repeatedly complicated by the lack of accurate information about who actually has access to broadband, and who does not.

“If you call them and say, “I live at this address can I get connected?’ They can tell you yes or no. They will not share that information nationally,” Evan Feinman, Virginia’s chief broadband advisor, told VPR.

State officials cannot get straight answers because telecom companies treat their service areas as confidential and proprietary business information. Broadband availability maps have been criticized as inaccurate as well, with providers volunteering the information with little, if any, independent verification. That creates problems when a would-be provider for an unserved area completes a broadband grant application that results in immediate objections from incumbent providers that claim they already offer service in the proposed project’s service area.

Feinman believes that if the state steps out of any referee roll of verifying what areas actually get service, providers will suddenly begin sharing service information with each other.

Feinman

“Comcast is interested in helping us avoid having to fund an overbuild… if they don’t bid on covering the rest of the county then they’re not interested in covering the rest of the county,” Feinman explains. “So when another ISP comes in I have high confidence that when that ISP asks Comcast ‘Hey I want to cover the rest of this county, how much of that do I need to do?’ Comcast will share that information.”

That is not the experience of other states, where providers like Charter Communications treat any disclosure of their rural broadband service areas and intended expansion areas as “highly confidential information.” In New York, companies will share information with the state, especially when state taxpayers are helping to subsidize their costs, but under no circumstances will they share service and expansion intentions with other providers, calling them competitors.

That would leave Virginia taxpayers footing the bill for rural broadband funding, without the state being a fully informed partner, able to audit projects and their service areas.

This year, Virginia intends to spend $19 million on rural broadband funding, a comparatively tiny amount for the number of residents still lacking service (New York spent over a half billion dollars), but still an increase over earlier years. But where those funds are spent may now be up to the same cable and phone companies that have never been willing to offer service in those areas before, and may not be too interested in letting someone else serve those areas either.

The stakes are high, as Feinman pointed out.

“I have conversations with corporate leaders who say, ‘Well am I going to be able to get in touch with my manager at 1 am and will he or she be able to send me a document?’ If the answer is no that community’s off the list,” says Feinman.

Virginia could follow the lead of Wall Street analysts that have conducted detailed studies by using a provider’s own website to query service availability and information for each individual address in a proposed service area. It would be a labor intensive project, but one that would put providers on record about whether they actually offer service or not.

Virginia Public Radio reports the state’s goal for universal broadband has been hampered by a lack of accurate broadband mapping. Now the state proposes to allow cable and phone companies to sort it out themselves. (1:43)

Cox Preparing to Launch Cloud DVR Service Through Contour (X1) Platform

Phillip Dampier March 27, 2019 Consumer News, Cox No Comments

Cox Contour TV

Cox Communications is planning to launch a new cloud DVR service targeting the 25% of customers who use the company’s Contour set-top box, which is powered by Comcast/Xfinity’s X1.

The new service will launch later this year, according to Light Reading, but exact pricing and storage options are not yet known.

Assuming Cox follows other licensees of the X1 platform, which include Rogers and Shaw Communications, the new service will likely  bundle a cloud storage option for its current DVR set-top box customers. Comcast offers its current DVR customers 60 hours of free cloud storage, which is less than the 150 hours of local storage usually available on Comcast’s set-top DVR boxes. Rogers’ “Ignite TV” offers 200 hours of HD or 4K storage with a maximum recording storage time of one year, and Shaw’s BlueSky TV will launch its own cloud DVR add-on service later this year under a similar licensing agreement with Comcast.

The biggest benefit of cloud storage is remote access to DVR recordings on portable devices when streaming away from home, a major advantage available to streaming cable TV customers subscribed to DirecTV Now, YouTube TV, Hulu, and others. Because of copyright considerations, cable companies follow a more complicated path to provide subscribers with remote access to their DVR recordings. Comcast customers “check out” recorded shows to downloaded for mobile viewing much the same way Amazon.com allows customers to offer friends the chance to “borrow” a Kindle book. The customer accesses a recorded show, chooses the option to download for remote viewing, and then watches on the go. When finished, a customer “returns” the show, allowing it to be seen on the set-top DVR once again.

Ironically, Charter Spectrum customers are likely to be among the last to see cloud DVR service, despite the fact Charter’s current CEO, Thomas Rutledge, was instrumental in helping clear the way for U.S. cable operators to offer cloud DVR service. In 2006, Cablevision sought to introduce a remote storage DVR and immediately ran into lawsuits, coordinated by Time Warner (Entertainment)’s Turner Broadcasting. Two years later in 2008, Cablevision won a key appeals court victory allowing cloud storage DVRs to be introduced. Charter Spectrum customers may have access to cloud DVR service late this year, or sometime in 2020.

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