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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.

Suddenlink Putting Its Lines Anywhere It Wants, Drooping in Yards and Roadways

Phillip Dampier June 17, 2019 Altice USA, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Suddenlink is taking full advantage of a lax approach to regulatory oversight in Texas by laying its cables just about anywhere it pleases, and without talking to local officials about exactly what the cable system is doing.

Huntington residents have been complaining to city officials about Suddenlink’s ongoing expansion of its cable system in the city, reporting the cable company is putting cables just about anywhere it wants, often leaving them drooping in yards and roadways. The Altice-owned cable company’s ultimate plans are a complete mystery to the city, because the cable company has said nothing specific about its expansion plans or where exactly the company’s crews are working.

The Lufkin Daily News reports Huntington City Manager Bill Stewart has been hearing second hand about Suddenlink’s expansion since March 2016, but the company has never approached the city formally to share details.

“For the most part, when they finally decided to do it they just started laying lines,” Stewart told the newspaper.

The quality of the construction work is what bothers residents, who complain Suddenlink’s lines are hanging low across yards and even across city streets, with no sign of repair crews willing to fix the problem.

“If they’re going to come in and do something, we expect it will be done right and will be taken care of correctly,” Stewart said. “We want to have a positive relationship with them. But things just need to be done differently if you’re going to come and do something like that. You need to fulfill what you say, and at this point a lot of people are upset because that’s not been done.”

Suddenlink’s response was a general statement:

“Since launching our Suddenlink by Altice broadband, TV, and phone services in Huntington earlier this year, we have seen great demand from residents and have been bringing additional resources to the area to ensure a positive experience for all of our new customers,” Suddenlink media representative Lindsey Angioletti said. “We thank our customers for their support and look forward to serving them with advanced products and services for many years to come.”

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.

Potential Optical Fiber Breakthrough: New Spin Lasers Might Deliver 240 Gigabits Per Second

Phillip Dampier April 18, 2019 Broadband Speed 1 Comment

Circular polarization (Image courtesy of: Dave3457)

German researchers are testing a new way of transferring data over optical fiber using a new laser polarization method that could boost the capacity of a single strand of fiber from 25 gigabits per second to as fast as 240 gigabits per second, while greatly reducing power consumption and heat.

The technique relies on oscillating polarization in the light beam instead of more traditional methods that rely on light intensity to transmit data. Current methods differentiate between digital “1s” and “0s” by using different light intensity.

“Normally, you make the throughput faster by pumping the laser harder, which automatically means you consume a lot of power and produce a lot of heat,” said Nils Gerhardt, chair of photonics and terahertz technology at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany. “Which is actually a big problem for today’s server farms. But the bandwidth in our concept does not depend on the power consumption. We have the same bandwidth even [at] low currents.”

Using lower current means a less expensive power bill, particularly to remove excess heat generated from the high intensity beams of light sent across fiber cables in places like data centers. The new technique encodes a “1” as a burst of circularly polarized light that corkscrews to the left, while a “0” is represented by a burst of the same polarized light, only it corkscrews to the right. Right now, the technology is at the “proof of concept” stage in the lab, but the idea of light spinning has been around since at least 1997. The goal is to efficiently boost transmission capacity across optical fiber strands, which currently tops out at between 40-50 gigabits per second.

One of the benefits of optical fiber in fiber to the home applications is that it is considered almost infinitely upgradable, depending on laser transmission technology improvements. Currently, multiple strands of fiber are used in dedicated, very high-speed applications. If a provider uses all of its fiber strand capacity, it may have to divert excess traffic or lay down more fiber. Gerhardt’s technology could eventually expand existing fiber strand capacity by five times or more if it proves workable. But Gerhardt warns there is much research to complete, and he envisions the technology would be most useful initially in server farms and data centers, where cable lengths are shorter and heat concerns are greater. The technology would have to prove itself before being considered for internet backbone applications.

Competing technologies that could come to market before Gerhardt’s method include “mode-locked semiconductor laser diodes” and “quantum cascade lasers,” but neither have been successful much above 100 gigabits per second.

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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