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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.

Wall Street’s Latest Great Idea: Providers Should Charge More for 5G, But Only After You Are Hooked

“You’re giving it away… you are giving it all away!” — An unknown Wall Street analyst tossing and turning in the night.

America is simply not paying enough for wireless service. Thanks to dastardly competition introduced by T-Mobile and Sprint (potentially to be snuffed out in due course if their merger gets approved), wireless pricing is no longer a license to print money. Forced to offer one-size-fits-all affordable $40-50 unlimited plans, the prospects to grow Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) have never been worse because you can’t charge people for more service on an “unlimited plan” without admitting that plan is not exactly “unlimited.”

Wall Street analysts, already upset at the thought of carriers spending more than $100 billion on 5G network upgrades, are in a real tizzy about how companies are going to quickly recoup that investment. No matter that some wireless companies have profit margins in the 50% range and customers have paid providers for a service they were assured would keep up with the times and network demand. If there is to be a 5G revolution in the United States, some insist it must not come at the cost of reliable profits — so the industry must find a way to stick consumers with the bill.

It is not common for industry analysts to go public brainstorming higher prices and more customer gouging. After all, North Americans already pay some of the highest cell phone bills in the world, only mitigated (for now) by scrappy T-Mobile and Sprint. Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, was willing to go public in the pages of Fierce Wireless, arguing “operators should be considering charging a premium price for what will hopefully be a premium service.” That is likely music to the ears of AT&T and Verizon, both frustrated their pricing power in the market has been reduced by credible competition from a significantly improved T-Mobile.

Lowenstein fears the prospects of a “race-to-the-bottom 5G price war” which could arrive if America’s wireless companies offer a credible home internet replacement that lets consumers tell the local phone or cable company to ‘take a hike.’ Since wireless operators will bundle significant discounts for those who subscribe to both home and mobile plans, telecommunications services may actually cost less than what Wall Street was banking on.

Something must be done. Lowenstein:

In mobile, there’s been premium pricing for premium phones. And Verizon Wireless, for a few years when it had a clear network lead, was sort of able to charge a higher price for its service (but not a premium price). But today, there isn’t really premium pricing for premium services. That should change when 5G really kicks into gear.

So how do you extract more cash from consumers’ wallets? Create artificial tiers that have no relationship to the actual cost of the network, but could potentially get people to willingly pay a lot more for something they will initially get for a simple, flat price:

One simple way would be a flat premium price, similar to the “tiers” of Netflix for a higher number of devices or 4K/Ultra HD.  So, perhaps $10 per line for 5G, or $25 for a family plan. Another approach would be more akin to broadband, where there are pricing tiers for different levels of service performance. So if the base 4G LTE plan is $50 per month today, for an average 100 Mbps service, 5G packages could be sold in gradations of $10 for higher speeds (i.e. $60 for 300 Mbps, $70 for 500, $80 for 1 Gbps, and so on). An interesting angle on this is that some of the higher-end 4G LTE services such as Gigabit LTE (and beyond) could get incorporated into this, so it becomes less of a 4G vs. 5G discussion and more of a tier of service discussion.

I would also like to see some flexibility with regard to how one can purchase 5G capabilities. For example, a user might only need those premium 5G features occasionally, and might only be prepared to pay that higher price when the service is being used. Here, we can borrow from the Wi-Fi model, where operators offer a “day pack” for 5G, or for a certain city, location, or 5G-centic app or experience. 5G is going to be hot-spotty for awhile anyway, so why not use a Wi-Fi type model for pricing?

Even better, now with net neutrality in the ash heap of history, courtesy of the Republican-dominated FCC, providers can extract even more of your money by artificially messing with wireless traffic!

Lowenstein sees a brand new world of “app-centric pricing” where wireless carriers can charge even more to assure a fast lane for those entertainment, gaming, and virtual reality apps of the future, designed to take full advantage of 5G. Early tests have shown millimeter wave 5G networks can deliver extremely low latency traffic to customers from day one. That kills the market for selling premium, low-latency add-ons for demanding apps before companies can even start counting the money. So assuming providers are willing to purposely impede network performance, there just could be a market selling sub-100ms assured latency for an extra fee.

The potential of a Money Party only 5G can deliver is coming, but time is short to get the foundation laid for surprise toll lanes and “premium traffic” enhancements made possible without net neutrality. But first, the wireless industry has to get consumers hooked on 5G at a tantalizingly reasonable price. Charge too much, too soon and consumers may decide 4G LTE is good enough for them. That is why Lowenstein recommends operators not get carried away when 5G first launches.

“We don’t want to be setting ourselves up for a WiMAX-like disappointment,” Lowenstein writes. “The next 12-18 months are largely going to be ‘5G Experimentation’ mode, with limited markets, coverage, and devices. Heck, it’s likely to be two years before there’s a 5G iPhone in the United States, where iOS still commands nearly half the market.”

The disappointment will eventually be all yours, dear readers, if Lowenstein’s recommendations are adopted — when “certain milestones” trigger “rate adjustment” letters some day in the future.

Lowenstein sees four signs to start the pillaging, and we’ve paraphrased them:

  • Coverage: Wait until 30-40% of a city is covered with 5G, then jack up the price. As long as customers get something akin to 5G one-third of the time, they’ll moan about why their 5G footprint is so limited, but they will keep paying more for the scraps of coverage they get.
  • Markets: Price the service differently in each market depending on how stingy customers are likely to be at different price points. Then hike those prices to a new “nationwide” standard plan when 5G is available in the top 20-30 cities in the country. Since there may not be much competition, customers can take it or leave it.
  • Performance: AT&T and Verizon’s gotta gouge, but it’s hard to do it with a straight face if your 5G service is barely faster than 4G LTE. Lowenstein recommends waiting until speeds are reliably north of 100 Mbps, then you can let rip with those diamond-priced plans.
  • Devices: It’s hard to extract another $50-100 a month from family plan accounts if there are an inadequate number of devices that support 5G. While your kids “languish” with 4G LTE smartphones and dad enjoys his 5G experience, mom may shut it all down when the bill comes. Wait until everyone in the family can get a 5G phone before delivering some good old-fashioned bill shock, just like companies did in the golden days of uncompetitive wireless.

These ideas can only be adopted if a lack of competition assures all players nobody is going to call them out for pickpocketing customers. Ajit Pai’s FCC won’t interfere, and is even subsidizing some of the operators’ costs with taxpayer dollars and slanted deregulation to let companies construct next generation 5G networks as cheaply as possible (claiming it is important to beat China, where 5G service will cost much less). Should actual competition remain in the wireless market, all the dreams of rate-hikes-because-we-can will never come true, as long as one carrier decides they can grow their business by charging reasonable prices at their competitors’ expense.

Class Action Lawsuits Hit Cable Modem Manufacturers Over Widely-Reported Defect

Phillip Dampier April 26, 2017 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

The Netgear CM700 is the target of a class action lawsuit filed in California.

As consumers increasingly spend money out-of-pocket to acquire their own cable modems to avoid leasing fees, alleged defects in those modems are spurring class action lawsuits to force manufacturers to fix the problems or issue refunds.

Two separate class action cases have been filed this month in Calfornia courts alleging “serious defects” in the Netgear CM700 and Arris SURFboard SB6190 — both newer DOCSIS 3.0 modems. But those modems are not the only ones affected by a serious firmware bug that can dramatically degrade internet performance.

Both modems rely on a relatively new Intel Puma 6 chipset, which some media outlets have also implicated in similar defects in a variety of cable modems including the Hitron CGNV4, the Compal CH7465-LG, and Puma 6-based modems like Virgin Media’s Hub 3 and Comcast’s top-end Xfinity boxes. Other newer modems branded by Linksys and Cisco also use the same system-on-chip and may also be affected.

The law firm of Schubert, Jonckheer & Kolbe, which is handling the Netgear legal case, says these cable modems may be affected:

  • Arris SB6190
  • Arris TG1672G
  • Arris TM1602
  • Super Hub 3 (Arris TG2492LG)  (commonly, Virgin Media)
  • Hitron CGN3 / CDA / CGNV series modems:
  • Hitron CDA-32372
  • Hitron CDE-32372
  • Hitron CDA3-35
  • Hitron CGNV4
  • Hitron CGNM-3552 (commonly, Rogers)
  • Hitron CGN3 (eg CGN3-ACSMR)
  • Hitron CGNM-2250 (commonly, Shaw)
  • Linksys CM3024
  • Linksys CM3016
  • TP-Link CR7000
  • Netgear AC1750 C6300 AC1900
  • Netgear CM700
  • Telstra Gateway Max (Netgear AC1900 / C6300) (Australia)
  • Cisco DPC3848V
  • Cisco DPC3941B / DPC3941T  (commonly, Comcast Xfinity XB3)
  • Cisco DPC3939
  • Compal CH7465-LG / Arris TG2492LG (commonly, Virgin Media Hub 3)
  • Samsung Home Media Server

Customers of Comcast, Charter, and Cox in the United States are impacted, as well as Rogers and Shaw customers in Canada and Virgin Media in the United Kingdom. The faster your internet connection, the more likely you will notice the defect, which causes dramatic latency spikes and degraded internet performance.

Intel admitted there was a problem back in December, but ISPs have been slow to respond.

Intel acquired the Puma family of chips from Texas Instruments in 2010, and the latest — the DOCSIS 3.0-compatible Puma 6 – uses an Atom x86 processor designed to handle up to 1.6Gbps connections. Unfortunately, the engineers who developed the firmware have tasked the Atom CPU with too much work while it also copes with processing network packets on a high-speed internet connection.

As The Register reported back in December:

Every couple of seconds or so, a high-priority maintenance task runs and it winds up momentarily hogging the processor, causing latency to increase by at least 200ms and, over time, about six per cent of packets to be dropped. It affects IPv4 and IPv6 – and it spoils internet gaming and other online real-time interaction that need fast response times.

This problem is easily seen in two graphs provided to the Register by a reader in Phoenix who plugged in two different modems to his Cox Cable internet connection. The blue lines represent latency and the red lines are packet loss. The test was performed with an ICMP ping running 33 times a second to his ISP’s DNS server over a 30 minute period.

An Arris SB6183 cable modem using an older Broadcom-based chipset exhibits no problems. (Image: The Register)

The Arris SB6190 running the new Intel Puma 6 chipset shows significant and readily identifiable problems. (Image: The Register)

Online gamers are among the most likely to be affected by latency problems.

“I excitedly swapped out my Arris SB1683 Broadcom modem for the new SB6190 Intel one expecting gigabit performance and immediately noticed slower webpage loads,” one gamer told The Register. “During first-person gaming, I was getting killed way more often for no apparent reason. I looked at an eight-year graph of latency from my home logs, and was horrified. Swapping back to my SB6183 solved all the issues.”

Arris also confirmed the problem.

“Arris has been working actively with Intel to address the issue, which resulted in some SURFboard SB6190 users reporting latency concerns,” a spokeswoman for Arris said. “We plan to quickly issue Intel’s firmware updates to resolve any latency. We remain committed to providing the best broadband experience for all users of Arris devices and regret any inconvenience this issue caused.”

Unfortunately, regardless of how fast modem manufacturers issue updated firmware to resolve the problem, end users will not notice a difference until their cable operator pushes that firmware update to customers. You cannot update cable modem firmware on your own, and any effort to do so would be futile because your provider would automatically replace it with an older “approved” version as soon as the unauthorized firmware change was identified.

The lawsuits seek a jury trial and damages forcing the manufacturers to recall the modems and either replace them or issue refunds to all affected customers. Customers who own an affected modem who want to participate in the class action case can fill out this form for more information.

FCC Likely to Toss First Formal Net Neutrality Complaint Against Time Warner Cable

Phillip Dampier June 23, 2015 Consumer News, Net Neutrality, Online Video, Public Policy & Gov't Comments Off on FCC Likely to Toss First Formal Net Neutrality Complaint Against Time Warner Cable

The nation’s first Net Neutrality complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission accuses Time Warner Cable of refusing to provide the best possible path for its broadband customers to watch a series of high-definition webcams covering San Diego Bay.

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Commercial Network Services’ CEO Barry Bahrami wrote the FCC that Time Warner Cable is degrading its ability to exercise free expression by choosing which Internet traffic providers it directly peers with and which it does not:

I am writing to initiate an informal complaint against Time Warner Cable (TWC) for violating the “No Paid Prioritization” and “No Throttling” sections of the new Net Neutrality rules for failure to fulfill their obligations to their BIAS consumers by opting to exchange Internet traffic over higher latency (and often more congested) transit routes instead of directly to the edge provider over lower latency peering routes freely available to them through their presence on public Internet exchanges, unless a payment is made to TWC by the edge provider. These violations are occurring on industry recognized public Internet peering exchanges where both autonomous systems maintain a presence to exchange Internet traffic, but are unable to due to the management policy of TWC. As you know, there is no management policy exception to the No Paid Prioritization rule.

By refusing to accept the freely available direct route to the edge-provider of the consumers’ choosing, TWC is unnecessarily increasing latency and congestion between the consumer and the edge provider by instead sending traffic through higher latency and routinely congested transit routes. This is a default on their promise to the BIAS consumer to deliver to the edge and make arrangements as necessary to do that.

The website responsible for initiating the complaint shows live webcam footage of the San Diego Bay.

The website responsible for initiating the complaint shows live webcam footage of the San Diego Bay.

Bahrami’s complaint deals with interconnection issues, which are not explicitly covered by the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules that prohibit intentional degradation or paid prioritization of network traffic. For years, ISPs have agreed to “settlement-free peering” arrangements with bandwidth providers that exchange traffic in roughly equal amounts with one another. To qualify for this kind of free interconnection arrangement, CNS’ webcams must be hosted by a company that receives about as much traffic from Time Warner Cable customers as it sends back to them — an unlikely prospect.

As bandwidth intensive content knocks traffic figures out of balance, ISPs have started demanding financial compensation from content producers if they want performance guarantees. This is what led Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to insist on paid interconnection agreements with the traffic monster Netflix.

Time Warner Cable is calling on the FCC to dismiss Bahrami’s letter on the grounds it is not a valid Net Neutrality complaint.

“[The FCC should] reject any complaint that is premised on the notion that every edge provider around the globe is entitled to enter into a settlement-free peering arrangement,” Time Warner Cable responds. That is a nice way of telling CNS it doesn’t get a premium pathway to Time Warner Cable customers for free just because of Net Neutrality rules.

CNS250X87Bahrami responds Time Warner’s attitude is based on a distinction without much difference because he is effectively being told CNS must pay extra for a suitable connection with Time Warner to guarantee his web visitors will have a good experience.

“This is not a valid complaint, and there is no way the FCC is going to side with them,” Dan Rayburn, a telecom analyst at Frost & Sullivan and the founding member of the Streaming Video Alliance told Motherboard. “The rules say you can’t block or throttle, but there’s no rule that says Time Warner Cable has to give CNS settlement-free peering. I don’t see how the FCC could possibly say there’s a violation here.”

The FCC made it clear in its Net Neutrality policy it intends “to watch, learn, and act as required, but not intervene now, especially not with prescriptive rules” with respect to interconnection matters.

That makes it likely Bahrami’s complaint will either be tossed out on grounds it is not a Net Neutrality violation or more likely dismissed but kept in what will likely be a growing file of future cases of interconnection disputes between ISPs and content producers. If that file grows too large too quickly, the FCC may be compelled to act.

Virgin Media to Game Developers: It’s All Your Fault You Assumed We Weren’t Going to Throttle You

Virgin Media broadband customers in the United Kingdom who spend free time playing the highly addictive World of Warcraft (WoW) suffered some serious withdrawal episodes after game developers released a major software patch (v4.0.1).  Just after installation, customers noticed their game play started slowing to a crawl, resulting in game performance worthy of a Noob popping Xanax.  With online ‘street cred’ at risk on the multiplayer game environment, WoW players rushed to Virgin’s support forums inquiring about the sudden slow lane performance:

Ever since this patch I have experienced very high latency (around 2-4k ms) whilst being in combat in 25-man raids. This latency causes me to disconnect from the game after around 10 seconds of very lagged out combat. Outside of raids I seem to yo-yo up and down. I have been as low as 70ms and as high as 1kms.

I have tried everything I can think of game related. I have ensured all the correct ports are opened via port forwarding on my router.  I have tried running the game in its default state with all add-ons removed. I have done virus scans, disabled my firewall and I am running out of options. No one else in-game seems to have the same problems as I do. Admittedly, a couple of them are Virgin Media customers too and have no problems but I cannot think what else it could be.

Now stuck in the slow lane on Virgin Broadband

Virgin Media customers and staff initially seemed at a loss about what could cause just WoW traffic to become very un-WoW.  Virgin’s terms of service includes a virtual paddle to spank customers who “excessively utilize” their broadband connections, and the patch itself — amounting to at least 7GB with accompanying updates — was worthy enough to put some customers in the time-out corner.  But even as company support officials were asking impacted customers to do the problem-solving sleuthing for them, a growing number of customers suspected the provider’s “intelligent network traffic shaping” technology was the real culprit.

Traffic shaping is a term Americans are just getting acquainted with.  It’s essentially a virtual traffic cop that can identify different types of online traffic and assign different levels of priority for different applications.  The broadband industry claims traffic shaping is a net plus for broadband consumers because it forces traffic gorgers like peer to peer file sharing to the back of the line, making room for more predictable performance of Internet phone calls, video, and other time-critical Internet applications.  Virgin even markets its broadband service as enhancing online game play by giving the highest possible priority to game-related traffic.

But when traffic shaping goes bad, it can create a nightmare for broadband customers who find roadblocks that ruin their online experience.

Virgin initially denied it was responsible for traffic shaping WoW to the point of unusability. Eventually, Virgin admitted it -was- responsible for the game traffic throttles, but passed the blame to WoW’s game developers, Blizzard Entertainment.  At one point Virgin suggested the company might want to recall the latest patch, just to get the game to work again on Virgin’s broadband network.  When that didn’t fly, company officials eventually released a statement taking responsibility, but telling customers it will be weeks before their “traffic management supplier” can create a workaround:

Since the latest World of Warcraft update we have seen that the type of packets used by Blizzard to deliver the on-line gaming has changed significantly.  This means that Virgin Media’s National (ADSL) traffic management system is unable to recognise the packets as gaming traffic and assumes that they are peer to peer traffic.  Due to this the traffic management system does not place the packets within the gaming queue which has the highest priority and lowest latency within the VM network, instead they fall into the peer to peer class which gets a low level of priority within our network and by default a higher level of latency.

We are working to try and rectify this as soon as we can with our traffic management supplier however it will take us a few weeks to upgrade the traffic manage solution so that is can recognise the new traffic class and correctly classify it as gaming.  Unfortunately due to the nature of most traffic management solutions we can not manually move these packets into the gaming queue as the solution can not work out which ones to move.

We appreciate that some customers will have noticed a similar issue with the previous World of Warcraft update.  The reason behind this is because gaming companies are not prepared to share the updates with Virgin Media or traffic management suppliers prior to its release and so the first time we see the new packets is when people start to use the new updates.  We are trying to change this view point of the gaming companies however at present they are un-willing to work with us.

We apologise for the affect that this has on your gaming experience and we will update you when we have a confirmed fix date for this.

By that time, many WoW enthusiasts will have probably fled Virgin for another provider.

Our reader James, who alerted us to this story, notes it takes a special kind of nerve for a broadband provider running speed traps to blame software developers for the problem.

“So, wait — Virgin is blaming the game developers because their code runs on the assumption that all traffic is treated equally and because they don’t verify their updates with the ISP before pushing them out to consumers?” James incredulously asks.

Virgin could always discontinue their faulty un-intelligent network traffic shaping scheme until a solution can be found, but that hasn’t happened.  It could interfere with “preferred content partnerships” — clients who pay to avoid the speed traps and throttles and always get special treatment.

Paying customers?  They can wait two or three weeks.

A Blizzard representative said Virgin’s buck (or is it pound?)-passing was inexcusable because the game producer -has- made efforts to reach out to ISPs in the past:

“In our defense, most of our previous attempts to work with ISPs have been shut down by the ISP management. I’m going to avoid naming actual ISP names for obvious legal reasons. We’re not the ISP’s actual customer so they rarely care what we have to say.”

And that is a perfect real-world example of what happens when Net Neutrality is not the law of the land.  Providers claim their traffic management schemes benefit their customers, but in reality they are only responsive to the “preferred content partners” that pay them to be responsive.

If Americans want to enjoy a similar level of service from their Internet Service Providers, just oppose Net Neutrality, sit back and wait… and wait… and wait.

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