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Cable Industry Spending Freeze Causes Cisco to Halt Investment in Full Duplex DOCSIS

Despite assurances from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that the repeal of net neutrality would inspire cable operators to increase investment in broadband, a year-long virtual spending freeze by the nation’s top cable operators has resulted in a major vendor pulling out of the next generation cable broadband standard until there are signs cable companies are prepared to spend money on upgrades again.

Cisco Systems has confirmed to Light Reading it has ceased investment in Full Duplex DOCSIS technology that would allow cable customers to get the same upload speed as download speed.

“Cisco has internally communicated that we are suspending further investment in Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX) until the market timing, ecosystem development and size of the opportunity can be quantified,” a Cisco spokesperson said in a statement to Light Reading.

The news is a significant blow to the cable industry’s plans to upgrade to 10 Gbps capacity and a growing desire by customers to get much faster upload speeds than are currently available.

Cisco blamed its pullback on the cable industry’s lack of investment in broadband upgrades and an uncertain timetable when major cable companies including Comcast, Charter, Cox, and others will announce specific plans for future upgrades.

FDX has already been the victim of delays. Originally planned as an incremental upgrade for DOCSIS 3.1, FDX is now scheduled to be included in CableLabs’ DOCSIS 4.0 specification, which is not expected to be released for a few years. FDX will be one of several new features incorporated into the next cable broadband standard, which will allow for low latency connections and an expanded amount of coaxial cable spectrum that can be devoted to broadband services.

The cable industry has been taking a sober look at the costs associated with adopting FDX, which includes scrapping a significant amount of coaxial cable and pushing fiber optic technology much closer to customers. Cable systems that want to move towards FDX will have to remove amplifiers that maintain signal strength between the fiber optic connection and the coaxial cable entering customers’ homes. In some cases, this will mean removing multiple amps from the cable system and stringing new fiber optic cables deep into neighborhoods. This is known as node+0 architecture. Moving towards node+0 is expected to be both costly and labor intensive, and some large cable systems and investors are balking.

“There are a lot of operators who have no intention of getting to a node+0 environment in next 10 years,” Tom Cloonan, chief technical officer of Arris’ Networks Solutions unit, told Multichannel News last fall. “It’s going to take a while to run fiber deep enough to get to node+0.”

To date, the only major cable operator that has definitively backed moving to node+0 is Comcast. Other cable companies, notably Cox Communications, are seeking a much cheaper solution to manage upgrades.

Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD)
Image courtesy of: Huawei

An emerging alternative concept has emerged that can be implemented at a lower cost. Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD) would essentially repurpose much of the bandwidth available over a coaxial cable solely to broadband service. DOCSIS 3.1 currently dedicates 1.2 GHz of spectrum for broadband. FDX would increase that to more than 1.8 GHz. ESD would devote as much as 3 (or possibly 6) GHz of spectrum for data transmissions. The cable system would devote as much as half of that spectrum for downstream traffic, the other half for upstream. Theoretical speeds in the future could be as high as 60 Gbps, and ESD will not require cable systems to ditch existing amplifiers. It will, however, force some cable systems to evaluate and replace at least part of their older coaxial cable network. ESD will be less forgiving of deteriorating cable than DOCSIS 3.1 is.

Unfortunately for Cisco, and other cable broadband equipment suppliers, ESD is still more theory than fact, and with cable operators demonstrating they are in no rush to move to either FDX or ESD, it will likely be several years before either technology becomes available to customers. Cloonan predicts ESD will not be implemented by cable systems until the mid-2020s.

The muddy waters over where the cable industry will ultimately plant the flag on next generation broadband upgrades means a lot of uncertainty for companies like Cisco, which has resulted in the company pulling out of developing FDX until there are assurances the cable industry has a timetable to implement it. The decision has also cost several Cisco employees their jobs. Multiple industry sources told Light Reading job cuts included 5-7 engineers dedicated to FDX, and some sources also report at least 40 employees in the cable access division of Cisco have also been let go.

If certainty does not return to the cable broadband market soon, Cisco could ultimately jettison much of its cable broadband technology division to focus on other technology growth areas.

The cable industry’s investment freeze is ironic because the Trump Administration’s FCC trumpeted its decision to repeal net neutrality, claiming it would inspire cable operators to accelerate investment in network upgrades. It appears the exact opposite has occurred.

5G Hype: Current 5G Networks Are Fast, But Coverage Is Awful (And Phones Get Really Hot)

Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile’s 5G launches are blazing fast, when you can find a signal, but your phone will also get blazing hot while using it.

The Wall Street Journal embarked on testing current 5G launches in several American cities and found speeds on 5G nearing 1,800 Mbps in some places, but the millimeter-wave frequencies most carriers are using for mobile 5G don’t travel far and are subject to disappear just by walking down the street, around the corner, or indoors.

Some devices with 5G support are also suffering from heat issues, sometimes causing phones to heat up to over 105° and drop 5G service in favor of less battery-intense 4G LTE. Network engineers admit they bring coolers filled with ice to cool down overheating 5G phones.

Only Sprint’s mid-band 5G network in Chicago offered a much larger coverage area that still worked after walking indoors, and devices remained cool to the touch while using it. But Sprint’s 5G service sacrifices performance for coverage, often topping out at around 200-300 Mbps.

The Wall Street Journal found a reporter, a tent, and some new 5G devices and sent them out to test some of America’s new 5G services. (5:39)

New York PSC Approves Settlement Deal With Charter Communications

The New York Public Service Commission on Thursday approved its final settlement proposal with Charter Communications in a 3-1 vote, allowing Spectrum to continue as the dominant cable operator in New York State.

The Commission rejected all recommended changes from consumer groups (including Stop the Cap!), industry trade associations, and service providers, preferring its own Settlement Agreement.

In July 2018, the PSC voted to rescind approval of the 2016 Merger Order that allowed Charter to assume control of Time Warner Cable franchise areas in New York. The Commission found that Charter had violated a key merger condition requiring the cable operator to expand its service area on a timely basis to reach 145,000 rural homes and businesses that lack broadband service. The Commission found Charter was attempting to count newly constructed condos and multi-dwelling units in the New York City area towards that commitment, which the Commission claimed violated the terms of the agreement. After Charter argued it had the legal standing to define its network buildout more broadly and on its own terms, the Commission held an emergency meeting where it took the unprecedented step of voting to de-certify the merger and throw the cable company out of New York.

The Commission and Charter’s lawyers began private negotiations almost immediately after the vote, signaling the Commission was amenable to settlement talks.

The final settlement approved last week, nearly one year after the vote, narrowly focuses on Charter’s rural broadband commitment, reaffirms and expands it with a new $12 million rural broadband fund paid for by Charter. The cable company also agreed to stop counting addresses in the New York City area towards it broadband expansion commitment, and will deposit a $2,800 payment to escrow for each address where Charter misses its target construction deadline.

“We’re pleased the PSC has approved the agreement, and we look forward to continuing to serve our customers and expanding the availability of high-speed broadband in New York State,” Andrew Russell, Charter spokesman told the (Albany) Times-Union. “We thank the PSC, Chairman Rhodes, the commissioners and staff for working with us throughout this process.”

The settlement details:

  • Charter will complete the expansion of its existing network to pass 145,000 addresses entirely in Upstate New York. This expansion will not include New York City addresses, which the company had previously planned to include in an earlier buildout plan. To date, Charter has passed approximately 65,000 of the required 145,000 addresses. To comply with the settlement, the Department estimates that the company will invest more than $600 million, more than double the public benefit value estimated by the Commission in its 2016 merger approval.
  • Charter’s expansion will be completed by September 30, 2021, in accordance with a schedule providing frequent interim enforceable milestone requirements, with corresponding reporting and accountability.
  • Charter will also pay $12 million for additional broadband expansion projects at locations to be selected by the Department of Public Service and the New York State Broadband Program Office. Of the $12 million payments, $6 million will be administered by the New York State Broadband Program Office and $6 million will be paid into an escrow fund for work that will be completed by Charter at the State’s direction.

In Rochester, Stop the Cap! was disappointed to learn the PSC had rejected recommendations on improving the settlement.

“We feel all New Yorkers have paid a price for this bad merger, including skyrocketing cable bills and a yet to be determined number of rural residents that will fall through the cracks and end up serviced by no one,” said Phillip Dampier, the group’s founder and president. “We applaud the PSC requiring Charter to serve additional rural households, but every customer should get better service from Charter, including the 200 Mbps download speed that customers in many other states receive, and there must be a better solution for low-income residents that don’t qualify for Spectrum’s restrictive Internet Assist program and cannot afford $65 a month for internet access.”

Stop the Cap! today also filed a clarification request with the PSC about Charter’s internet speed commitment.

“There seems to be confusion about exactly what internet speed Spectrum should be offering its New York customers,” Dampier added. “The PSC seems to imply Charter has not yet met its obligation to increase internet speed to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019, while Charter considers the fact it offers gigabit service as evidence it has completed all of its speed obligations to New York State regulators. We want the PSC to clarify if it still expects Charter to offer 300 Mbps as a base speed to customers by the end of this year or whether the mere availability of speeds at or above 300 Mbps (which Time Warner Cable was already offering a significant part of New York a year before the Charter merger) has satisfied this merger condition.”

Wall Street Hates CenturyLink’s Dividend Cut; Company Punished for Upgrade Spending

CenturyLink’s stock is being pummeled after the company announced a cut in divided payouts to shareholders earlier this year, preferring to keep the money in-house to reduce debt and increase spending on necessary broadband upgrades.

Last fall, CenturyLink stock was trading for over $23 a share. By January, rumors that CenturyLink was going to cut its dividend put the stock on a downward trajectory, falling to an all-time-low below $11 this month. Company officials argued that with tightening credit opportunities and increasing interest rates, the company needed to devote money normally paid back to shareholders towards paying down its $35.5 billion long-term debt and provide better service to its customers.

A half billion dollars of that money will also be spent on upgrading CenturyLink’s broadband service, particularly in rural areas where the company is receiving Connect America Fund (CAF) dollars from the federal government.

“Our plan for 2019 includes investing to improve the trajectory of the business increasing CapEx by roughly $500 million,” Jeff Storey, president and CEO of CenturyLink said on a January analyst conference call. “As I mentioned earlier those investments include expanding the fiber network, adding new buildings throughout our footprint, enhancing our enterprise product portfolio, continuing our investments in CAF-II, and transforming our customer and employee experience.”

Investors were not impressed with those plans, and CenturyLink’s share price cratered.

Independent phone companies have traditionally attracted investors with handsome dividend payouts, but the realities of their aging infrastructure and the inability to compete effectively with cable companies on lucrative broadband services have left companies like CenturyLink, Windstream, and Frontier Communications in a quandary. Shareholders do not perceive value investing in fiber optic network upgrades and punish companies that announce dramatic increases in network investments. Customers left on slow-speed ADSL networks are increasingly dissatisfied with their internet experience and seek alternative providers — usually the local cable company. As Frontier Communications has discovered, attempting to win back ex-customers has been exceedingly difficult, often only possible with lucrative promotional offers that undercut the cable company. But such offers attract customers with above-average price sensitivity, making it difficult to extract increased revenue from them going forward.

CenturyLink’s stock price has dropped to an all-time low over the last six months.

Investors are also increasingly concerned about the financial viability of investor-owned phone companies that are stuck between leveraging their old networks and facing down shareholders when upgrades become essential. AT&T and Verizon have wireless units responsible for much of the revenue earned by those two Baby Bells. Traditional phone companies have had less luck trying to sell ancillary support services like Frontier’s “Peace of Mind” technical support service, or bundling satellite TV service into packages.

CenturyLink’s Local Service Territory (Source: CenturyLink)

CenturyLink is increasingly depending on its enterprise and wholesale businesses to earn revenue. That fact has prompted some shareholders to ask why the company hasn’t spun off or sold off its traditional landline network and consumer businesses, which currently account for only 25% of its revenue. In May, CenturyLink seemed determined to placate those investors with an announcement it was exploring “strategic options” for its consumer business. Investors theorize that CenturyLink could “unlock value” from its legacy landline networks in such a sale or spinoff that would benefit shareholder value. It would also be much cheaper than investing in that network to upgrade it.

The chorus for a sale increased after Frontier Communications announced it was spinning off its landline territories in the Pacific Northwest to a company specializing in upgrading legacy networks to support better broadband. Frontier, mired in debt and facing a concerning due date for some of its bonds, made the sale to give a boost to its balance sheet. Frontier had also been facing increasing scrutiny about a potential Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Windstream declared bankruptcy earlier this year, reminding investors that a trip to bankruptcy court could quickly wipe out all shareholder value.

MoffettNathanson, a Wall Street analyst firm that specializes in telecommunications, finds little to like about CenturyLink shedding its own landline operations. Frontier’s sale benefited from the fact a significant part of its Pacific Northwest territory was built from an acquisition from Verizon, which had already installed its FiOS fiber to the home network in parts of Washington and Oregon. About 30% of the territory Frontier is selling is fiber-enabled. In comparison, CenturyLink has installed fiber to the home service in only about 10% of its territory, dramatically reducing any potential sale price. Much of CenturyLink’s core fiber network powers its enterprise and wholesale operations — businesses CenturyLink would likely keep for itself.

MoffettNathanson also sees little value from the proposition a buyer could leverage CenturyLink’s network to provide backhaul fiber capacity for future 5G services, because CenturyLink provides service mostly in smaller communities likely to be bypassed by 5G, at least for the near term.

Wall Street’s idea of a win-win strategy for CenturyLink is to keep its consumer business and expand its broadband service footprint and capability, if the federal government offers to cover much of the cost through more rounds of CAF subsidies. Taxpayers would subsidize broadband expansion while CenturyLink and shareholders share all the profits.

Starry Wins 24 GHz Spectrum to Launch 200/200 Mbps Unlimited Wireless in 25 States

Starry, Inc., a fixed wireless internet provider, this week announced it has won 104 licenses in the FCC’s recent spectrum auction, allowing the company to launch service to over 40 million people in 25 states, potentially covering more than 25% of all U.S. households.

“We are excited to take this important next step, augmenting our shared spectrum strategy with exclusively licensed spectrum,” said Starry CEO and co-founder Chet Kanojia. “This gives us the ability to provide access to unlimited, affordable, high quality internet access. We built our technology to be agile and operate across a range of frequencies, so that we could take advantage of opportunities like this to expand and grow our network.”

Starry’s internet service advertises 200/200 Mbps speed without data caps for a flat $50 a month, equipment included. The service will now also use licensed frequencies in the 24 GHz band and reach customers over a point-to-multipoint network that serves multi-dwelling residential units primarily in dense urban areas, but can affordably service other areas with a significant population density.

Starry claims to offer a simple, no bundles, no-long-term contract, no-data caps, no-hidden fees plan of $50 per month, and is up and running in parts of Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York City, and Denver. Customers give Starry a rating of 4.9 out of 5.0 stars in over 100 Google reviews.

Customers like Raphael Peña are fans.

“It’s awesome so far, 300 Mbps down and about the same up,” Pena writes. “The price is right and I can play Battlefield V or any other game with no lag. I just wish you could get this for homes but I’m loving it in my apartment.”

So far, Starry is focused on serving multi-dwelling units like apartments and condos in downtown areas that are increasingly attractive to younger residents. The technology can be extended to serve other customers at an average cost of around $20 per residence. Most of their customers are young cord-cutters or cable-nevers, and Starry only sells internet service, skipping video and phone service. Starry works closely with real estate developers and owners to deploy Starry internet service, sometimes as an amenity to attract new renters and keep current ones happy.

With the latest spectrum acquisition, Starry plans to expand service in phases, starting with Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Detroit, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Miami, Memphis, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Manchester, N.H., Portland, Ore., and Sioux Falls, S.D. But the company also plans to reach cities in the 25 states where it now holds licensed spectrum. How fast it reaches these cities will depend on available funding and subscriber interest:

Starry’s Spectrum Licenses Cover These Communities

State Cities
Alabama Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile
Arizona Tucson
Arkansas Little Rock
Colorado Colorado Springs, Fort Collins
Florida Jacksonville, Tallahassee
Idaho Boise City
Illinois Decatur
Indiana South Bend, Fort Wayne, Bloomington
Kansas Wichita
Kentucky Louisville
Ohio Cleveland, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton, Columbus
Massachusetts Springfield
Mississippi Jackson
Nevada Las Vegas, Reno
New Mexico Albuquerque
New York Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester
North Carolina Fayetteville, Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh
Louisiana Baton Rouge, New Orleans
Pennsylvania Harrisburg
South Carolina Charleston
Tennessee Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis
Texas San Antonio, Brownsville, Lubbock, El Paso
Virginia Virginia Beach
Washington Spokane
Wisconsin Milwaukee, Madison
Courtesy of: Starry.com

Light Reading’s Mike Dano discussed how to build an affordable fixed 5G internet service with Alex Moulle-Berteaux, chief operating officer for Starry, at the Big 5G Event in Denver on May 8, 2019. (16:41)

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  • Willie C Branagan: iI am continually repulsed by the fact that (WEAK) New York State's Attorney General keeps providing Spectrum with extensions. They are not going to ...
  • Damien Thomas: I disagree...I recently moved back here to Rochester (my hometown) from portland Oregon- my first time out west- and they have comcast which has Xfini...
  • Nona: I would like to lodge a complaint against Spectrum Assist in North Carolina. I called on July 1, 2019 and had my sister approved based on a flier th...
  • Charles Nemitz: I ordered spectrum internet online and was given a price. My first bill had a 9.99 one time charge for self install. I pay you to self install? Somebo...
  • Paul Houle: Funny but I noticed that FTR was doing some work on the lines between my house and the CO. When I took a closer look I saw that they ran a fiber opti...
  • Phillip Dampier: I would definitely suggest people who do not like this change call, complain, and threaten to cancel Comcast unless they offer you a better deal. This...
  • Amy: It's such a scam. According to Comcast data we were using 1.5TB month, Even though we have unlimited phones through Verizon. I refused to pay and now...
  • Renee Myers: Grandfathereing people out of Cinemax is not right at all. Reduce my bill, dont give me a garbage channel that has anything worth watching!...
  • Lauren: Why is it that I got cable/internet through frontier for $90/month, and it ends up being over $180-200 a month. When I finally called they said they w...
  • David: Has anyone looked into filing a class action lawsuit since we contracted for Cinemax and they’ve taken it away without any financial adjustment....
  • Rickon Stark: Hitz is a glorified Encore. We are getting screwed because Comcast it's in a pissing contest with ATT...
  • Bruce: With the speeds they are "purposing" most kids will be out of data in an hour. Are they upping data limits to match the new speeds? I haven't heard a...

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