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Why Do We Assume Cable Broadband is Always Good?

One of the oddest aspects of FCC monitoring of broadband is that the agency has accepted the premise that any broadband product faster than 25/3 Mbps is adequate broadband. This means that the FCC has completely accepted that broadband provided by cable companies is adequate and is something the agency doesn’t have to be concerned with. The FCC makes the automatic assumption that broadband from cable companies is good broadband and that anybody with cable broadband is ‘served’ with broadband. The realities of the marketplace tell a different story, and cable broadband is often not adequate for homes and businesses that often have no other broadband option.

This became crystal clear during the pandemic when many homes found out that their cable broadband connection would not support the family for working and schooling from home. Families that were paying more than $70 per month for a broadband connection found that no more than one or two family members could work from home at the same time. This is all due to the decision of most cable companies to not upgrade the upload link when they implemented the upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1. Instead, cable companies stayed with the older DOCSIS 3.0 upload technology, and most homes get between 10 and 20 Mbps upload speeds, with some unlucky homes getting slower speeds. What no cable company ever talks about is the fact that upload bandwidth is jammed into the noisiest and part of the cable TV system that suffers from various kinds of interference that can further degrade performance.

We shouldn’t let the cable companies off the hook by blaming upload problems on the pandemic. Many cable company networks had big problems long before the pandemic. We recently did speed tests in a city where 75% of households in the city were seeing download speeds that were lower than the published target 100 Mbps target speed. 40% of the customers in that city were seeing speeds under 50 Mbps, with 15% seeing speeds under 25 Mbps. These kinds of speed test results demonstrate a network with problems. What are some of the problems that can lead to poor performance in a cable network?

  • Some cable companies still have network nodes that are too large, meaning too many households are sharing a fiber connection back to the node. It’s easy to spot such networks because they still bog down at prime time in the evenings when most households are using bandwidth. To give credit, most cable networks have licked this problem, but not all.
  • A common problem is poorly functioning cascading. Cable companies routinely have to amplify the signal between homes and the network core, and cascading problems occur when multiple amplifiers in a row serving a given neighborhood are not properly in sync, resulting in loss or distortion of data.
  • Everybody in the country talks about the poor condition of the telephone copper networks because of age. But the copper coaxial networks of the cable companies are also old and near the end of economic life. The majority of cable copper was built in the 1970s, with some neighborhoods even earlier. Age is a problem with cable networks because a coaxial copper network acts like a giant antenna and picks up interference from numerous environmental sources. New coaxial networks are ‘tight,’ meaning that cable splice points don’t let in much interference. But over time, as cables are cut and repaired, and as connections naturally loosen over time, the networks get noisier and noisier, meaning degradation of signal quality.
  • One of the most susceptible parts of the cable network are drops. They get whipped by the wind and degraded by weather.
  • There can also be tons of small network issues that never get fixed. There might be bad power taps or amplifiers that should be replaced. These devices might not have been properly installed and have been causing local problems for a few customers for decades.
  • There are documented examples of cable companies who have upgraded the network but didn’t upgrade modems. The most notorious such case was Charter in upstate New York, where the company went for years with outdated modems, even after promising regulators the problem would be fixed. The company nearly lost its statewide franchise due to sticking with outdated customer technology.

A big part of my practice these days is working with cities that are fed up with inferior cable broadband. In some cities, the strength of the broadband signal varies widely throughout the day. Some cities complain of nagging small outages that occur daily, with broadband dropping out of service for a few minutes or an hour or two at a time. As evidenced by the speed tests I’ve mentioned, some cities have broadband speeds that are far slower than what the cable company advertises. I’ve done several surveys this year where a third of homes say cable broadband is not adequate for working or schooling.

Unfortunately, we have an FCC that assumes that everything faster than 25/3 Mbps is adequate broadband, and there has been virtually no discussion at the FCC about cable companies that deliver lousy broadband. As household demand continues to grow, there is a growing number of customers who are unhappy with the broadband they are receiving from cable companies. City governments hear numerous complaints from the public about poor broadband but feel powerless in eliciting changes from cable company monopolies that could improve performance but refuse to do so. In most cases, the cable companies know exactly what their problems are in a given market but have elected not to spend the money to fix issues.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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