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Is Cable Broadband Equal to Fiber?

As I have blogged over the years, I have to give kudos to the folks at the big ISPs who have steadily provided controversial quotes that are worth writing about. The latest comes in an article by Linda Hardest at FierceTelecom. She quotes Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge talking about comparing cable broadband to fiber. She quotes Rutledge as saying, “The idea that this technology [fiber] is transformative and superior is just dead wrong. It’s just another form of transmission.”

As the CEO of a giant cable company, he really can’t say anything else. It would be a terrible idea for him to admit that fiber delivers better broadband than a cable network. But there are mountains of facts that say that Rutledge is wrong.

First, Charter is expanding its network around the country either through self-funding to reach areas just outside of the traditional cable territories or by pursuing grants and subsidies, such as with the $1.2 billion that Charter claimed in the 2020 RDOF reverse auction. It looks like Charter is building fiber to all of these new locations.

Other big cable companies are doing the same. Altice says it will convert 70% of its footprint to fiber by 2025. Cox is undertaking upgrades to fiber in several of its larger markets. Midcontinent says it’s going to convert all of its markets to fiber. These cable companies (including Charter) clearly think fiber is a superior technology for moving forward. And every other big cable company is using fiber technology for expansions or building into new opportunities like a new subdivision. The engineers at cable companies have clearly decided that the only technology that makes sense moving forward is fiber—and that clearly says that fiber is superior to coaxial cable.

Then there is also the 800-pound gorilla in the corner of the room that none of the cable executives will acknowledge—upload speeds. The vast majority of complaints that cable broadband customers had during the pandemic can be pinned on the slow upload speeds delivered on the technology. OpenVault recently demonstrated that millions of households upgraded to faster broadband packages during the pandemic, trying to find broadband that would work for them. Huge numbers of them were disappointed when faster download speeds didn’t mean better upload speeds.

The other issue that doesn’t get talked about enough is jitter. This is the variance in the broadband signal. The broadband signal on many coaxial networks spikes wildly up and down. Jitter is what kicks people off Zoom calls when they have enough bandwidth—the bandwidth temporarily drops and is not enough to sustain the Zoom connection. Fiber networks have comparatively tiny jitter, with most of the jitter coming from the open Internet and not from the local fiber network.

We also know that fiber overbuilders are starting to chip away at cable’s dominance of the broadband industry. AT&T claims it added a million customers on fiber in the fourth quarter of last year—and many of those had to come from cable companies. I have to think that all of the frenetic nationwide fiber construction is going to result in upcoming customer gains for the telco sector and a corresponding slowdown and eventually loss in customers at cable companies.

It’s worth noting that the comment was made at a conference attended by Wall Street and media folks, and it’s likely that he got a question about competing with fiber. Any cable executively would have likely answered the same way, but perhaps in a less quotable manner. There are plenty of customers who are satisfied with the broadband they are receiving from the big cable companies. But the cable companies are failing customers who need steadier connections or faster upload speeds. At least some of Charter’s customers would tell him that he is dead wrong.

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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