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Cable Modem Makers' Advice to Zoom: Suck It Up

Last fall, Zoom Telephonics kicked up a huge fuss over Comcast’s new physical and environmental (P&E) testing procedures for certifying retail cable modems — claiming the MSO was imposing “unreasonable, irrelevant, time-consumer and costly requirements” to try to curtail the availability of modems at retail.

Zoom even tried to connect the issue to Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal, saying the MSO’s actions violated the FCC’s Open Internet rules that the company agreed to abide by as part of the deal (see Zoom Complaint Targets Comcast Modem Cert Process and Comcast: We’ve Already Certified Zoom Cable Modems.)

I contacted several cable modem manufacturers to find out how legit Zoom’s complaints about Comcast are. Note that Comcast hasn’t singled out Zoom — it puts the same requirements on everybody.

None of the companies agreed to go on the record, given the sensitivity of the issue. But the consensus was, essentially: Zoom should suck it up.

“I can’t speak about Zoom but we have always been successful with [Comcast’s] process and requirements,” said one exec.

Comcast’s P&E testing is, in fact, technically challenging, according to a source at another cable modem company — but it’s “clearly intended to set a high bar for product quality, performance and reliability.”

This exec added that Comcast is “highly motivated to protect their reputation as broadband service provider” and is well within its rights to conduct extensive testing to make absolutely sure the devices attached to the HFC network are highly reliable, deliver high performance and won’t interfere with or degrade network traffic.

Zoom, for its part, has noted that its modems already go through CableLabs DOCSIS certification, FCC compliance testing and Underwriters Laboratories safety testing.

The Boston-based company complained that Comcast didn’t previously require P&E testing for retail devices — and that the tests are hard to pass.

“For example, Comcast evaluates the performance of cable modems at temperatures far above those generally found in the United States and far above those at which many other electronic devices are designed to operate,” Zoom said in its initial complaint.

And in follow-up comments, Zoom claimed no other operator subjects modems to P&E tests; that Zoom modems approved by Comcast without P&E testing have not caused any identifiable problems to date; and that the MSO hasn’t provided any specific reasons why the testing is even necessary. Cable modems, by the way, make up about one-third of Zoom’s sales.

Comcast characterized Zoom’s position this way: “Zoom, which manufactures low-cost retail modems, apparently wants to do as little testing as possible to get its devices into consumers’ homes as quickly as possible. But at the same time, it wants Comcast to publicly certify to all Comcast customers that Zoom’s DOCSIS modems are ‘approved’ for use by Comcast, will perform effectively and safely on Comcast’s systems and in customers’ homes, and are ‘welcome on the Comcast network.’”

In other words: If you want to get a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, you can’t demand the bar be lowered just because you’re having a tough time clearing it.