Cable's 'Wideband' Card

Las Vegas— Comcast CEO Brian Roberts gave a hands-on demonstration of the next generation of ultra-fast, “wideband” cable modems at The Cable Show '07 here last Tuesday.

The technology is more than 25 times as fast as the operator's current standard broadband package and, Roberts said, it will let cable jump ahead of phone companies in the next few years.

In the demo, Roberts started to download a 300-Megabyte Comcast TV commercial using a standard cable modem, which would have taken 16 minutes. With a wideband modem, based on Cable Labs' Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 3.0, the download took a mere 17 seconds.

“With wideband, we're going to unleash a whole new generation of video, voice and data services,” Roberts said.


Roberts then showed the DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem downloading 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and Merriam-Webster's dictionary, a total of 4 Gigabytes of data. Today's cable modems would take 3 hours and 12 minutes on the task and, Roberts noted, a dial-up modem would need two weeks. The DOCSIS 3.0 modem took 3 minutes and 52 seconds.

“It really is a whole new technical platform,” Roberts said. “What consumers actually do with all of this speed is up to the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.”

The presentation mirrored a similar one Roberts gave in 1996, when he showed off a 10-Megabit-per-second cable modem loading photos into a Web browser much more quickly than a telephone company's ISDN (integrated services digital network) connection. “It's hard to believe that was a 'wow' demo 11 years ago,” Roberts remarked.

The 2007 demo used a DOCSIS 3.0-based cable modem and headend gear from Arris Group. The CableLabs specification provides the ability to bond together multiple 6-Megahertz channels to act as if they were one. The Arris modem was configured to bond four downstream channels together, providing theoretical download speeds up to 160 Mbps, although the speed indicator in the demo showed speeds closer to 150 Mbps.

“Cable continues to lead the competition,” Roberts said. “We've only just begun, from 6 Megabits today to 150 or whatever Megabits tomorrow.”

Roberts wouldn't commit to an actual time frame for the availability of a wideband service, but said it would likely hit the streets in “less than a couple of years.”

“That was real. Everything you saw was real. It's near-term,” he added. “I think it is hopefully a reminder that we have an incredible future of innovation ahead. And personally, I think broadband penetration is going to go way higher than anybody ever imagined.”

Roberts also was hesitant to offer any guidance as to how much cable companies would charge for a 150-Mbps product. Today, Comcast offers a 6-Mbps high-speed-data product for about $43 per month ($33 in a triple-play bundle) and 8 Mbps for an extra $10 per month.

When Roberts was asked if telephone companies — currently upgrading their networks nationwide to offer high-speed-data products and video over fiber-optic lines — could offer similar speeds in the two to three years it will take cable to offer wideband, he was doubtful. “I don't think that the kind of ubiquity that cable can offer this product at, that any technology that I know of today can do that,” he said.

Roberts pointed out that DOCSIS 3.0, because it is backward-compatible with existing cable modems, can be rolled out incrementally. The bigger issue, Roberts said, “is to find four [analog] TV channels” to eliminate from the lineup in order to make room for the four channels required to provide 150-Mbps speeds.

Two weeks ago at Comcast's investor conference, chief technology officer Tony Werner said the operator expects to test precertified DOCSIS 3.0 equipment this year with possible commercial deployments in 2008.

“The technology should be available so we can deploy [DOCSIS 3.0] where and when we want to next year, if there are business cases to do it,” Werner said.


One gating factor for operators is that CableLabs has not certified any DOCSIS 3.0 gear yet. The consortium plans to host the first certification wave in October, with commercial products expected to follow in early 2008.

At the conference, Werner said he expects DOCSIS 3.0 equipment to be significantly cheaper than current cable-modem systems on a cost-per-bit basis.

Based on Comcast's early range of equipment estimates, DOCSIS 3.0 gear will cost 70% less per subscriber than 2.0 equipment to deliver the same 6-Mbps bandwidth tier. In addition, a 100-Mbps tier delivered with DOCSIS 3.0 headend equipment would be roughly the same cost as today's 6-Mbps tier, according to Werner.