The New Speed Trap

It’s been about a decade since 100 Megabits per second became the next big broadband speed mark for cable to chase.

The bare-bones requirement of DOCSIS 3.0 — bonding of at least four upstream and downstream channels — ensured that MSOs had a clear path to 100-Mbps speeds to match up with fiber-to-the-home and leave digital subscriber line in the dust.

Today, many operators have already pushed past that mark, with some using DOCSIS 3.0 to offer 300 Mbps down.

The new bar is 1 Gigabit per second, thanks in large part to Google Fiber and AT&T’s budding “GigaPower” initiative. Verizon doesn’t offer 1 Gbps with FiOS yet, but is now delivering symmetrical speeds, an upgrade that spotlights cable’s comparatively weak upstream.

Industry analysts are already asking cable operators how they’ll respond to that.

“We currently do 35 [Mbps upstream]; we can go higher than that,” Wilt Hildenbrand, a long-time Cablevision Systems engineering executive, said last week on the MSO’s second-quarter call. “Right now, we’re not going to chase that dog around the track of speed contests, but we have some bullets left in the gun.”

Those bullets could include node splits, an upstream-widening “mid-split,” or, eventually, a migration to DOCSIS 3.1.

And all of those options cost time and money, so count Cablevision among the MSOs that aren’t going to be lured into Verizon’s new speed trap.

That doesn’t mean cable operators should be ignoring what competitors are doing. Perception, after all, is reality. And the perception is that more is better.

Cox Communications is taking an aggressive but measured approach to 1 Gbps, committing to begin a roll-out of 1-Gbps speeds in all new and existing markets by the end of 2016, starting later this year in Phoenix and Omaha,

Neb. Cox’s approach could serve as the blueprint for others — plant a 1-Gbps flag in the ground to declare the commitment without having to overspend on something that consumers won’t need for years to come.