Overbuilds Could Be Test Beds For Very High-Speed Rollouts

"High-speed Internet access" is quickly taking on a whole new meaning as technologies come to market that could theoretically blow the prevailing Internet-over-cable speeds out of the water.

These technologies are being marketed to the new wave of cable-network overbuilders, which are quickly winning franchises and attracting vast amounts of capital, and are ready to embrace proprietary technologies that push the high-speed envelope well past the speed limits of the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification.

Because they are not bound to carry legacy analog channels and are free to explore data-transport technologies outside of the DOCSIS sphere, overbuilders could well provide proving grounds for very high-speed-data technologies.

In two small communities outside of Provo, Utah-Springville and American Fork-subscribers to AirSwitch's Internet service are, according to the company, enjoying downstream speeds up of 10 megabits per second and 100 mbps, the latter for less than $30 per month.

According to vice president of marketing Stan Kramer, AirSwitch has wired the two small towns to prove that the technology can scale, and it has signed "three to four" unnamed overbuilders, representing several million potential homes passed, to utilize its data platform.

AirSwitch, which hasn't publicly launched as a company and has taken a low profile, is in discussions with overbuilders across the country, Kramer said. It hopes to build a nationwide data network based on its technologies. "We're ready to roll out quickly," he added.

Eventually, AirSwitch, through its overbuilder agreements, hopes to launch in 90 to 120 U.S. markets.

The two Utah towns "are probably the most wired residences in the world," Kramer said. Penetration rates in the two towns is about 40 percent, he added, with penetration of Internet users approaching 100 percent.

Another company, Austin, Texas-based Advent Networks Inc., has developed a network scheme and technology designed to deliver the Internet at speeds of 40 mbps.

Working on systems with very small node sizes-50 to 100 homes per node-and with full 860-megahertz and higher bandwidth capacities, Advent's scheme "takes and assigns specific channels [of spectrum] to specific users," according to cofounder and chief operating officer Dave Fruhling.

Based on the supposition that overbuilders are tilting the video-channel allocation of their spectrum toward digital channels over analog, more bandwidth can be allocated for data delivery.

Given a 180-MHz allocation for data and 30 percent penetration of a 100-home node, one 6-MHz channel could be delivered to 30 users, running switched Ethernet data (at layer 3) over the channel.

Advent's equipment "is a very dense rack of modems to do dedicated channel allocation and modulation to deliver an Ethernet signal across to each user," Fruhling said. He added that the incremental revenue per month of adding video channels, versus using that spectrum for data at $40 to 100 per month, makes the business case attractive.

The switched Ethernet transport is unrelated to the cable industry's DOCSIS standard. "We're completely divorcing ourselves from DOCSIS," Fruhling said, noting that Advent's transport protocols are less complex than the quality-of-service components of the DOCSIS 1.1 specification.

Fruhling added that Advent has performed proof-of-concept demonstrations, and it is negotiating with overbuilders to develop field tests by the fourth quarter of this year.

AirSwitch's network configuration uses Ethernet as the means of transport from headend to home. "We are taking fiber as far into the network as possible," Kramer said.

AirSwitch runs 1 gigabit per second to 10 gbps of bandwidth, depending on the size of the town and node location, to fiber nodes in neighborhoods. From the node, coaxial cable is run to household curbs carrying Ethernet data, switched at the node with proprietary AirSwitch cabling and switching techniques.

From the curb, category 5e wires carry data into homes. The result is full-duplex, 100-mbps switched connections. Fast Ethernet connections in PCs terminate the connection.

Kramer said AirSwitch is talking with residential gateway providers to develop boxes that would be placed on the outside of subscribers' homes with multiple data ports for services, including telephony.

AirSwitch is also testing video services to place in the network for video-on-demand-type services.

Kramer cited the switched nature of the data stream as the primary unique aspect of the technology. "This new approach will exceed cable companies' ability to provide upstream bandwidth," he added.

With Ethernet as the main transport medium throughout the AirSwitch network, data streams are not riding RF signals. Compressed MPEG-2 (Moving Picture Expert Group) video and VOD services can also be sent down the network.

Huge chunks-10 mbps to 100 mbps-of bandwidth to the home would not only benefit consumers, but also content providers that have long yearned for fat pipes to stream high-quality video.

Fruhling said Advent is talking with streaming-content-transport companies such as iBEAM Broadcasting Corp. and Cidera Inc. about placing their content on its networks and eventually streaming DVD-quality video to computers and TVs.

AirSwitch's Utah data center has been equipped with an iBEAM satellite dish and equipment to offer subscribers a menu of streamed-video content.

Combining network technologies with content-aggregation efforts is a smart move by Advent, DFC Intelligence interactive-broadcast consultant Paul Palumbo said, as it will let Advent "play in any number of positions" with overbuilders. "They have a flexible market position," he added.

He said Advent "still has to get deals done with [content] rights holders ... and getting deals done is not easy."

While acknowledging discussions with Advent and AirSwitch, Tipton Ross, executive vice president for Austin, Texas-based overbuilder Grande Communications, said his company was undergoing a technical review of data technologies to determine the right partner-for a high-speed-data platform, a content portal, or a combination.

For now, Denver-based overbuilder WideOpenWest LLC will adopt a "dense" DOCSIS-based network scheme for data, according to chief technology officer Mike Brody.

Brody said he's not convinced that the nonproprietary technologies are ready for primetime yet. But, he added, "we are evaluating other technologies," saying data rates of 40 mbps and up are attractive for overbuilders like WOW to avoid a "same-as" service offering that competitors are marketing.

In the meantime, WOW will use dense-wave-division multiplexing to deliver more bandwidth to the node and narrowcast the output of its cable-modem-termination systems to specific nodes to deliver 3 mbps downstream and 1 mbps upstream to subscribers.

With an eye toward a higher-speed future, Brody will allocate 200 MHz of his network's 860 MHz for data applications.

Brody spoke rather candidly about DOCSIS, which, he said, had good intentions and resulted in less expensive modems, but "stymied the industry" by adopting lowest-common-denominator technology.

Overbuilders, on the other hand, can "drive the stakes higher," he added.

One overbuilder-Burlington, Mass.-based American Broadband Inc., which has applied for franchises in Rhode Island and Maryland-is sticking with DOCSIS.

"One of the things that is very important to us is to build an extremely capable system that's highly reliable," vice president of product strategy and marketing Bruce Jones said. He added that the ability to buy DOCSIS modems at retail with a known brand was important.