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Cable Tech

Comcast hints at accelerated DOCSIS 4.0 rollout as it rakes in more broadband subs in Q2

Comcast turned in a solid second quarter driven by more broadband subscriber gains and record mobile line additions that more than offset continued pay-TV losses.

Allaying fears that the company might see broadband subscriber growth slow down in the period, such as what Altice USA experienced in Q2, Comcast tacked on another 354,000 total broadband customers (334,000 residential and 20,000 business) in the second quarter of 2021, beating the 323,000 it added in the year-ago period. Comcast ended the quarter with 31.38 million residential and business broadband customers, by far the most in the US.

Next top: DOCSIS 4.0

Comcast executives also hinted that the company is preparing to rev up plans for DOCSIS 4.0, a new generation of technology for widely deployed hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) networks that will deliver multi-gigabit symmetrical speeds along with enhanced security and low-latency capabilities.

"We have decided to move a bit faster to the next phase of DOCSIS using very cost-effective technology, allowing us to maintain the capex intensity level we achieved in 2020, which was the lowest in our history, and we expect to be at this level for the next few years," Mike Cavanagh, Comcast's CFO, said on Thursday's earnings call.

He didn't elaborate on the technology that's in play, but Comcast has been focused on Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX), an option for DOCSIS 4.0 that enables the HFC network to operate both upstream and downstream traffic in the same block of spectrum. Notably, FDX originally was an annex to DOCSIS 3.1.

Brian Roberts, Comcast's chairman and CEO, noted that the company has been trialing 1-Gig and multi-gigabit symmetrical speeds over DOCSIS "to great success."

But he also acknowledged that upstream usage today comprises less than 10% of total broadband usage, even during peak periods. "We don't really have a consumer use case for this technology capability yet, but the strategy for our network is to plan ahead," Roberts said.

Although Comcast is in hot pursuit of the next generation of DOCSIS, hopping to DOCSIS 4.0 is not a given industry-wide, as it's now clear that cable operators across the globe are not moving ahead in lock-step. Altice USA, for example, is focused on fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) upgrades in its Optimum footprint in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. And the UK's Virgin Media O2 raised eyebrows with today's announcement that it will upgrade its entire network to FTTP by 2028 at a cost of about £100 ($140) per home passed, rather than make the jump to DOCSIS 4.0.

Record wireless growth

Comcast's Xfinity Mobile service added 280,000 mobile lines, a quarterly record for the company, up from adds of 126,000 in the year-ago period. Comcast, which launched mobile (via its MVNO with Verizon) in 2017, ended Q2 2021 with 3.38 million mobile lines. Mobile revenues rose 70.4%, to $556 million.

Dave Watson, CEO of Comcast Cable, said mobile is now tied into every sales channel. And the launch of a new unlimited plans focused on multi-line customers has also led to a "nice shift in mix," he said.

Comcast was largely evasive when asked if the company registered for the "next" wireless spectrum auction, likely a reference to an upcoming auction for 100MHz in the 3.45GHz to 3.55GHz band.

"We often take the look if the price is right, but no comment yet on where we stand on the next auction," Cavanagh said. "We like our spectrum portfolio. It gives us optionality for offload."

Pay-TV sub losses continue

Comcast lost another 399,000 total video subs (364,000 residential and 34,000 business) in the period, improved from a year-ago loss of 477,000 customers. Comcast ended Q2 2021 with 18.95 million total video subs.

Comcast remains excited about Flex, a video streaming/smart home product it offers for no added cost to broadband-only subscribers. Watson said Comcast has deployed more than 3.8 million Flex boxes, up from the 3.5 million the company reported in May.

Watson again hinted that Comcast is exploring opportunities for Flex outside of its own footprint, and beyond rollouts with technology syndication partners such as Cox Communications, Rogers Communications, Shaw Communications and Videotron.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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