Cable Tech

Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch

Shaking off two years of disbelief and dismay, the cable industry has finally started dealing with the prospect of an impending bandwidth shortage.

Cable operators and equipment suppliers, alarmed by an explosion in bandwidth use by cable subscribers over the last couple of years, are now drawing up plans to boost capacity at both the headend and plant levels. Instead of debating whether the coming bandwidth crisis is genuine, they're looking at ways to confront the crisis by splitting fiber nodes in half, converting systems over to more efficient switched digital video delivery, testing pre-Docsis 3.0 channel-bonding technologies, and expanding their systems' RF capacity to 860 MHz or 1 GHz.

Cable technology strategists are also looking at boosting their QAM power, instituting out-of-band spectrum overlays, and upgrading to MPEG-4 video compression standards. They're even weighing such previously unthinkable moves as building fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks and adopting PON architecture, just like some of the big phone companies.

"We know there's a need for more bandwidth," says Bob McIntyre, CTO of Scientific Atlanta . "We just have to decide how to do it."

At a conference sponsored by PK Worldmedia Inc. in Houston Tuesday, McIntyre and other cable engineers spelled out these measures to cope with the approaching bandwidth storm. The conference, held the day before the opening of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) 's annual Emerging Technologies show, found cable officials soberly agreeing that skyrocketing subscriber bandwidth consumption is threatening to overwhelm even their fattest broadband pipes.

"Bandwidth consumption is definitely increasing, and the average consumption rate is definitely increasing," said Patrick Knorr, general manager of Sunflower Broadband , a small, independent cable operator based in Lawrence, Kan. "It's definitely a real problem; there's definitely a storm coming."

Cable technologists blamed the new bandwidth crunch at least partly on the surge in high-definition TV (HDTV) sets and channels. They noted that HD programming demands three to four times as much bandwidth as standard digital TV channels, leaving relatively little room for other fare.

Conference speakers also noted that such prime cable rivals as DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) seem determined to outflank MSOs by offering several dozens or, in DirecTV's case, even hundreds of HD channels to their customers.

"Video is going to drive this thing and keep driving it," SA's McIntyre said. "We know we're going to have to compete."

In addition, panelists blamed the startling increase in Internet video use over the past couple of years. In particular, they focused on the sudden rise of YouTube Inc. , which now serves up 120 million video streams per day and draws more than 34 million unique users each month to its Website.

Jeff Binder, senior director of Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), warned that the big broadcast networks may soon pose an even greater threat to the cable industry's video business model than YouTube. He cited CBS Corp. (NYSE: CBS)'s plans to stream its primetime programs on the Web for no charge a day earlier than their first run on the TV network.

"It's not so much that everyone is rushing to the Web to watch TV but that content providers are shifting that way," he said. "Prepare your networks for the primetime on-demand wave."

Knorr, whose cable system serves a major college town, said he's already seeing early signs that younger consumers are opting for Internet video downloads over traditional cable video service. In Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, 5,000 of the cable system's 40,000 subscribers only take high-speed data service. These subscribers account for a sizable 20 percent of the system's cable modem customers.

"Customers are using the Internet more hours per day," he said. "There's an absolute risk of people dropping basic video service for Internet video."

Cable engineers also attributed the swiftly expanding bandwidth needs to the growth of video on demand, digital video recorders, and other time-shifting techniques. For instance, Dom Stasi, CTO of TVN Entertainment Corp. , pointed out that his company now supplies 3,500 hours a month of VOD content to cable operators, up from a mere 150 hours per month in 2001.

"The flood of content is what's really going to make the game or break the game," Stasi said. "It's content that's still king, not resolution or aspect ratios."

Thanks to these trends, some tech executives contended that the bandwidth crisis may never actually end for cable operators. They predicted that the industry will constantly find itself needing to add more capacity to satisfy its customers and fend off competitors.

"There will always be a need for more upgrades," McIntyre said. "We are always going to need more bandwidth."

— Alan Breznick, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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sgan201 12/5/2012 | 3:16:00 PM
re: Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch Read carefully.

They are admitting that they do not have enough bandwidth for more video channels. They are NOT admitting that they do not have enough bandwidth for data. In fact, if they give you more bandwidth for data, you will see more internet video as opposed to cable TV. That is NOT what they want to see happening.

lighten up!! 12/5/2012 | 3:16:00 PM
re: Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch That they they don't have enough bandwidth to serve their customers adequately. In my area service goes down to crap after about 4:30 p.m. I am fedup of calling Optimum Online whose tech goes through all the B.S. procedures, (router resets, modem boot...)except admitting that their nodes and their UBRs can't handle the traffic. I am sure I am not the only one experiencing these problems as many people admit poor service during peak hours. They then have the nerve to ask you to sign up for Voice service. What are you friggin nuts?? I can't wait for Verizon's FIOS in my neighborhood so I can tell Optimum Online to go pound salt...
stephencooke 12/5/2012 | 3:15:59 PM
re: Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch Hi InetUID,

The bandwidth issues have more to do with the way that the cable is deployed (a single wire 'bus' for cable vs. a dedicated connection for DSL) and the way that the information (both data & TV) shares the available bandwidth on that cable.

If you would like to research this more there are a whole bunch of tutorials and standards that you can read. See DOCSIS for cable systems and DSL for phone line-based systems.

fgoldstein 12/5/2012 | 3:15:59 PM
re: Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch Dreamer, the article is talking about both data (DOCSIS) and video.

Lighten, it's unlikely that the congestion is in the cable plant. Your basic DOCSIS system has 30-40 Mbps of downstream capacity. Average residential usage just isn't all that high. The typical congestion point is upstream, where a large number of DOCSIS nodes are consolidated and interconnect with the Internet backbone. Cablevision still has to pay its upstream IbSP, not to mention run a router infrastructure to get there.

The advantage that HFC operators (cablecos) have is that they already put fiber into the field. If they need more data capacity, it's an incremental change. Node splitting puts fewer subscribers on a single DOCSIS shared channel. DOCSIS 3.0 will aggregate more than 6 Mbps into a single DOCSIS stream. And they can eventually bypass the coax completely and use glass for the last leg, should it become cost-effective to do so.

The bigger limit is video capacity. HDTV takes a lot of bandwidth, and there are an awful lot of ordinary cable channels out there. The lesser-watched channels may end up migrating to video-on-demand first.
InetUID 12/5/2012 | 3:15:59 PM
re: Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch I've heard in the UK that cable is better because the 'wire' is thicker than the phone line to your house (DSL). If this is the case how come they are having bandwidth issues?
"Ill" Duce 12/5/2012 | 3:15:59 PM
re: Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch If the MSO's move to an FTTH model (which I have heard outside LR,) what does that portend for the local franchise model and lack of regs? An MSO providing FTTH and MOCA is no diferent than and ILEC providing FTTH and MOCA.

What are local building codes going to say about the number of NIDs/ONU/whatevers on the side of houses, not to mention the retaliation of the ILECs.

Can the MSO's move from a regional decision making model imposed by the business structure to one of centralized planning?

AT&T and it's army of attorneys could argue that MSO's no longer get any relief from any regulation imposed on ILECs. MSO's could argue that if the ILEC's get nationwide video franchises, they should also giving them relief from local franchising.

And what pray tell of the bazillion dollars in local franchise taxes and other perqs extracted from MSOs by cities?

Smells like a heap o' pottage is cookin'

ozip 12/5/2012 | 3:15:59 PM
re: Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch f...

Your right, all this talk about a bandwidth crunch is very misleading. The correct term is that some operators are experiencing a SPECTRUM CRUNCH because of increased demands of all services, data, on-demand and HD.

For further confusion, talk about DOCSIS 3.0 providing more bandwidth is also misleading, as I am sure you know. All it does in this context is provide a way of managing multiple channels combined to increase the agreegate. But to make it work, you still have to find more spectrum.

ozip 12/5/2012 | 3:15:59 PM
re: Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch Im sure that the guy from Sunflower knows what he is talking about, but with that exception the quotes are from vendors who stand to sell a lot of equipment if their claims are true.

If you going to take the position, how about support from some more credible operator sources instead of vendors peddling their wares.

tsat 12/5/2012 | 3:15:57 PM
re: Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch
yes, the cable-tv cable in itself can handle more bandwidth becuase it is coaxial. Just on a physical level, it will always be able to handle more bandwidth then the twisted-pair telephone lines that carry DSL.

However, there is more to the problem than that. Typically, cable-TV cables are shared amongst many users, while a twisted-pair coming to you home is unique just to your house.

paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 3:15:56 PM
re: Cable Confronts Bandwidth Crunch

You have an error in your statement. Downloaded content is more expensive than cable, if it is legally obtained.

Go download every episode that you receive off basic cable via iTunes. Now that is theoretical, but even with people watching 20 hours a week that would be $20 - $40/week for downloaded content.

Unless you think Youtube has suddenly made American Idol obsolete. In which case you are patently insane.

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