Crossroads for Docsis 3.0

Some three years after cable operators first introduced Docsis 3.0 service commercially, the wideband spec has reached a crossroads.

Since early 2008, Docsis 3.0 has been rolled out to well over 100 million cable homes throughout the world, thanks in large part to the aggressive efforts of such major MSOs as Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) in the U.S., Rogers Communications Inc. (NYSE: RG; Toronto: RCI) and Vidéotron Telecom Ltd. in Canada, UPC Broadband and Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED) in Europe, and Jupiter Telecommunications Co. Ltd. (J:COM) and StarHub in Asia.

As a result, Heavy Reading now predicts that wideband speeds and service will be available to 85 million homes passed in the U.S. alone by the end of this year, up from 75 million at the close of last year and 50 million at the end of 2009. We then see the total jumping to 90 million homes passed at the end of 2012.

Just as was expected, cable operators have used Docsis 3.0’s channel-bonding power to offer super-fast downstream speeds that were unheard of before. In North America, for instance, Videotron currently holds the cable speed crown with maximum rates of 120 Mbit/s, followed by Suddenlink Communications at 107 Mbit/s and Mediacom Communications Corp. and Comcast at 105 Mbit/s apiece. Even higher speeds are likely on the way soon, now that Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) has jacked up its maximum downstream rate for FiOS Internet to 150 Mbit/s.

But, with few exceptions, cable providers have not used D3’s blazing speeds to round up hordes of new broadband subscribers. Instead, most MSOs have cautiously priced wideband service at well over $100 a month, putting it out of the reach of nearly all residential subscribers and even some small-business customers.

Not surprisingly, then, few MSOs can boast about their Docsis 3.0 subscriber totals. In the U.S., for example, only Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) has even released any wideband customer figures, and it has signed up no more than 10,000 subscribers so far. In contrast, Time Warner Cable has already signed up 15,000 WiMax subscribers, even though it started offering the wireless service later than D3.

Moreover, most cable operators have not made much use of Docsis 3.0 to offer higher upstream speeds to subscribers. Although the wideband spec enables upstream as well as downstream channel-bonding, few MSOs have taken advantage of that capability because of upstream channel noise, unusable spectrum, lack of proper equipment, and other factors. Instead, they’re mainly running lab tests and field trials, if anything at all, while rivals such as Verizon are boosting upstream speeds to 35 Mbit/s.

Finally, cable providers are only starting to explore Docsis 3.0’s untapped potential to enable IP video transmission. Despite the spec’s channel-bonding and multicast quality-of-service capabilities, just a handful of cable operators in Asia have begun leveraging those capabilities to deliver IPTV service.

So even though it has made a great deal of progress over the past three years, the cable industry has barely begun to realize D3’s great promise. Much more remains to be done beyond hiking downstream speeds for early adopters with money to burn.

We will explore these topics and more at Cable Next-Gen Broadband Strategies: Docsis 3.0, Wireless, Fiber & Beyond, a Light Reading Live! event that will take place on Thursday, Feb. 24, at the Cable Center in Denver. Besides looking at D3’s future worldwide, this one-day conference will examine the prospects for cable IP video, the IPv6 protocol, cable mobile broadband, MSO fiber builds, and the integration of EPON and Docsis technology.

Click here to register for Cable Next-Gen Broadband Strategies. We hope to see you in Denver next week!

— Alan Breznick, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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