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The Ultimate Cable Modem

Jeff Baumgartner
10/27/2009
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5:40 PM -- DENVER -- CTAM Summit -- The CableLabs Docsis 3.0 specs call for a modem to be capable of bonding, at a minimum, four upstream channels and four downstream channels. There's not much actual upstream channel bonding occurring in the wild yet, but that 4x4 configuration ensures that MSOs can offer burst speeds of more than 100 Mbit/s in both directions.

Not lame. But not where things are heading.

These days, vendors are working on modem configurations that bond eight or 16 downstream channels, while maintaining a four-channel upstream, Carey Ritchey, general manager of Microtune Inc. (Nasdaq: TUNE)'s cable unit, mentioned to me yesterday. At full burst, a 16-channel downstream (using 6MHz-wide channels) would generate something like 640 Mbit/s.

Definitely not lame. But also not where some see this all going... at least among the mad scientists out there.

Ritchey said he's already seen some requests for Docsis modems that can bond 32 downstream channels. My cable math suggests that would put a burst speed in the neighborhood of 1.2 Gbit/s.

"But that's been the extreme," Ritchey says. It's the type of extreme Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) openly conceptualized in January 2008 at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Conference on Emerging Technologies with a presentation titled "A proposal for Docsis 4.0."

Seems as though that vision has since taken a few steps closer to reality.

Of course, the question is what sort of extreme would require such a massively wide speed pipe. If I had to guess, it would have to be for something along the lines of a QAM-IP gateway that can do everything today's digital set-tops can now, but also help MSOs pursue a unicast video model in a big way. Someday.

Or maybe it's about something completely different. But what? I'll do more asking around here. Got an idea? Please share it on the message board.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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rjmcmahon
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rjmcmahon,
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12/5/2012 | 3:53:05 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


The point is that Fiber OSP builders being treated like PV Solar businesses would likely be  a good thing.  In the CA PV model the incumbent and regulated monopoly (PG&E) is forced to effectively subsidize *new* entrants.  State legislation requires PG&E to implement net metering (reimbursing at retail price sto PV system owners.)  On top of that both the Federal and State governments provide direct economic subsidies via rebates and tax writeoffs.  This is all done to stimulate PV investment.


 

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:53:05 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


rj,


Nobody is subsidizing Verizon or AT&T.  About the only relief they get is the fact they will not have to unbundle their fiber plant, but they receive no funds from the government to roll out FiOS or U-verse.  By the way, the rollout of U-verse should require unbundling in most cases because it does not meet the FTTC limits so they don't even qualify for that.


seven


 

rjmcmahon
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rjmcmahon,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:06 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


Seven,


Most people of the 6.6B on the planet don't own a computer today in 2009.


Another example:  Look at PV Solar panels in CA.  If these could be justified by only simple ROI economics they would be installed on everyone's homes and paid for by PG&E.  Now the market is in its nascent phase so both the CA and Federal government have stepped up with both regulatory support as well direct economic subsidies.  In my opinion, fiber OSPs deserve the same considerations and arguably have a better overall net value to society.  Sadly, subsidizing FiOS and VZ is like pouring more money into GM.  We need to raise the bar a bit.


 


 


 

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:53:06 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


 


rj,


Actually most people did not even OWN a computer in 1986.  So, again you need to rethink that bit of it.  Where you get these whacky notions is beyond me.


Businesses do ROI analysis of their networks - especially large operations that run extensive enterprise networks.  Also, back in the days many enterprises DID do leasing models of equipment to manage their network costs and convert large upgrade cost cycles to payment over time. 


So, what your saying - as I think I read it correctly is that the only way that anything ever works is an open and free market.  Government intervention is a really bad idea.  I agree with that wholeheartedly, surprised you have come around to that view.


And the innovations on the business side came from cost reductions and operational simplfication of modems.  Most business modems were equalized leased line modems plugged into IBM mainframes.  In the old days (late 60s) these modems were hand equalized.  Later (70s) they became auto-equalized from hardware strapping.  In the 80s, they became processor based.  So, yes in the 1960s you could buy a 9600 bps leased line modem that did the same job as the 9600 bps modem that you bough in the 1980s.  The prices had declined and the capability had increased through vendor competition.


seven

rjmcmahon
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rjmcmahon,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:08 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


Seven,


I was buying MODEMs for my friends and family when setting up PCs from about 1986 or so.  Most people were playing around with bulletin boards, prodigy and compuserve.  Also, businesses buying the MODEM fits into the churn model, ie. customer owned equipment where the rationalization for purchase isn't really an ROI from leasing the equipment.  That, in my opinion, is the big lesson for technology policy - bulid a market system where the technology either is consumer purchzsed or rationalized by "productivity" (a la the PC.)  If the network providers own the equipment (like is done for set top boxes) there really is a big drag prohibiting upgrades and innovations.  Think of it kinda like the ownership sociecty (cars, houses) applied to communications infrastructure.  With that ownership comes a lot of potential.  Without it were doomed to the least common denominator with things like FiOS - a repackaged video network where none is needed pushed by the  FCC, unneeded because these broadcast networks are already built and work fine.  Talk about a waste of money.

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:53:09 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


rj,


Sir, you have your history wrong on this.  Prior to 1994 (WWW introduction), the vast bulk of all modems both dial and leased were bought by businesses.  The bulk of dial modem "innovation" and churn occurred before this date - with only the introduction of 56K modems (both X2/K.56 followed by V.90/V.92) occurring later.  But the progression of dial modems from 300 bps - 33.4 kpbs proceeded any significant consumer market.  There was a significant Enterprise market with customers like Visa and Mastercard dominating the space.


seven


 

rjmcmahon
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rjmcmahon,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:09 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


Another thing that seems relevant in this discussion is that consumer markets played a significant role in enabling MODEM churn.  These pieces of equipment were an end user purchase.  Also, MODEM banks were purchased by "startup" ISPs (that could only exist due to common carriage regulation.)  When all this equipment is owned by the "network provider" the business will have to justify the purchases based on a ROI analysis (or maybe some hopes for Wall St. hype).  Consumers and early ISPs really never did this analysis and hence these markets were conducive to technology churn which enabled these technologies to evolve.  PC technology had a similar boot strap.


Note:  I did buy my cable MODEM but I think that's rare.  It wasn't something the cable co advertised and supported well (nor was my user purchased TIVO and cable card.)


 


 


 


 

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:53:11 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


 


Stevery,


You and I probably have a different view of DSP cost reductions over time.  As I said, I came originally out of the leased line and dial modem business - I worked for Racal-Milgo back in the day.  We used to be able to charge (and the margins were very good) $1 per bit per second for Leased Line modems (lets say this is the early 80s).  This is pretty much before off the shelf DSPs were available (TI 320 series being first iirc).  These 2400 baud, 9600, 14400 or 19200 bps modems were QAM and DPQSK based (they contained a very slow side channel FSK modem as well for management).  So, I see DPQSK and QAM as having been implemented in DSPs for a LONG time.  Telebit (iirc) built the Trailblazer 19.2 Kbps dial modem based on DMT in the mid-80s (maybe late 80s).  The advent of Fax machines created a broad based modem market to get commericial silicon makers (back in the day Rockwell) to build devices.  Derivatives of these eventually got built into dial modems with the advent of the web


The consumer devices (Dial Modems, Cable Modems, DSL Modems, ONTs) all have to trend to $100 per home or so - and they all have or become much cheaper (even indoor ONTs can be built for well under $100 for diplexer built system).


So, the ongoing drop in DSP prices has created the ability to run higher rates with more complicated DSP algorithms for about the same price.  At the price of 40G fiber transport, the DSP costs are not the issue as you have pointed out.  So, from my simple Access mentality I see that there is a progression based around the ability to build devices that sell for $100 (or thereabouts).


seven


 

Stevery
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Stevery,
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12/5/2012 | 3:53:14 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


The channel noise itself - which is why fiber uber alles


And so, we come to the conclusion that "The Ultimate Cable Modem" is to rip out your cable and install fiber! I couldn't agree more, but we're not going to pick up lots of hot marketing cable babes with that line.


I think the quest for the "The Ultimate Cable Modem" is much like the DSL evolution. No one believed that twisted-pair was the "best" means of transmission, but there was a huge installed base, so everyone was stuck with it for a while.  Cable modems and FIOS continue to drive twisted pair into irrelevance, but still some DSLAMs get sold.


2 - The cost and power of the DSP engines


My take is different:  DSP and silicon is cheap.  Unfortunately, all of the mod schemes you list require phase, and coherent photonic receivers are not suitably priced for the consumer market.  In fact, DPQSK (which is really 2xQAM4) is just beginning at the high end market (40+ Gbps) where the economics is plausible. Will it continue and improve to QAM8 etc?  I think so.


@RJ:  I'm afraid I don't see anything fundamental in that analysis.  Maybe I'm not getting it.


The bigger issue:  I assert that there is unused SNR in current cable systems.  Please tell me why I should not go raise $10M to build The Ultimate Cable Modem, the TUCM model QAM65536.

rjmcmahon
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rjmcmahon,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:14 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


I should note that I don't totally buy into Frankston's rhetoric here but I do think that the technology case for a better cable MODEM may not align with a cable cos revenue incentives.  VZ "copying" HFC with FiOS is a sign that the revenue and regulatory models are the challenge more than the technology.


 


 

rjmcmahon
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rjmcmahon,
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12/5/2012 | 3:53:14 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


Stevery:


My interpretation of the analysis is that the cable MODEM is not the barrier to residential broadband from the cable companies.  There would need to be more fiber for uplinks and CMTSs installed in the field.  (Similar to what happened with remote DSLAMs and the PSTN)  This is cost prohibitive on the operational side.   And regardless, the primary revenue would get canabalized by 100Mbs+ links (video would go the route of mp3s.)


It kinda reminds me of Bob Frankston's one percent article written a few years back.  An excerpt:


"They [VZ] haven't given up on ITV [interactive TV] – this time they are using fiber as the transport and calling it IPTV. The fiber they are installing for FIOS is really a cable TV plant disguised as a network. It is a Passive Optical Network (PON) designed as a distribution system from a head end to the terminals at each home though it does have capacity to send data back. A single fiber has the capacity for gigabits of traffic. There's so much capacity that they can simply allocate a portion of the capacity to emulating traditional Cable TV. The 15mbps they reserve for their Internet service is less than 1% of that capacity!


The big lesson of the Internet and personal computer is that it makes more sense to just deploy simple IP connectivity and then use standard digital technology to convert the IP video streams to analog video when necessary. While I might forgive the Telcos for neglecting the old-line telephony business, it's harder to understand why they are deploying technologies that are obsolete before they are deployed.


One reason may be that the tradition of “CO (Central Office) Grade” makes them very conservative and it seems a very safe choice when it is really a brittle choice. Even better for the carriers is that it maintains a distinction between video bits and Internet bits. The effect is to take the 99% of the bits “off the table” so they don't have to compete nor worry about efficiency.


The distinction between video bits and Internet bits maps nicely into the myths that define the FCC. The FCC treats the Internet as an information service rather than a fundamental technology.


This flies in the face of what we've learned since the regulations were put in place. The regulations date back to a time when the technology barely worked and every element of the system had to be precisely specified. It was very expensive and each signal had its own special characteristics – bandwidth, frequency, noise etc. IP technology is fundamentally different and allows us to have a single packet medium. All the packets are the same – video, audio, images, text – it doesn't matter!"


 

rjmcmahon
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rjmcmahon,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:15 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


An analysis done 7+ years ago can be found here.

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:53:15 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


 


So, let me continue your thought.  There are 2 other practical issues:


1 - The channel noise itself - which is why fiber uber alles


2 - The cost and power of the DSP engines


So, I am thinking there is probably some reasonable bits per hertz efficiency that is possible if we use fiber (of some fixed length - not huge) as a channel to give us a low noise environment that we consider best in class.  So, could you build a 10^10 QAM on a fiber environment?  Good question - I have never done the math.  The reason is that item 2 is generally the limit on fiber.  The speeds obtainable are fundamentally limited by the semiconductor technology.


That is why I brought up the age of our coding schemes.  I am not a math expert inventing these things, but there are people that are.  I would have though that if there was the coding to beat all coding that these schemes would be implemented.  Yet, we depend on coding schemes invented 50 years ago.  I used to look for better coding schemes as a way to do longer reach DSL transmission with either better BER or higher bit rate.  (I have seen the multipair MIMO stuff).  I was looking around and the only one that made any sense to me at all was a Spread Spectrum Technique - but that never went anywhere.


So, QAM, QPSK, DPQSK, DMT etc all are varied on the costs to implement based on the transmission characteristics of the channel and the power/cost to implement the DSP.  Is one scheme fundamentally more bits/hertz?  I have not seen that and most schemes I have seen are really trying to either build better receivers or and more channel.


seven


 

Stevery
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Stevery,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:16 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


Thanks for humoring me seven.


Let's fix the bandwidth for the rest of this discussion, eliminating case (2). 


There is some point at which (3) won't help, because the receiver noise is sufficiently below the channel noise.  (For example, the resistive losses in the cable give rise to thermal noise.  More cable length = more resistive loss = more 4kTR = more noise.)


Also, practical issues of reflections, dispersion etc will limit how far you can get with (1).  Although such items are not random noise, you can pretend it is from a system standpoint. (And yes, you can go compensate for it with a sufficiently complicated transmission system.  Eliminate that possibility for the moment.)


So for the above restrictions, there is some implied SNR.  In turn, this implies the maximum spectral efficiency (and maximum bitrate) for the channel.


I am wondering if a ballpark number for that maximum number is well known or not.


 

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:53:18 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


 


Stevery,


Basically it is the SNR to be able to distinguish between coding points of the pattern, but you probably knew that.  Only 3 ways to fix that:


1 - Transmit more power


2 - Transmit the same power over less spectrum


3 - Build a better receiver


Now, the reason I thought about noise is that having spent many years in DSL I know there are some non-periodioc noise environments (like Ring Trip in DSL) that are more fixable than others.  The other thing that is assumed in Shannon (and NOT true in the real world) is that the channel is constant.  In most cases, it can be considered constant over any given interval - except for say rain in wireless or water in copper plants or bending in fiber or etc.


Finally, all of these coding schemes have been around for a REALLY long time.  Like since the 50s and originally came out of military comms.  I know I worked on QAM and DPQSK leased line modems over 20 years ago (Go Go Omnimode!).  So, the bit/hertz density is what it is.  There have been some clever schemes at noise reduction (MIMO) and channel creation (OFDM) but there you go.  All that has really happened is the cost of DSPs have fallen through the floor.  Those leased line modem had 12V PMOS DSPs that we custom built as chips.


seven


 

Stevery
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Stevery,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:19 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


@ Seven:  for certain kinds of noise.


I should have stated that my schoolboy analysis is premised on AWGN, which I grant you has been observed exactly once (in the hallowed halls of Murray Hill during 1968 iirc).  For that case, I believe Shannon's result says you cannot improve the capacity using any form of FEC.




@optical:  So let's be conservative and say you have only 1ghz of useful coaxial bandwdith (instead of 3), and let's say you can only push 64 qam (6 bits/s/hz) over the spectral range, that gives you raw bandwidth of 6gbps.


So the meat of my question is:  How close to the limit is your scheme?  What prevents me from taking the 64 QAM up to 65,536 QAM?  And in answering that question, I suspect the answer involves 2 numbers:

<ol>
<li>The bandwidth</li>
<li>The SNR</li>
</ol>

Now, seven's comment might be pointing at a different class of answers.&nbsp; That class goes something like:&nbsp; Stevery is asking the wrong question, because the system cannot be modeled as simply as Shannon did.&nbsp; (Analogy in the optical world:&nbsp; Some optical transmission systems are dominated by dispersion, which is not random noise, so we approach the problem differently.)

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:53:20 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


optical,


I get your SDV argument but I think it has trouble with the homes passed bit.&nbsp; Let me use 2 SD channels + 1 HD channel + 1 Mb/s (to represent HSI and Voice) per home.


I think that equates to about 25 Mb/s per home.&nbsp; So, 100 homes on a cable segment represent 2.5 Gb/s.&nbsp; So, it is a scaling issue - which is basically what FiOS has overcome (with a 32 home per segment system).


seven


&nbsp;

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:53:20 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


&nbsp;


Stevery,


There are some FEC schemes for which the virtual SNR improvement is better than the lost bandwidth for certain kinds of noise.&nbsp; That is why I put it in there.&nbsp; I am not a cable guy but did spend a lot of time in leased line and dial up modems (as well as DSL and Fiber transmission).


You are right about the channel capacity.&nbsp; Which is why I always wonder about LTE.


seven


&nbsp;


&nbsp;

opticaljunkie
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opticaljunkie,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:20 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


Spectrum is not a problem on coax. New cable modems use 256qam downstream, aka spectral efficiency of 8bits/s/hz. Right now HDTV (1080i) uses about 20mbps per channel (yes your cable companies use a lot of compression), with additional channels allocated for on demand etc.


So let's be conservative and say you have only 1ghz of useful coaxial bandwdith (instead of 3), and let's say you can only push 64 qam (6 bits/s/hz) over the spectral range, that gives you raw bandwidth of 6gbps. Let's throw in 100mbps internet (both up and down stream), and let's upgrade the hi-def broadcast to 3D 1080i (~80mbps per channel), assume 5 on demand channels and 5 always on channels, and let's add 100mbps for phone &amp; in home video conferencing, we are only looking at total bandwidth of around 1.1gbps, well below the available (and VERY conservatively estimated) spectrum of 6gbps. Even if we assume a monster FEC with 30% overhead to get BER &lt; 10e-12, there's still plenty remains.


See the trick is to use Layer 2 switched video, instead of broadcast every channels you can selectively broadcast the channel requested by user, which saves massively chunk of bandwidth. Hope this helps.

Stevery
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Stevery,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:20 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


OK, now that I have coffee and a couple of minutes: When Seven made his comment about BER because you get a SNR gain from FEC, I realized I have pretty much forgotten what little I know from Shannon.


The original reason this thread captured my curiousity is that drewcwsj made a comment about increasing the channel capacity.&nbsp; Now, I have some ideas on this (who doesn't), but I was wondering how close to the limit cable systems are, as well as how much margin the system guys want built in.


The limit on channel capacity depends only on the bandwidth and the SNR.&nbsp; I believe that Shannon tells me BER does not matter:&nbsp; eg&nbsp; Any SNR gain by FEC does not affect the capacity (the improved error-rate by SNR gain is lost to the reduced effective bit rate from FEC), but please correct me if I'm out to lunch.


So my question to The Cable Guys should be:&nbsp;

<ul>
<li>You have an installed base of cable, and that cable has some distribution of lengths.&nbsp; </li>
<li>You probably design your system for some upper bound of length, based on the revenue collected for the best service.</li>
<li>This length probably implies an SNR for your 6 MHz channel.&nbsp; What is that number?</li>
</ul>

As I mentioned previously, it looks like they are at 7 bps/hz right now, implying a lower bound of SNR = 20 dB.


There, it's taken me three posts to just ask the question.&nbsp; I suspect there will be a fourth.

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:53:21 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


&nbsp;


LOL - If we all sat down and worshipped at the feet of Shannon and Nyquist we would all be better off.


Generally most systems talk about 10-7 BER.&nbsp; I am not so sure about that anymore with HDTV being more like 10Mb/s per stream and 8 - 15 Mb/s downstream to a home.&nbsp; I would like to see a 10-10 or 10-11 BER.&nbsp; Maybe&nbsp;10-12 if there is satellite reception involved in the path.


seven


&nbsp;

Stevery
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Stevery,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:22 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


You left out one parameter before anyone can give an effective answer which is - at what BER?


Sorry, the use of the term "modem" made me assume that the wired guys are working under Shannon&ndash;Hartley, but that's just leftover bias from dialup days.


But you are right:&nbsp; Is there an assumption of BER, or is it clean enough to avoid FEC?


Edit:&nbsp; A quick perusal of wikipedia reminds me that I am an information-theory ignoramus as well.

SabrinaChow
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SabrinaChow,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:23 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


Let's be honest, D3 is really just a means to an end.&nbsp; Once all ROI has been recouped, the cable architecture must change to mimic that of a Verizon optical system.&nbsp; Now we are talking RFOG, DPON, DWDM type of design with fiber direct to the home.&nbsp; The HFC design is already half way there.

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:53:23 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


&nbsp;


Stevery,


You left out one parameter before anyone can give an effective answer which is - at what BER?


In the end it is all the same electromagnetic transmission theory from wireless, dsl and fiber - just have to know the target SNR to represent what BER for what bit rate.


seven


PS - Just to add, of course the coding itself can have SNR gain through FEC.

Stevery
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Stevery,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:23 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


You have to get a whole lot more spectrally efficient.


I am a cable ignoramus.&nbsp; Judging from the article tho:&nbsp; 640Mbps/16 channels = 40 Mpbs/channel stuffed into 6 MHz (implies something like 128QAM).&nbsp; Is this in the ballpark?


If true, that means about 7 bps/Hz already present, which begs the question:&nbsp; What is the ballpark S/N for the system design?&nbsp; I assume you can always demand that the cable be shorter, better or any one of a number of unrealistic business assumptions.


TIA.

drewcwsj
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drewcwsj,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:53:24 PM
re: The Ultimate Cable Modem


32 channels is almost 200Mhz of spectrum. RG-6 has about 3Ghz or less of usable spectrum with just a few splitters and not too much length. Broadcast and on-demand video will need several hundred Mhz based on how many channels and at what resolution are delivered. So maybe 10 subscribers can reserve this kind of bandwdith simultaneously. This may help short term as the average subscriber is still mostly ad-hoc for data usage (email, www, low bandwidth streaming and gaming) but I'm betting that by the time this technology is fully baked the usage models will move have moved to high-bandwidth, continuous streaming. The TV is going to be the display for digital content and an on-demand, quality experience is a necessity. Oh and don't forget a whole lot of people come home at 6pm and turn on the TV. Now imagine a few hundred people on a cable loop all starting a 1080P MPEG4 stream at the same time. Bursting doesn't help. You have to get a whole lot more spectrally efficient.

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