News

Comcast Opens Up Wideband

4/04/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

Comcast has launched the first “wideband” service in the United States — but not in a widely expected place.

The debut market: Minneapolis-St. Paul, where the operator promises download speeds of up to 50 Megabits per second and uploads at 5 Mbps. The service is $149.95 per month for residential customers and $199.95 for commercial customers.

Mitch Bowling, Comcast’s senior vice president and general manager of high-speed Internet, said the company chose the Twin Cities based on the local operations team’s track record on previous projects.

“We didn’t make the decision [to deploy in Minneapolis-St. Paul] based on competition,” he said. “It’s a solid operational market. We had to start somewhere, and it’s really been great.”

The higher-speed connections afforded by a technical standard known as DOCSIS 3.0 have been viewed chiefly as a way to compete against fiber-to-the-home services, such as Verizon’s FiOS Internet, which advertises 50-Mbps connection speeds. DOCSIS 3.0 provides higher-speed connections by bonding together 6-Megahertz channels, which can lead to Internet access at speeds up to and past 100 Mbps.

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Comcast competes with Qwest Communications International, whose fastest digital-subscriber-line offering is 7 Mbps.

Other Comcast markets will soon also launch wideband services, Bowling said, though he declined to identify them. “Comcast is going to be the most aggressive DOCSIS 3.0 deployer in the country,” he said.

Comcast has said it expects to deploy DOCSIS 3.0 to serve 20% of homes passed in its territories by the end of 2008, and complete the rollout to all homes passed by mid-2010. In the next two years, the operator anticipates offering up to 100 Mbps — and 160 Mbps or more in the future.

Bowling said Comcast is starting with a 50-Mbps tier rather than 100 because “that’s where we think the consumer demand is today … As consumer demand grows, that’s when we can and will grow.”

Bowling said he expects early adopters of wideband cable-modem service to be hard-core online gamers as well as business customers, such as healthcare firms that need to transfer X-rays.

With the “extreme high-speed Internet service,” Comcast promises, “customers will be able to download movies, music and television shows, as well as upload digital photographs faster than ever.”

But subscribers shouldn’t expect to actually get to use a full 50/5 Mbps link at all times.

“Comcast reserves the right to suspend or terminate service accounts where bandwidth consumption is not characteristic of a typical residential user of the service as determined by the company in its sole discretion,” the operator’s current subscriber agreement reads.

Specifically, Comcast has had a policy of temporarily delaying traffic from P2P applications, such as BitTorrent, during periods of peak network congestion. The company is facing a Federal Communications Commission inquiry into the practice, as well as at least two subscriber lawsuits.

Last month, the cable operator announced it will work with BitTorrent and others in the Internet community to make P2P run more efficiently on its networks.

At the same time, however, under the new policy Comcast said it would continue to impose traffic limits — but on those users who consume excessive amounts of bandwidth, rather than specific applications.

To offer wideband service in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Comcast deployed Cisco Systems cable-modem termination systems that support DOCSIS 3.0, and will give customers Cisco’s wideband cable modems as well.

While CableLabs has certified Cisco’s CMTS for DOCSIS 3.0, it hasn’t given the OK for any 3.0 modems. Bowling said that while the DOCSIS 3.0 modems are not “the final production versions yet,” the technology was ready to deploy commercially at this point.

Bowling claimed Comcast Twin Cities has not needed to eliminate any analog channels or perform upgrades of the coaxial cable plant to offer DOCSIS 3.0.

But, he acknowledged, Comcast may have to perform “node splits” if the wideband service gains popularity. Cable networks are shared at the neighborhood level (served by nodes), with anywhere from 250 to 2,000 or more households on a single node. To increase capacity, a cable system can “split” a node to reduce the number of subscribers that must share the bandwidth back to the headend.

Bowling said Comcast will perform node splits on a case-by-case basis. “We do node splits somewhere in the Comcast markets literally every day,” he said.

September