Moving On Up … to Gigabit Speeds

Network speed affects the devices your customers use—from gaming consoles to home-theater PCs. For many networks, a fast Ethernet connection does the job when transferring ordinary files, but when it comes to streaming a high-definition movie to your living room, it can be painfully slow. This is why cable operators have been investing in and building out their infrastructures to support faster Internet speeds—with gigabit-speed networks the new frontier.

For years, cable networks have been challenged to achieve the performance, capability and scalability afforded by fiber-to-the-home (FTTP) networks, which offer speeds 10 times faster than those of hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) networks—up to and above 1 gigabit.

Recently, cable operators with HFC networks have gained the tools they need to offer those same gigabit speeds using DOCSIS—the technical standard by which data communications can occur bidirectionally  over a cable TV system. The latest version, DOCSIS 3.1, is a game-changer: enabling both upstream and downstream maximum throughput, without expensive changes to the HFC network architecture.

2016 was a big growth year for cable infrastructure equipment, such as cable modem termination systems (CMTSs). According to the Dell’Oro Group, the cable CMTS market grew 22 percent year-over-year in the third quarter of 2016, as the “lure of gigabit speeds pushed cable operators to build out their infrastructure and invest rapidly in DOCSIS 3.1.”

Alam Tamboli, senior analyst at Dell’Oro, expects that DOCSIS 3.1 infrastructure will become more pervasive in cable operators’ networks through 2017. He also predicts that spending on customer premises equipment (CPEs) will increase “dramatically” as cable operators focus on delivering much faster speeds to customers to compete with telecom operators deploying other fast technologies.

Most U.S. cable operators, including Comcast, Charter Communications and Mediacom Communications, have already committed to DOCSIS 3.1. As we reported in a recent blog on Mediacom, the operator intends to upgrade its entire network to DOCSIS 3.1.

Do we need this much speed?

The speeds of gigabit Ethernet trounce fast Ethernet and Wi-Fi. One gigabit is equal to 1,024 megabits (eight bits equal one byte); therefore, a gigabit network should be capable of delivering a theoretical maximum transfer of about 125 MB/s. Most consumers don’t have a need yet for such a super-fast Internet connection.

For example, most networked games won’t gain from gigabit Ethernet, nor will streaming audio or video. The most commonly used streaming video format today, MPEG-2, only requires 2 to 6 Mbps for typical video, and 12 to 20 Mbps for broadcast HDTV. Gigabit Ethernet also won’t do anything to speed up Web browsing, or file uploading or downloading from the Internet—as those activities are limited by the speed of the broadband connection, not the local network.

So, who needs it? In certain situations, gigabit Ethernet can help increase performance between compatible devices on a wired LAN. In addition, for multiple users accessing the same network device, gigabit Ethernet can provide more total bandwidth, which should result in less congestion and better overall performance. It can also be helpful in cases when large (or a large number of) file transfers are involved.

Although rare, the type of customer who can use an entire gigabit at a time does exist. Imagine, for instance, a household replete with HDTVs streaming content from the cloud, computers downloading digital content, video game consoles, personal Web servers, Voice over IP, and computers updating themselves.

Why the push for gigabit-speed networks?

Overall, the Internet is the great enabler of contemporary communications. High-speed Internet access, or broadband, benefits society and modern economies. Broadband provided over cable networks is widely available and highly capable. The most widely deployed generation of cable broadband, DOCSIS 3.0, is designed for gigabit per second speeds.

DOCSIS 3.1 can provide up to 10 gigabits per second, which is well in excess of the requirements of today’s online applications. Yet, it is a catalyst for a broad range of innovation, and the foundation for the delivery of next-generation services. It also allows cable operators to stay ahead of customer demand for broadband connectivity and to balance capacity across other network services such as television.

Today’s cable operators are making their networks gigabit-ready so that their customers will be able to tap into higher performance in the future.