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How cable wants to speed up your internet access

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Source: Getty Images

If you’re already getting tired of hype over the wireless industry’s plans for 5G broadband, rejoice—the cable industry would like you to set that aside for its “10G” pitch.

That’s not 10 as in a tenth generation of broadband, but as in 10 gigabits per second—10 times as fast as the 1-gigabit connections some 80% of cable services and most fiber-optic services now offer.

You can also think of this as a full 400 times faster than the Federal Communications Commission’s 25 Mbps definition of “broadband.”

Yes, that will be overkill for watching cat videos. 10G’s real payoff for customers will be uploads as fast as those downloads, making it much easier to share cat videos—and rely on online storage and backup.

Fast, but how soon?

The cable industry says it will make 10G happen soon—a post at the cable lobby NCTA’s site from its president Michael Powell calls it “a transformation already underway.” The timeline calls for 10G tests starting in 2020, which suggests retail availability sometime in 2022 or 2023.

“Typically consumer launches start 12-18 months after field trials are completed,” wrote Todd Smith, spokesman for Cox Communications, the third-largest cable provider. “Within a few years, we expect our customers to have 10 gig as a broadband speed choice.”

Phil McKinney, CEO of the cable-research group CableLabs, emphasized how 10G builds on earlier efforts to deliver faster speeds.

“There’s nothing left to invent,” he said—and your cable operator shouldn’t need to string new wires.

Indeed, CableLabs finished its specification for 10-Gbps downloads and uploads in December 2016. The new part of this, McKinney said, are the other technologies documented at the CableLabs site, such as WiFi fast enough to distribute this bandwidth.

The part of this you need

The obvious part of 10G should be symmetric uploads that cure today’s severe imbalance. For example, gigabit-download service from Comcast (CMCSA) only offers uploads ”up to 35 Mbps.”

That gap holds back residential users a little, commercial customers more. “Slow upstreams are obviously a problem for businesses, where much of the cable growth is,” emailed Dave Burstein, analyst and editor of Fast Net News.

In competitive markets, it can lead customers to switch to fiber-optic services—Yahoo Finance corporate parent Verizon (VZ) is one such provider—that already offer full-speed uploads.

Cable operators don’t have such an obvious business case for 10-gigabit downloads in homes.

“It’s hard to make the case that anyone really needs 1 Gbps, much less 10,” e-mailed Craig Moffett, senior analyst at MoffettNathanson.

McKinney concurred about the lack of real-world uses for a gigabit connection. “The only application that you can run that will use up a 1 gig service to your home is Speedtest,” he said, referring to the popular bandwidth-testing site.

Later on, however, that speed could allow interesting things to happen. Blair Levin, a fellow at the Brooking Institution, suggested that 10G could boost augmented- and virtual-reality applications—and apps people haven’t thought of yet.

“That is the fun part of the future,” he said.

The issues this won’t address

Individual operators may not sell these speeds at a rate you’d like. But the bigger risk is that they’ll continue to impose data caps on faster connections that can exhaust those limits much faster.

The 1 terabyte threshold at Comcast and Cox, for example, won’t seem as distant if your downstream bandwidth invites streaming 4K video (or maybe even 8K) and your upload speeds encourage using online backup.

The new modem a 10G connection will require could easily come with its own rental fee that can escalate every year.

McKinney, in turn, warned that 10G technology may not be economically viable for some rural cable markets.

Obsessing over the top-line figure of peak download speed risks distracting from problems like those. As one industry figure wrote in a 2012 Huffington Post op-ed: “Who has the fastest broadband pipe is not a useful measure of how well a country is doing in the Internet economy.”

The author? NCTA president Michael Powell.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.

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