Cable is back! Literally. At least in Denver, host this week of the annual SCTE Cable-Tec Expo.
Issues that have weighed down the cable TV industry in recent years — most notably, the decline of video subscribers as they moved to online video options — were at the sidelines in favor of the tech. This was, after all, the annual Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers event.
“I can think back to 1983 — 60 million homes built, 30 million subscribers. … And it was all about television,” said Mike Fries, the Denver-based CEO of Liberty Global during an opening keynote session on Tuesday. “Fast forward to today to an industry of $150 billion in revenue. It’s completely transformed itself. Seventy percent of the revenue today comes from services that did not exist when SCTE was founded.”
SCTE, which celebrated 40th anniversary of the show this year, provides technical training for the industry and is a subsidiary of CableLabs. Louisville-based CableLabs oversees tech specifications so cable equipment from different manufacturers work together. And not-so coincidentally, the latest and greatest in cable tech launched just before the show — the next generation of DOCSIS, or Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification.
Comcast announced last week that Colorado Springs customers would be the first in the world to get access to the next generation of fast cable internet technology, called DOCSIS 4.0, developed by CableLabs and partners like Comcast. It’s taken years to get to this point, but the new standard provides up to 10 gigabits per second and that would help cable companies that use coaxial cables and fiber lines better compete with pure fiber-based internet providers.
Comcast’s Xfinity 10G Network is starting with 2 gbps speeds symmetrically up and down. That will roll out in Philadelphia and Atlanta later this year and the rest of the nation next year. But 10G isn’t just about faster internet or supporting a home full of internet devices, said Elad Nafshi, Comcast’s chief network officer. It’s also about the quality of service.
“Anyone can build fiber. Anyone. Operating a fiber network at the scale we have — we have over 1 million miles of fiber/coaxial cable — is really hard. Because when fiber breaks, where? How do you find it out?” Nafshi said, before diving into Comcast’s 10G system that uses artificial intelligence to monitor its hybrid network of coaxial and fiber. It was also partly developed in Colorado. “It auto detects any fiber impairment within 120 seconds and it comes with location capabilities built in … so that we can pinpoint on a map where it (a break) is, saving hours of an outage time.”
Monitoring every little inch of its network means a lot of communication going back and forth within the system. That’s what DOCSIS 4.0 is for, Nafshi said. “With DOCSIS 4.0, we’re able to deliver multiple gigabits of symmetrical speeds. So whatever applications come up at home, whatever applications the customer needs, we’re there. We’re on it. And the network will be there for it.”
The decline of paying for cable or satellite TV service has been remarkable, as consumers ditched cable and flocked to streaming options in the past decade. According to market researcher Leichtman Research Group, the largest pay-TV providers in the U.S., who represent 96% of the market, lost 1.73 million TV subscribers just in the second quarter this year.
At the end of June, those cable TV providers had 35.9 million subscribers, down from 45.8 million subscribers at the end of 2019, according to Leichtman’s data.
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It’s the internet that’s kept the industry in a better mood. In the same period, the top cable companies added nearly 10 million internet subscribers, reaching 76.2 million at the end of June.
Improving cable internet will help the industry offer comparable speeds to the pure-fiber competition, which is often more costly to install and pricier for customers, said Jeff Heynen, who tracks the broadband market as vice president of Dell’Oro Group, a market research firm.
“There’s definitely a big difference from a speed perspective,” Heynen said. “They’re also adding far more intelligence into their networks. One of the biggest drawbacks for cable networks relative to fiber was the fact that you use a lot more power because you have to amplify the signal. … They’re able now, with DOCSIS 4.0, to upgrade all of those amplifiers to be much smarter so they can identify and address the issues faster. Reliability and performance is going to go up and be very comparable to what is available with fiber networks.”
While it’s taken a number of years for the next generation of DOCSIS to get out the door, the industry appears upbeat, at least from the opening sessions of the Cable Tec Expo, which “eclipsed attendance from the last time Expo was in Denver in 2017,” said Phil McKinney, CableLabs CEO. And they’re not ignoring the video content side entirely.
Attending virtually was John Malone, the cable pioneer who got his start at Tele-Communications Inc. in Denver in the 1970s. He’s also behind many brands, including Charter Communications, Liberty Global and Warner Bros. Discovery. During the opening session where he appeared virtually as Fries, from Liberty Global, interviewed him on stage, Malone praised the recent deal between Charter and Disney to create a hybrid video service for Charter TV customers to also get access to the online-only Disney+.
“The peace treaty we should reflect on is the peace treaty between Disney and Charter, which I was quite happy to see,” Malone said. “(This) will prolong the life of linear (TV) for both sides of the equation and eventually continue that revenue stream in substantial magnitude and slow down the transition to Big Tech becoming the primary source of video entertainment.”