Are cable operators making fiber-fueled over-promises based on DOCSIS 3.0?

Daniel Frankel, FierceCableSuddenlink recently raised the eyebrows of cable tech heads when it announced plans to spend $250 million to deploy 1 Gbps downstream services to all of its 16-state footprint, with half of the deployment occurring before the end of 2016.

"While companies like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and AT&T (NYSE: T) are offering or planning to offer 1 Gigabit service in a relatively few, selected neighborhoods in urban and large suburban cities, we will take it to small and mid-sized markets and rural areas--and in those communities, it will be available to 100 percent of our customers," Suddenlink CEO Jerry Kent said.

Suddenlink's declaration came on the heels of similar 1 Gbps promise made in late April by Cox Communications.

Both announcements were thin on technical detail. Suddenlink, however, did tell Multichannel News' Jeff Baumgartner that its plans do not involve the upcoming DOCSIS 3.1 specification.

CableLabs' recently developed DOCSIS 3.1 spec is more than capable of delivering average downstream speeds far above 1 Gbps, but its ubiquitous deployment is still several years away. That means cable companies will have to rely on the current DOCSIS 3.0 parameters in what amounts to a marketing arms race with Google and AT&T's fast-proliferating fiber networks.

Is this even possible? Do these guys have something else up their sleeve, like maybe offering FTTP to the finite number of subscribers who do order 1 Gbps service?

The operators aren't offering up a lot of details about how this is going to work. And up until recently, I thought "DOCSIS" was slang for a physician's female sibling, so I'm not the guy to ask, either. But I knew someone who knew someone, Marty Davidson, VP of engineering and network operations for the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers.

He's optimistic that Suddenlink's plan to replace DOCSIS 2.0 modems with DOCSIS 3.0 CPE can lay the foundation needed to legitimately advertise 1 Gbps downstream speeds, and he disagrees with the notion that increasing the number of bonded channels from eight to 24 won't provide enough of a boost.

"They're certainly not overstating the capabilities of what DOCSIS 3.0 can provide," he told me. "If they band enough channels together, they can get up to that 1 Gbps speed."

My second question to Davidson was, even if operators like Cox and Suddenlink can't actually maintain 1 Gbps downstream averages by bonding 24 channels, how many of their customers are really going to notice, much less complain?

Akamai, for example, recently declared 15 Mbps as the necessary minimum benchmark to effectively stream 4K video. As a consumer, you'd have to have a lot of people in your home simultaneously streaming Ultra HD to bump your head on even 300 Mbps downstream speeds, which DOCSIS 3.0 is more than capably delivering right now.

Could all this 1 Gig talk really add up to a bunch of marketing hype?

"For the vast majority of consumers, DOCSIS 3.0 has years of utility remaining," Davidson added.--Dan