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93 Percent Served, Yet the Glass is Apparently Empty

June 20, 2013

At the 2013 Cable Show, the past, present, and future of broadband took center stage.

On day one, NCTA President and CEO, Michael Powell, reviewed how cable had invested $200 billion to build out a national high-speed Internet infrastructure, which now passes 85 percent of U.S. homes with networks capable of 100 Mbps speeds or higher.  On day two, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts highlighted the potential power within cable’s current DOCSIS 3.0 (D3) platform by demonstrating how cutting-edge electronics can be used to reach 3 Gbps download speeds over existing hybrid fiber coax networks. And for good measure, cable’s chief innovation guru, CableLabs CEO Phil McKinney, offered a glimpse of the not-too-distant future in discussing the industry’s progress toward completing the specification for the next iteration of fast – cable’s DOCSIS 3.1 technology – which is expected to enable downstream speeds approaching 10 Gbps.

With so many data points on display about cable’s historic and ongoing commitment to continuous improvement in network and service performance, it was both disappointing and downright frustrating to witness the concerted effort in some quarters to try and make lemons out of lemonade.  One particularly bizarre wrong turn occurred with this CNET story – “Is cable holding back superfast broadband adoption on purpose” – which suggested that cable was dampening consumer adoption of high-speed broadband since its offerings don’t match the price of Google’s new fiber service.

Huh?

For starters, as a simple definitional matter, this seems head-scratchingly odd.  Over the last decade, cable has consistently and exponentially increased broadband availability as well as entry-tier and top-tier available speeds for tens of millions of homes across the country while keeping prices stable.  The top speed tier available to consumers has increased at an average annual rate of 50 percent over the last decade. These consistent, substantive improvements demonstrate how cable is not just committed to increasing broadband speeds, but delivering those speed increases at scale. That’s a curious definition of ‘holding back’.  But if we’re going to engage in such genuine jabberwocky, we should likewise lament the damage done by cable’s multi-billion dollar investments over the last four years, which has been a key driver of America’s rapid improvement in broadband speed rankings — from 22nd to 8th over the last 4 years according to Akamai data.

But for the sake of argument, let’s follow some of the critics’ doublespeak. The charge is made that cable is not doing what Google is doing, that what Google is doing is good, and ergo, that cable is not good.  Such suspect logic may ignite controversy and earn page views, but it ignores some very material facts.

It’s important to understand that Google’s Fiber network – which is beginning to deliver a variety of broadband speed tiers (up to a gigabit) in a few select cities – is only a new entrant in the broadband marketplace if you happen to live in the .05 percent of the country they intend to serve.  That is 92.5 percent less than the markets where cable broadband networks are available.  And in those few markets, they’ve been able to strike enviable agreements with local municipalities (like buying a money-losing network in Provo, UT for $1 or getting permission to build only in select areas where they see fit to offer service) that have reduced the cost and difficulty of building their limited networks.  But trying to compare the economics of these small self-selected projects to nationwide networks that already include more than 400,000 miles of fiber optic cable is relatively absurd.

Cable’s broadband networks are accessible and affordable in thousands of communities and every state, not just in select “friendly” markets or in high-density regions.  And for lower-income families, there are cable-supported programs like Connect2Compete, which offer $9.95 high-speed Internet, inexpensive computers, and training in digital literacy.

Speed may matter, but so too does scale.  For its part, cable has a proven track record of constantly expanding the reach and improving the capabilities of its networks so that the benefits of faster speeds can be shared by the roughly 93 percent of all U.S. homes reached by cable broadband – that’s nearly 300 million people.

During his 3 Gbps demo at the Cable Show, Roberts said he hoped Google’s network would increase demand for faster tiers, “The more customers crave speed, the more the kids in the garage and the geniuses around the world can invent applications that require speed. That’s the best thing that can happen to our industry.”

Roberts’ sentiment echoes the entire cable industry’s belief that pushing the limits of our networks combined with efforts to increase broadband adoption and education will enable America to fully realize economic, education and societal benefits of a wired nation.

Cable will continue its track-record of relentless innovation that ensures that our networks are continually improving and always leading and staying ahead of the demands of our nation. These facts are apparently too tedious to be mentioned.