Broadband Technology Pioneer Sees Strong Signal for Post-Pandemic Broadband Growth

Broadband technology pioneer John Ulm has seen hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) technology evolve from delivering one-way video entertainment to gigabit-speed, two-way internet and communications that are essential for work and life. Today, the big question is, “Where is it evolving next?” Ulm shared a few ideas about that during a recent 4Front podcast.

An engineering fellow at CommScope, Ulm was one of the architects behind the original Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS), and he helped develop the technology into a powerful broadband service for cable operators worldwide. His work was recognized by the industry in 2019, when he was named a cable TV pioneer.

When Ulm started work in cable technology in the 1990s, the internet was a 56 kbps dialup network delivered over telephone networks, and users couldn’t use the voice line and be online at the same time. While at LANcity (which later became part of ARRIS Interactive), Ulm designed the first proprietary cable modems in the early ‘90s and then authored the DOCSIS 1.0 MAC specification in 1996, a standardized platform that revolutionized broadband delivery, offering a basic, best-effort internet service with speeds up to 40 Mbps over coax.

Upgrades quickly followed, adding increased speed, quality of service and the ability to offer voice and video services over the HFC plant. Generations later, today’s DOCSIS 3.1 delivers gigabit speeds, security and reliability for a market that is now internet-dependent. That’s especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. Going forward DOCSIS 4.0 promises even higher multi-gigabit symmetric speeds.

“The coronavirus caused a bandwidth surge,” Ulm says. “In some sense, COVID-19 is providing a quick glimpse into the future. We’ve seen the big bandwidth surge, and everyone working from home. We’re doing telemedicine from home. There’s more free time for gaming, and a lot more social networking. All of these applications have seen massive increases.”

In fact, according to OpenVault’s ongoing COVID-19 usage tracker, average data usage for November 2020 is projected to be in the 440 GB range, compared with about 300 GB in November 2019. Average usage during traditional business hours has also boomed, estimated to total 105.9 GB in November. That’s up 39.77 percent since the week of March 2.

Higher usage is evident across cable operators’ networks as well, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association’s (NCTA’s) COVID-19 dashboard. Downstream peak usage growth has leveled off since March, but as of November 24, it’s still up 16.3 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels. The upstream peak usage has been hit much harder than the downstream. This is of particular concern due to its limited 42MHz of spectrum in many locations. Virtual teleconferencing applications and file sharing among home-based workers has ramped upstream usage by about 40% percent since early March.

Ulm thinks usage will continue to rise even after the pandemic passes, and it may be driven by applications other than video. “Is it going to be virtual reality devices, Internet of Things? Any one of a number of these kind of applications may also pop up and take off,” he said. “We’re all looking at our cloudy crystal balls trying to figure out what exactly is going to drive us into that next decade.”

Listen To John's Podcast

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