Cable modems prep for 10-Gbit connections with new specs

Your 16-Mbit cable connection is going to look awfully puny when a new generation of 10-Gbit cable modems enter the scene—whenever that turns out to be.

On the other hand, there’s good reason to believe that eventually you and your family will be able to simultaneously download multiple 4K streams. CableLabs, the testing and interoperability arm of the cable industry, released the DOCSIS 3.1 specifications this week, implying that its member companies will eventually support it.

Technically, the new specification allows for 10 Gbps downstream and 1 Gbps upstream, back to the provider. Additional features include Active Queue Management, a sort of quality-of-service protocol that CableLabs promises will minimize delays inside the home and help out with tasks such as online gaming.

“Based on the significant contributions from our members and technology suppliers, CableLabs has developed the technology foundation for the delivery of next generation broadband services over HFC networks,” said Dan Rice, senior vice president of access network technologies at CableLabs, in a statement.

Most of the world’s cable companies—Atlantic Broadband, Cox, Comcast, Rogers, and others—are members of CableLabs. But unfortunately, the dream of downloading more than 98 terabytes per day will have to wait a bit.

Faster download speeds may necessitate wired networking, at least until wireless catches up.

Since the specification is just a paper document at this point, for example, we’ll have to wait until semiconductor manufacturers begin implementing the technology inside their own components. Then modem manufacturers will have to build the modems themselves. Finally, the cable companies themseelves will have to support the increased bandwidth tiers.

The DOCSIS 3.0 rollout provides some measure of comparison—and hope. DOCSIS 3.0 was announced in 2006, with support for 160 Mbps down, and 120 Mbps up. But six years after the launch, in 2011, Comcast began offering its 105-Mbps “Extreme” tier, for customers with compatible modems. Other localized cable companies like Shaw and Videotron began offering similar services.

Regardless of when the new DOCSIS technology rolls out, however, it’s up to you to make sure that you’re up to date. It’s possible that your cable provider will alert you of new services and the need to upgrade your modem—or perhaps not.

Most cable customers lease their modems, which mean that if you signed up with a cable company long ago,your modem is likely out of date. And if a DOCSIS 1.0 modem is serving as the gateway for your home’s services, the stream of bits you’re paying for may be dammed up behind your cable modem, unable to flow at its full capacity.

How can you tell? Comcast offers this page that asks you for your Internet speed tier and then allows you to check to see whether your modem is in fact compatible. Cox offers a similar page. Comcast will ship you an upgraded modem for a fee (and probably try to upsell you in the process) or else you can swap your modem for free at a local shop.

Another option is to simply buy your own modem, eliminating rental or lease charges altogether; Comcast charges several dollars per month, but you can buy a compatible Motorola SURFboard 6121 modem for $70 online. The savings can add up quickly.

Regardless, faster broadband is en route. We’ll just have to wait a bit—something we won’t have to do after the speedier standard arrives.

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