VentureBeat: I read something not long ago about the “uploading lifestyle.” It goes against the idea that all we were ever going to do with the internet is download. Gamers are uploading video of themselves at the same time they download. Twitch and YouTube are making very good use of the upload capability in networks. The DOCSIS change is pretty timely in that respect. There’s a wholesale change in the way we’re using the internet.
McKinney: You’re seeing it in pockets. If you look at overall upload speeds across the U.S. market, it’s growing. It’s not growing as fast as download demand. You still see an asymmetry when it comes to what people are doing. For the longest time, you didn’t see a growth in the upload side. We’re starting to see an early trend there, whether it’s gamers who want to livestream or people working from home and using Skype more often.
VentureBeat: This week I did a story on how people in the second quarter uploaded more than 600 million hours of Fortnite gameplay on Twitch.
McKinney: The Fortnite phenomenon is another early indication. What’s the upload to YouTube now? How many hours of viewing time go there every day? It’s something astronomical. No one would ever be able to watch everything on YouTube. That all has to come from someplace. The content creation side is exploding. The tools for sharing are exploding. Fortnite is a good example, especially because it’s not just the upload. It’s the interactivity, the engagement, the community, the collaboration together. We see that all over the gaming space.
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If you take a look at the first film from 2016, you’ll see a lot more about the upload side. You’ll see a young girl interacting with her grandmother in completely different parts of the country. We also showed a video wall in the home allowing the mom to work from home, but feel like she’s still a part of the office.
We don’t call out the upload and download piece specifically. Full duplex DOCSIS was an innovation we announced more than two years ago. The specifications were already done and vendors were already building them. Being able to deliver symmetrical gigabit networks is already a development as that silicon gets updated and goes into deployment. The upload side is something we saw four years ago.
It’s interesting. Our work from that is collaboration and innovation work that we did — we now fund about a dozen, a dozen and a half universities around the world. One that funded was Stanford, where we were funding wireless work. Our work with them looked at the ability to get symmetrical high speeds by simultaneously using the same channel. That’s what we use for full duplex DOCSIS. We’ve proved that it works at extremely high speeds in the existing network that people have in their homes. That solution is coming very quickly. Our timing with being able to offer symmetrical speeds is going to hit at just the right time, when we see this explosive growth in uploads.
VentureBeat: What version of that?
McKinney: It’s part of DOCSIS 3.1. DOCSIS 3.1 came out in 2015. That allowed for up to 10 gigabits download and one gigabit upload. Then a year later we announced an extension to DOCSIS 3.1 called full duplex. In some articles we refer to it as FDX. It’s DOCSIS 3.1 full duplex. That takes the upload from capped at 1 gig on up to 10 gig. You get full symmetrical. Your uploads and downloads are at the same speeds. We came out with that in the 2016 time frame.
We’ve wrapped up the specs. The silicon and the cable modem manufacturers are now in the process of building that spec into silicon and we have to get devices built. It’s still a little ways off, but the vendors are in active development to deploy cable modems that have full duplex capabilities.
When you’re doing 10 gig up and 10 gig down to consumers’ homes, the coax no longer becomes the bottleneck. What becomes the bottleneck is the fiber that feeds that connection; at the end we’ll call the node that feeds the coax into the home. Laying more fiber is very expensive and slows down deployment.
We have what I’d classify as one of the top fiber research teams anywhere. That team came up with a solution using a technology called coherent optics. When you use extreme long-haul fiber, like a fiber framework from New York to San Francisco, you use coherent. It has all the amplifiers and repeaters built into it. We developed an elegant way to use coherent in what we call the access networks. Think up to 80 or 100 kilometers, that kind of distance. A normal strand of fiber can support up to 40 gigabits. We now have shown coherent optics on single-strand fiber at 8 terabits, and we’re on a path to take that to 50 terabits.
You don’t have to change out any of the fiber in the ground. You change out the end points with a technology that’s one tenth the cost of all the current lasers. You can take your 40 gig network to eight terabits, and we’re on a path to take that to 50 terabits. To show how elegant the solution was, when we first demonstrated it to the CEOs of the biggest cable operators, we built the entire demo using parts we bought on eBay. Just to prove we weren’t doing some esoteric silicon. Through very elegant innovation, a way of looking at the problem completely differently, we could get this exponential growth in capacity with technology you can buy today, and therefore prove that it’s low cost and it’s real.
Given a combination of coherent with DOCSIS and all the fiber that’s in the ground and all the coax that’s already in people’s homes, the risk for deployment of gigabit services is pretty much taken away. That’s why today, most consumers aren’t even aware that more than 50 percent of all U.S. homes have access to gigabit service from their cable operators.
VentureBeat: I met recently with the TIP folks at Facebook.
McKinney: Yeah, we actually operate one of the TIP labs here at CableLabs.
VentureBeat: It’s an interesting question. There are 3.2 billion people with broadband in the world and maybe 4.3 billion without it. It seems like the natural capitalist incentive is to bring better broadband to those people who already have it. Economically, the argument for extending broadband to the other 4.3 billion is harder to justify. It makes me think about — we’re making broadband so much better and better for those of us who already have it, but there’s another conversation here about how to get it to the rest of the world.
McKinney: There’s a couple of points. One is, because of the elegance of our solution in DOCSIS that we’ve developed over a dozen years, and our work on coherent, the ability to upgrade the existing networks is a relatively low cost. You’re not digging ditches or putting holes in foundations. It’s not an apples to apples comparison to extending the network.
Now, in the case of the extending the network, if you look at the individual cable operators, a number of them are doing some interesting network extensions, like acquiring a wireless ISP. Midco, which is in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, they just bought a wireless ISP to serve their rural markets, to find a way to extend the end of their network. They acquired a company they’d been partnered with.
They’re looking at how to get out there when they have one house per square mile. It’s hard to build a network out there, stringing cable on poles or digging ditches. But using point-to-point wireless or point-to-multipoint wireless as an extension to the end of the network can be viable and efficient. When you look at Windbreak in Nebraska, or Midco in the Dakotas, or Mediacom in Iowa, particularly in the rural areas, they’re all looking at how to extend the network. It’s an active effort.
At CableLabs we have active projects in that space to reduce, as much as possible, the cost for deployment. As we reduce that cost, our ability to extend the network grows. We have constant conversations about what we can do to bridge that digital divide. Every one of our members has a different strategy depending on what market they serve, where their network is at, and the best ways to reach and serve those customers who don’t have access to a 25-megabit connection, which is what the FCC defines as underserved.
VentureBeat: With the extension of networks on your mind, it seems like wireless is becoming the obvious solution compared to wired networks. Do you foresee less cable and more wireless in the future?
McKinney: As you know, with the laws of physics, wired networks will always be higher speed than wireless. At the same time, today at CableLabs we’re funded by 60 of the largest cable operators around the world. That includes Europe, China, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, and Latin and South America. Of those operators, 28 of them are also mobile network operators. Vodafone is part of CableLabs. Rogers and Shaw in Canada are part of CableLabs.
If you look at our research spend, the largest area for our work is actually wireless. You’re seeing some of the acquisitions. Vodafone bought Kabel Deutschland in Germany. They’re merging the wireless and the wired lines, because to do 5G networks you have to have fixed network assets deep in communities and streets and homes in residential areas. You have to backhaul off all those little cells you’re deploying. You need physical, hard network assets to make 5G a reality in the marketplace.
We’re seeing the MNOs, the mobile network side, and the fixed network side working very well together. We’ve already seen some mergers and acquisitions. Shaw bought WIND in Canada. Liberty sold its eastern Europe markets to Vodafone. They had the mobile side, but they didn’t have the fixed side there. It allowed for the eastern European markets under Vodafone to be served by wireless and wired in the same markets.
It’s an interesting set of dynamics happening in the marketplace right now. We don’t ever see where everything is going to go wireless and wired networks will be obsolete. People love the high speed they can get on their fixed network. But they want to be able to take some level of that broadband with them outside the house. If that’s Wi-Fi or CBRS or 3.8Ghz or 28Ghz, what’s the spectrum policy that allows consumers to take that broadband with them wherever they go? In our case, nearly half of our members that fund CableLabs have both a fixed network side and a mobile network side in their business models. We’ll see that happening more and more.