Reevaluating the cable-fiber rivalry: Much ado about nothing?

An unsurprising theme at this week’s Fiber Connect 2023 was executives from the fiber industry dragging their cable counterparts. AT&T Fiber’s EVP Chris Sambar told a large keynote audience, “don’t ask cable about symmetrical speeds, they don’t even know what that means,” for example.

But with all this talk about fiber versus cable, is the rivalry being overplayed?

At the event Derek Kelly, Lumos’ VP of market development, went as far as to say that “fiber is always the answer,” and suggested cable alternatives will not stand the test of time.

Over the last seven years, the definition of a "served location" has evolved significantly, with required internet speeds progressing from 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds to the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) threshold of 25/3 Mbps. Kelly claimed that as $42.5 billion is set to roll out through the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, relying on investments in fiber will provide stability over the next 15 years.

“I think we've all seen DSL and fixed wireless projects get funded over the last couple of years. And then what happens? Those areas ultimately become blocked from future funding until the definitions change. And then they become available for another grant. And we see public dollars going on top of previous public dollars,” Kelly said.

While acknowledging the need for funding in areas without even cable access, he noted another large-scale program after the BEAD initiative is unlikely.

“Cable modems aren't going to keep up with these definitions forever. Their lobbyists aren't going to be able to convince people forever just make sure that they just barely can meet the definition of unserved,” he said. “We have communities that don't have access to fiber. The FCC and NTIA may consider them as served today. And I agree the funding should go to areas that don't even have cable yet, but the time is coming where cable is going to be what's unserved or underserved.”

Contrary to the FCC and NTIA's definitions, Kelly said Lumos considers an unserved location as one with "no cable, underserved means they're stuck with cable. And then there's everyone else that has life-changing fiber,” adding, “So we don't care about speeds at this point.”

Cable weighs in

Jay Lee, CTO of ATX Networks, whose portfolio is heavily aligned toward helping the cable industry fill middle-mile gaps, said he went to Fiber Connect to see if the company can also contribute to the fiber marketplace.

“It's interesting being here and listening to folks beat down on cable pretty hard. But, you know, I get it, that's obviously the mission statement here,” he told Fierce, adding that some of the digs made about the cable industry this week might be “broad strokes” that need to be taken into context.

Fiber execs mostly targeted cable’s “Achilles heel,” Lee added, which is its lacking symmetrical speed capabilities. But he noted cable operators are “right in the throes” of upgrading their networks to get to full DOCSIS 3.1, and that high-split type of architecture will allow them to achieve competitive speeds in the upstream.

“Their downstream is probably two gigabits per second now and there’s a line of sight to be more than that,” he said. “Is it 10 Gig PON? No. But it's still in that gig threshold that I think is as important from a consumer standpoint.”

The next plan phase for cable is to move up to DOCSIS 4.0, which starts to get toward multi-gigabit upstream and five-plus in the downstream, sometimes upwards of 10 in the downstream. Plus, Lee noted that plenty of cable companies are doing “lots” of their own fiber buildouts.

“Some of the statements made on cable were like ‘they can't do anything about it’ and certainly they can. DOCSIS 3.1 high-split is just the start,” he said.

Analyst gives voice of reason

With all the back and forth between cable and fiber it can be difficult to figure out where the truth lies, especially for subscribers who just want a positive (yet affordable) internet experience at home.

Jeff Heynen, VP at Dell’Oro Group, attended Fiber Connect and said the fiber vs. cable battle is being “a bit overdone” as fiber providers and ISPs are feeling especially confident in these days of subsidized buildouts.

“After spending decades losing ground to cable operators, they have a large ecosystem of vendors, technology suppliers, lobbying groups and state and federal agencies all rowing in the same direction, ready to support their efforts to expand their fiber footprint,” Heynen told Fierce.

This is all despite cable still holding around 65% of all broadband subscribers in the U.S., but fiber companies are seeing now as the time to strike. “It makes sense for them to kick cable while it’s down, even though its’s down mainly due to fixed wireless, not fiber,” he noted.

The debate about differing speeds offered by fiber and cable is perhaps the most overdone part of this “rivalry.” Yes, fiber will have the advantage of being able to deliver true symmetric speeds, which current DOCSIS technologies cannot do.

But Heynen echoed ATX’ Lee, pointing out that current DOCSIS 3.1 mid-split can deliver 2 Gbps downstream and up to 200 Mbps upstream, which is what Comcast is offering today. Charter and Cox’s high-split offerings can go even further, delivering 2 Gbps downstream and up to 1 Gbps upstream.

Notably, a recent development of an interoperability test conducted by Cablelabs showed that DOCSIS 4.0 modems paired with CCAP and vCMTS platforms in high-split configurations could deliver up to 8.6 Gbps downstream and 1.5 Gbps upstream.

Cable operators have claimed DOCSIS 4.0 modems should become available later this year, with volumes in 2024. Those downstream speeds would give cable “very comparable service tiers to most fiber providers,” Heynen said. “And this is before the outside plant is upgraded to DOCSIS 4.0, which will be capable of delivering up to 10 Gbps down and 6 Gbps up.”

Granted, these mid- and high-split upgrades aren’t currently available everywhere, and other analysts have hinted that DOCSIS 4.0 rollouts will take longer than cable companies are letting on. 

Cable will inevitably have the technology to compete with fiber when it comes to billboard speeds, according to Heynen. “Very importantly,” he added, cable can make these upgrades for anywhere from $100-$200 per home, which is considerably less than rolling out fiber at a cost of anywhere from $1000-$5000 per home.

Ultimately, customers may be willing to accept lower speeds for a $20-$40 reduction in their monthly bill, which is one reason many cable customers are switching to fixed wireless.

That falls in line with messaging from fiber executives who are starting to understand that touting speed tiers isn’t going to sell customers on one product over another. 

Instead, cable and fiber ISPs alike will need to face the reality that customers value flexibility and reliability “just as much as they do the speeds they are getting,” Heynen said. “Speed, reliability, personalized services, pricing and value will all come into play as consumers make their decision on their broadband provider.”