By Mark Jackson, ISPreview UK | July 21st, 2014
Cable operator Virgin Media has confirmed to ISPreview.co.uk that they’re currently lab testing the next generation DOCSIS 3.1 cable network standard, which could one day be used to deliver broadband download speeds of up to 10Gbps (Gigabits per second) and uploads of 1Gbps+ over their predominantly urban network.
The operators current cable platform is a hybrid Fibre-to-the-Local/Node (FTTN) style network, which delivers the final connection into homes via a short run of copper or high-grade coaxial cable and is predominantly based off a EuroDOCSIS variant of the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS3).
At present the best Virgin Media’s cable network can put out is a service with download speeds of 152Mbps (12Mbps uploads), although there is room to squeeze a little more out of that. A future upgrade to 200Mbps via the existing network is certainly plausible and has been officially talked about for several years (demand dependent).
Meanwhile BT’s rival up to 80Mbps FTTC service isn’t likely to catch-up anytime soon, at least not without G.fast and or FTTdp and those are still a few years away. However Virgin Media’s focus is still predominantly in urban areas and these are also the locations where several new rivals, such as CityFibre (with Sky Broadband and TalkTalk) and Hyperoptic, are starting to make headway via 1000Mbps true fibre optic (FTTH/P) connections.
But cable operators haven’t been standing still and CableLabs has been working on the new DOCSIS 3.1 specification for several years, which was finalised at the end of last year and promises to boost performance by utilising technologies such as Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) and quadrupling the amount of radio spectrum (up to 200MHz).
Back in 2012 we talked a lot about DOCSIS 3.1 (here) and at the time Virgin Media, which said they “could theoretically integrate this into our existing network” (apparently this would also be quite straightforward), were only examining the new standard as an exercise and indeed the hardware simply wasn’t available for proper testing.
The good news is that Virgin Media do now have beta hardware in their labs for proper testing, although the cable operator wouldn’t be drawn on our requests for information about a possible field trial. Meanwhile Liberty Global (Virgin Media’s parent) are one of the standards strongest supporters and have made no secret of their desire to see a commercial roll-out by the end of 2016, although this timescale may differ for their UK operations (note: final DOCSIS3.1 hardware is expected by late 2014/early 2015).
Naturally there will be some cost attached to such an upgrade, although DOCSIS3.1 is similar enough to 3.0 that the level of backwards compatibility in other areas means the upgrade should be well within Virgin Media’s capability (i.e. it won’t break the bank). The advantage of not having to lay new cable is also a big bonus.
But as usual home customers shouldn’t expect the top speed of 10Gbps, which will most likely need to be split down and shared in order to keep costs under control, so it’s probably more realistic to expect a continuation of their gradual speed boosts rather than a sudden surge into Gigabit territory.
Some may suggest that this could leave Virgin vulnerable to superior FTTH/P providers, which can already do Gigabit speeds for home users in a growing number of cities, although this would only be true in the marketing sense because right now you don’t really need 100Mbps, let alone 1Gbps or 10Gbps, though it’s nice to have if you can get it (bragging rights). In any case, without BT’s influence (they’re only doing small bits of FTTH/P), it will take years for rival FTTH/P ISPs to mature into a real threat and by then DOCSIS4 could have arrived.
However no company can ever afford to take their eye off the competition and indeed in the longer-term we could see Virgin Media adopting FTTH/P themselves, just as a few other cable operators around the world have already done. But right now there’s no prospect of that on the horizon, at least not to any significant scale.