Comcast to roll out 50 Mbps 'wideband' to Philly, Boston, NJ, NH

With fiberoptic service such as Verizon's FiOS and AT&T's U-verse threatening to absorb current cable Internet customers, Comcast is moving ahead with its goal of leapfrogging over fiber by the end of 2010.

In another step toward its goal of providing DOCSIS 3.0 service nationwide by 2010, Comcast today said it will begin the formal rollout of what it's now calling "wideband" service, with download speeds peaking as high as 50 Mbps, in four more markets: Philadelphia, Boston, and parts of New Jersey and New Hampshire. Availability of very-high-speed service in those areas will come "in the next few weeks," according to a Comcast statement this morning.

New DOCSIS technology, which includes a multiplexing concept called channel bonding, will eventually enable Comcast to offer downstream speeds up to 160 Mbps, the company noted today. Last April, the cable provider began its first tests of DOCSIS 3.0 service in Minneapolis/St. Paul. There, downstream speeds were originally supposed to have approached 100 Mbps, though the service was eventually sold to charter customers as having 50 Mbps downstream speed and 5 Mbps upstream speed, for $150/month.

With this next rollout comes Comcast's formal unveiling of its wideband residential pricing tiers (perhaps an unfortunate choice of terms, since in other fields of broadcasting, "wideband" is considered narrower than "broadband"). The Extreme 50 option will enable downstream speeds of up to 50 Mbps and upstream speeds of up to 10 Mbps, at a price of $139.95 per month. The Ultra tier will offer 22 Mbps downstream and 5 Mbps upstream at $62.95 per month.

Presently, the company offers what it describes as "PowerBoost" service with up to 12 Mbps downstream speeds to some residential areas, for $42.95 per month.

The box that Comcast Extreme and Ultra customers will likely be using to receive their digital service will be this Cisco residential network gateway (RNG), which also serves as a high-def DVR with a 160 MB hard drive. Cisco developed this RNG 200 model to CableLabs specifications in association with Scientific Atlanta; and Comcast has been using it in demonstrations.

This morning, Comcast is saying Extreme 50 customers will be able to download a complete high-definition movie in as little as 16 minutes.

But there remains some skepticism about whether the phrase "high-definition movie" in the above sentence deserves one of those little asterisks. Last January, then writing for ZDNet, George Ou presented some data indicating that what Comcast had been passing off as HD movies may actually be compressed or with lower bitrates. For a full, uncompressed, raw video feed, Ou estimated at that time that a viewer would need a 28 Mbps downstream connection -- which does fall under the realm of possibility for Comcast's Extreme 50 option, but not quite Ultra.

Perhaps the bigger question that Comcast has left on the table this morning is whether its 250 GB/month download cap, which takes effect this month, will also apply to Ultra and Extreme 50 customers. BetaNews is pressing Comcast for the answer to this question this morning.

Should that cap apply to the cable provider's new premium tiers, an Extreme 50 customer could conceivably reach her monthly limit after only about 85 minutes of peak usage, BetaNews estimates. Using Comcast's own numbers as a gauge, that would only enable the download of about five HD movies per month, assuming the customer does nothing else with her service during that month. That would mean the customer pays about $27.99 for each on-demand HD video.

During the rollout period, Comcast says it will be doubling speeds for existing customers, up to 16 Mbps for its "Performance Plus" tier and 12 Mbps for the "Performance" tier.

Update banner (stretched)

1:43 pm EDT October 23, 2008 - Comcast spokesperson Lynsey Silvesti confirmed to BetaNews this afternoon that the 250 GB/month download cap instituted this month will also apply to the cable provider's new Extreme 50 and Ultra "wideband" tier customers.

"Please keep in mind, though, that our policy only impacts less than 1% of our customers," Silvesti noted, "so the vast majority of our customers are not impacted." That percentage could grow, however, as more customers are offered the opportunity to download HD movies.

And in a follow-up this afternoon, technologist George Ou reminded us that his claims of low bitrates and compression applied to video-on-demand service, which is presently a streaming service rather than a stored download; and VoD is typically offered on a separate channel from Internet service. However, Comcast did demonstrate VoD over broadband at the last CES, using what were called HD videos but which were actually encoded at low bitrates, streaming at between 4 and 6 Mbps.

Conceivably, Extreme 50 and Ultra customers will be offered uncompressed downloads, though what remains to be seen is whether a similar capacity or throughput cap will be applied to that VoD channel. If not, it could become more cost-effective for viewers to stream movies rather than download them, except for the virtue of (possibly) being able to keep the download.

Ou added that, unless Comcast were to implement quad-channel DOCSIS 3.0 services, he believes its network would not be able to support more than three simultaneous downloaders per neighborhood at one time.

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