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New cable standard may triple speeds

A new cable Internet standard slated to be finalized later this year could boost cable modem speeds, clearing the way for a raft of new services.

A new cable Internet standard slated to be finalized later this year could boost cable modem speeds, clearing the way for a raft of new services.

Denver-based CableLabs, the cable industry's research and development arm, announced recently that it will certify a new version of DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification), the technology protocol cable operators use to deliver high-speed Net access using cable modems.

The latest version, which will be called DOCSIS 2.0, significantly increases cable bandwidth, or network capacity, particularly for so-called upstream transmissions, according to CableLabs. The standard, which will be finished by year's end, is designed to triple the speed at which cable modem users may send data and Internet traffic. But equipment--certified as being based on the standard--is unlikely to be ready for more than a year, some analysts say.

Using new techniques, cable networks based on the standard will be capable of sending data as much as three times faster than previously possible. DOCSIS 2.0 uses A-TDMA (advanced frequency agile time division multiple access) and S-CDMA (synchronous code division multiple access) to accomplish the gain in speed. According to one manufacturer, S-CDMA is not based on the CDMA technology born a decade ago by Qualcomm for wireless networks.

The CableLabs announcement and a handful of investment bank upgrades sent stock in Terayon Communications, a maker of cable Internet equipment, soaring earlier this week. Terayon shares surged more than 50 percent Tuesday to close at $6.30, before falling back about 1 percent Wednesday. In what is a new market for the company, Terayon makes a chipset that supports both of the new modulation techniques, company representatives said. The company previously only made consumer cable modems and the high-end CMTS (cable modem termination system) equipment cable operators install.

"Finally CableLabs has accepted S-CDMA, which has made Terayon ecstatic," said Cynthia Brumfield, a broadband industry analyst and author of the "Broadband Intelligence" newsletter.

Terayon and rivals such as Broadcom, Conexant Systems, Texas Instruments and Pacific Broadband Communications worked with CableLabs to ready the latest version of the cable modem standard.

For consumers, the upgrade could mean a host of new services, with additional tiered pricing plans potentially on the horizon.

Today's cable networks, experts say, generally deliver data with download speeds roughly between 500kbps (kilobits per second) and 2mbps (megabits per second). But cable modem customers frequently are limited to only a fraction of those speeds--experts estimate about 128kbps--when sending data. As a result, some cable companies and cable modem services put restrictions on the amount of data that customers may send. Similarly, Excite@Home forbids customers from running Web servers connected via their cable modem connections and limits upstream speeds to 128kbps.

Uploading data at 128kbps is sufficient for Web surfing, sending e-mail and other files, but critics complain the upstream speed limits hamper their ability to send larger files or take advantage of advanced Internet services.

"It's not like you need (faster upstream speeds) now, but going forward I think there will be many applications that need faster upstreams," Brumfield said.

Under DOCSIS 2.0, cable operators could allow consumers to send more data at greater speeds, a requirement for high-end online video game players and necessary for new services such as Internet-based phone calls, videoconferencing and other future interactive applications.

"They'll start to do things like videoconferencing and using more bandwidth emanating from their homes out onto the Internet," said Mike Schwartz, a CableLabs spokesman.

However, it's unclear whether installing gear based on the new technology might significantly increase the cost of cable modem service for consumers, which already have seen price increases this year.

Based on previous versions of the cable modem standard, DOCSIS 2.0 won't be widely available anytime soon. After all, DOCSIS 1.1 was approved in 1999, but no equipment has yet to be certified by CableLabs as compliant with that earlier version of the specification. CableLabs is expected to complete its first round of testing later this month, Schwartz said.

The company will begin testing equipment to determine whether it adheres to the new DOCSIS 2.0 specification and works with other manufacturers' gear early next year, he said.

Insiders say certified equipment based on the new specification is unlikely to be commercially available before late 2002 or early 2003.

"CableLabs has certainly been overly optimistic in the past about when the fruits of their labor will be available on the market," Brumfield said.