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Comcast expected to raise broadband speeds

Company next week plans to announce another speed burst for its broadband services, according to sources.

Comcast next week is expected to announce plans to raise its broadband Internet speeds for all customers by at least a third later this year, according to sources familiar with the plans.

The nation's largest cable company and broadband provider will raise its current speed of up to 3mbps (megabits per second) downstream and 256kbps (kilobits per second) upstream to 4mbps and 384kbps, respectively, at no additional cost. Comcast will also offer its more expensive 4mbps customers a 50 percent increase to 6mbps downstream and 768kbps upstream, the sources said.

Comcast has upgraded its speed as part of an overall effort not only to distance itself from slower DSL (digital subscriber line) services but to add more high-bandwidth features, such as video e-mail, for its Comcast.net subscribers.

Other cable companies have taken similar steps to raise their speeds. In December, Time Warner Cable decided to raise its basic download speed to 5mbps from 3mbps for free. Months earlier, Cox Communications said it would raise its speed limit from 3mbps to 4mbps.

A Comcast spokeswoman declined to comment.

Cable companies have ratcheted up their broadband speeds as a defensive maneuver against heightened competition from the Baby Bell phone companies. After years of heel-dragging, the Bells have made an aggressive push to attract the growing number of Americans switching to broadband by offering lower prices for their DSL services.

In contrast to cable's average subscription fee of $45 a month, the Bells are selling DSL for as low as $26.95 a month with a basic phone line. But basic-tier DSL services are slower than cable, typically reaching a limit of 1.5mbps.

Broadband has become the central battleground between cable and the Bells. Both sides are packaging other services, such as video and voice, into their broadband bundles in hopes of keeping subscribers loyal to their systems.

Comcast, for example, recently announced plans to sell phone service over Internet lines--a technology known as voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP--in a competitive move against the Bells.

But the Bells remain laggards in overall broadband market share, with about 40 percent to cable's 60 percent. Comcast remains the largest broadband provider, with 6.5 million subscribers as of Sept. 30.

The latest upgrades will begin in the first quarter of this year. Comcast will update its subscriber numbers when it reports its quarterly earnings Feb. 3.