How much is enough? That seems the central question when it comes to the broadband pipe — and for good reason. The simple truth is the typically several megabits per second that consumers enjoy over cable broadband easily handles the mainstay of online content cravings — high-quality video and audio streams. But what about tomorrow? What about the HD revolution?

Interesting questions for cable execs, who must balance the need to offer competitive broadband speeds with the overarching desire to do so at the lowest possible cost. Go overboard with upgrading the broadband pipe, and there’s a point of diminishing returns to the operator and the consumer. At least in the near term. As Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt acknowledged at the CTAM Summit this summer, MSOs could theoretically crank out data to each home at a gigabit per second or more. But would consumers appreciate it? Sure, they would be able to download large files in a flash and overdose on HD goodness. But the prevailing broadband application du jour is online video (and to a lesser degree audio). That doesn’t require a gigabit. Not even close.

Of course, each market is different (especially as AT&T and Verizon lay fiber town by town). But cable operators are doing a lot with their existing plants. Case in point is CableLabs’ recent Innovation Showcase winner Harmonic, which wowed MSO execs with a demo pushing out a MPEG-4 HD video stream at 8 Mbps (standard def at 2 Mbps) over a DOCSIS 3.0 network — and another app that could handle one HD stream and two standard-def streams simultaneously using about 12 Mbps. That’s a stunning feat considering the enormous amount of data inherent in an HD stream.

Of course, compression by its very nature influences picture quality — and it remains largely unclear how much of a factor that will be with consumers. Meanwhile, those broadband streams will likely flow to both computer and set-top in the future. I asked HDNet founder Mark Cuban about this, and he noted that those screens are just getting bigger, making it more difficult to satisfy consumers with highly compressed HD streams. "At some point, video providers will strive to differentiate by offering…the best possible picture quality," said Cuban, who has predicted that 70-inch screens will become standard in just a few years. "It may take 20 Mbps to get there; it may take more. It won’t be 8 Mbps."

To be sure, not everyone agrees with that assessment. But as cable faces HD-centric DirecTV and the fiber-obsessed telcos in competitive battle, it needs to closely monitor this bandwidth question every day, and in every market. How much is enough tends to change over time.

How Much Is Enough?

  • Current broadband speeds enable consumers to get high-quality video and audio.

  • Video compression technology has advanced to the point where even HD streams require far less bandwidth.

  • Cable operators must assess consumer demand in each market constantly to monitor whether speeds are competitive.

Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFax Daily. He can be reached at mgrebb@accessintel.com.

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