Fellows Gives the Street Preview of Tech's Future


Comcast Corp. will have more flexibility to allocate bandwidth across its cable systems in the future, said chief technology officer David Fellows.

That manuevering room will allow Comcast to pursue a variety of ways to offer new services to compete against DBS providers via VOD and HDTV — and even to go up against telephone companies, using wireless fidelity (Wi Fi) technologies.

As part of a May 16 presentation to financial analysts, Fellows revealed a bit more of Comcast's thinking about its cable plant going forward.

The key chore for 2003 — rebuilding the plant, largely in former AT&T Broadband territories — is ahead of schedule, he said. That's partially because Comcast has access to quality work crews, because most cable operators have finished rebuilds in other systems.

"The rebuild will be largely done this year," he said. "We haven't run into any bad surprises."

In fact Comcast has encountered some "good" surprises, according to Fellows — such as the old Tele-Communications Inc. plant that actually had been rebuilt to 750 Megahertz, but had been mislabeled as less than that.

The typical Comcast plant is rebuilt for 860 MHz with 860-home nodes, he said.

Even a 750-MHz plant can offer 84 analog channels, 216 digital channels and eight channels for HDTV, Fellows said.

Across a 1,000 home neighborhood, that 750-MHz plant could handle VOD for 400 digital subscribers, 400 high-speed-data homes and 300 telephone subscribers, with three 6-MHz slots still left over.

"If we need more capacity, we can split up nodes four ways" and provision the forward and reverse path separately, depending on the capacity required, said Fellows.

Comcast is upgrading all of its DOCSIS 1.0 plant to DOCSIS 1.1 this year, he said. "We have DOCSIS 2.0 in our back pocket, which would give us five times the speed upstream."

Voice-compression advancements are also on tap in the circuit-switch telephony operations Comcast inherited from AT&T. Technology exists to take the voice compression from 64 kilobits to 16 kilobits, allowing Comcast to carry four times as many phone calls on a single line.

Fellows also talked about Comcast's digital transition plans. Comcast could go to 100% digital for its cable network carriage and keep must-carry and retransmission-consent channels in the analog domain, he said.

Such a transition would give Fellows 60 to 80 6 MHz slots to use for other services.

Two weeks ago, Verizon Communications Inc. said it would create Wi Fi "hot spots" atop New York City telephone booths, to allow consumers wireless high-speed access to their Verizon digital subscriber line connections.

If it wanted to, Comcast could play the same game, Fellows noted.

"Anywhere you see a piece of coaxial cable, we can add a hot spot," he said. "There is a DOCSIS signal sitting inside that plant, and we can tap into it."

Fellows indicated in a story in The Boston Globe, however, that he has hesitation in using unlicensed spectrum for such Wi Fi activity, and would rather go the licensed-spectrum route.

But the bottom line is that even Wi Fi is a technology cable can use in its competitive race against the telcos, he reiterated.