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Internet access via cable: The challenges ahead

Even as cable is foraying into the Indian market as an access technology, let us look at the various issues that are impeding its growth and how it fares compared to other access technologies.

Internet access require 2 - way signal transmission, cable offers sufficient through put for digital data to travel in reverse direction that is the problem lies.

Saying that the Internet has meandered into every aspect of our lives has become redundant. Nevertheless, the issues regarding access technologies such as speed, performance, cost, security continue to keep the industry constantly researching for improvement and the user fraternity comparing and evaluating, and always hoping for something better.

The various access technologies such as cable, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), dial up and so on are vying for supremacy and market share. With the industry touting cable as the next best access technology, let us go back to the origins of the cable network, peek into the technology itself and see what the industry has to say about how it fares with the other existing technologies in the market.

Origins
The origins of cable networks can be traced back to the 70s, when they were deployed in the US to provide TV access to remote locations, where signal transmission was poor or nil. It was not long before cable companies began offering their own content and at affordable prices too. The content moved from entertainment to information and today the US has over 4.5 million users of Internet over cable.

India followed suit. Over the past two decades, several cable companies have mushroomed all over the country, to transmit TV channels. The Internet has now opened a whole new service opportunity for these cable companies. Cable companies and service providers, having recognized the fast access speed offered by cable networks, are beefing up their infrastructure to offer Internet access and other value added services via cable.

Currently there are approximately 2,000-3,000 Internet over cable subscribers in India.

However, not all cable companies are offering Internet access yet and many that do are doing it on a limited or trial basis.

Some of the cable operators who are offering or are planning to offer Internet access via cable are: Siti Cable, Ice Network Pvt. Ltd., and such others like Innomedia Technologies Pvt. Ltd., Mantra Online, BPL, Aptech Internet Ltd., etc.

What's the Technology?
Internet access can be offered in two ways — by a dial-up service via a modem or an ISDN adapter; or by using a cable modem for a PC or a set top box (STB) for a television. Modem and ISDN, however, use the ordinary telephone cables for transmission and hence are not much of an improvement over the normal telephone dial-up access.

If a user wishes to access Internet on his PC via cable he needs to install a cable modem. But if he chooses to do so on his television, he needs a set top box (STB).

Cable modems separate digital and analogue traffic and enable a PC to send and receive data using the coaxial cable sharing its downstream and upstream frequencies with the Cable TV channels. A cable modem interacts with a Cable Modem Termination System (CMTS) installed at a central location, let us say, the cable operator. The CMTS in turn interfaces with the CATV frequency spectrum. Cable modems use various technologies like the TDMA based DOCSIS standard or the more robust and modern SCDMA based TERAYON proprietary technology.

The set-top box (STB) enables Internet over TV using any access technology i.e PSTN, dial up, DSL or Cable. For each access medium, the STB needs to have a suitable kind of modem built into it. For instance, a dial up modem in a dial up STB or a Cable Modem in a Cable STB.

The STB, separates the digital traffic and feeds it into the user's television. STB enables a user to use his TV as a display device. The STB acts as a miniature PC (or an Internet appliance) and the TV takes the place of the computer monitor. Thus, the user is always online and connected to the Internet. In some solutions, upstream traffic is carried through the telephone connection while only the downstream traffic travels via cable.

However, only browsing and e-mail facilities can be provided. Data streaming and downloading from the Net is not possible in the absence of a memory device and software plug-ins such as Real, Flash, Windows Media, etc.

Home User or Corporate Customer?
The primary advantage of cable is the large throughput it offers to users and hence is well suited for broadband services. Some industry analysts even call cable a broadband technology. Cable is suitable for multimedia downloads such as movies, animation etc. In these transactions the upstream data is very small while the downstream data constitutes a large part of the transaction. The cable technology will give best cost performance benefits in this case.

Service providers are targeting both corporate customers and home users. For the home users services such as work@home, videochat, PPV (Pay per View), VoD (video on demand) and so on will be offered. Yet from the point of view of low transaction levels of home users and exorbitant price factors, the solution is not yet feasible for the home user, unless the user has a sizeable amount of downloads or is an addicted browser. "For home users, dial up is still the most viable option," says Vijay Simha, managing director, Ice Network Pvt. Ltd., Bangalore. Cable works out to be very expensive, as a cable modem costs about Rs.10,000 and a monthly fee of close to Rs.1,000 is incurred by the home user.

On the other hand, this technology seems to be just-the-right solution for bandwidth intensive applications and the continuous use of corporate customers. Web developers/hosts, web-services companies such as transcriptions, training institutes, the SME segment and large businesses will be the ones who will reap the benefits of the cable access technology. "Corporates are the primary target customers because of the high volume of traffic handled by them. Moreover, the kind of speeds required for them can be delivered only via cable and within a reasonable price range," says Subrata Bhattacharya, general manager, operations, Siti Cable, New Delhi.

Cyber cafes are important target customers as they can reap a lot of benefits. They can pull just one connection and configure it on a LAN, which will offer huge savings on telephone bills.

The customers using multimedia applications will find cable more effective. These applications include interactive entertainment, distance learning, web TV and streaming audio. This connectivity is also useful in mobile computing applications such as e-mail.

Besides, cable has made possible a lot of community solutions such as tele-medicine.

Besides Internet, cable service providers are also offering other value added services such as e-commerce solutions, data warehousing, data mining and so on. Virtual Private Network (VPNs) with a web interface, effective intranet and extranet deployments using cable networks.

Cable technology has a long way to go…
Though cable has immense potential as an access technology, it has a long way to go in terms of last mile infrastructure upgradation, quality of service, cost factors, security and so on.

To begin with the cable laid in most parts of the country was originally meant for television signal (video and voice) transmission and not for data transmission. In addition, Mohan Tambe, Managing Director, Innomedia Technologies Pvt. Ltd., Bangalore, points out that the cables have been laid in the most unscientific manner by local people who lack the necessary skills.

Cable deployment involves very high initial investment. The already laid cable is meant only for one way signal transmission. But Internet access and related services require two way signal transmission. Therefore, cable offers sufficient throughput for digital data to travel from the head end to the users' end but it is in the reverse transmission from the user end via the cable to the head end, that is where the problem lies. "The reverse signal transmission is less than 40 Mhz. So, lesser the frequency, greater the noise," points out Thambe.

"The last mile needs to be upgraded, i.e. the reverse path of the network needs to be made compatible by changing the amplifiers with two-way capability," points out Subrata Bhattacharya, General Manager, operations, Siti Cable, New Delhi. In addition, upgradation is an arduous and expensive task. In the older cable networks the joints are improper.

Hence the noise factor is very high. So, it is better if new cable can be laid. But this is a very expensive proposition. Hence, there is resistance," adds Tambe.

Besides, cable operators are not an organized sector and are small companies operating in few localities. If there is not a sizeable number of users under a certain cable service provider's area of operation, then there is no return on investment (RoI). "Since there are no volumes and economies of scale, the additional cost/capital investment of providing Internet over cable is not viable," says Sanjay Ketkar, Sr. Vice President, e-commerce software development division, Aptech Limited, Bangalore. Aptech is a software solutions company and a subsidiary of Aptech called Aptech Internet Ltd., (Tringtring.com) focuses on Internet access via cable.

It is primarily the high cost and the high import duties on cable modems, CMTS and related equipment that makes cable an expensive proposition.

According to Atul Kunvar, CEO, Mantra Online, New Delhi, “It is the small cable networks that impede rapid deployment and mass penetration, because RoI suffers. Ideally networks above 10,000 cable homes are required. Most cable networks are 1,000 to 3,000 cable homes,” he adds.

Cable vis-à-vis other access technologies
"Cable has wide penetration and has low lead time (for connectivity). However, the bandwidths supporting operations continue to be low and this effectively nullifies the promise of broadband-over-cable. On performance parameters, DSL wins over Cable," says Suroop Gopalakrishnan, Senior Manager (sales), Dishnet DSL. Ltd., Bangalore.

Gopalakrishnan's views are, perhaps, a pointer to the fact that despite the speed of access benefit that cable as a technology offers, it is ultimately the performance that is going to leverage the technology and enable penetration in the market.

Though ISDN offers good speed and reliability as data is carried on digital lines, the user is discouraged by the very high telephone bills that he incurs. Further, it is not available in all parts of the world. With cable, the telephone bill is eliminated, and this is a big advantage.

According to Tambe "ISDN as a technology is antiquated because the throughput it offers is 64 kbps only".

But on the other hand though cable operators promise high bandwidth, with an increase in the user base, the bandwidth will be divided and the performance and uptime of the network will depend on the service provider's infrastructure and redundancy.

Dial-up is shunned by most users simply because of its slow speed , and hence does not match up with cable modems. Dial-up does have advantages in that it is accessible from any part of the world. Nevertheless, users have to connect to the Internet by dialing and hence it does not give constant online connection as does cable. This connectivity is more useful in mobile computing applications such as e-mail.

"ISDN and dial up cannot match the bandwidth and speeds offered by Cable. Where ISDN and PSTN end, cable begins! i.e. ISDN offers a maximum of 128 Kbps and PSTN 56 kbps, cable starts with 64 kbps and can go up in multiples of 64 Kbps till almost 8.5 Mbps (soon 38 Mbps). There is no line dropping in cable like in ISDN or PSTN. Instead of 'more you use more you pay' principle in ISDN and PSTN, cable offers 'more you use, less you pay' alternative," says Kunvar of Mantra Online.

According to Ketkar "ISDN and Dial up connectivity in the long run will also be replaced by DSL Technology." From what the industry has to say, it appears that the greatest competitor for cable is DSL.

Therefore according to most industry leaders, DSL is the only technology which can offer speeds comparable with that of the cable modem. However, distance limitation is a major drawback for DSL and this is where cable scores over DSL. Nevertheless, Bhattacharya of Siti cable points out that, "DSL technology can be implemented on the existing telephone network, which will offer saving on installation cost."

Favoring DSL, Ketkar says, "DSL is the king of all last mile connectivity technologies. It uses the same conventional telephone cables so that no new cabling needs to be done.

This technology carries digital data over analogue lines and provides always-on connection, making it suitable for both online as well as mobile applications." However, DSL is again very expensive. The modem itself costs almost Rs.30,000.

So what's the good word?
There is no doubt that cable is a technology with immense potential. Though it is picking up in the country, for it to become the preferred access medium, the cable network infrastructure has to be improved immensely. With improvement in infrastructure, cable can attract a larger customer base, and with this, eventually, the cost factor in terms of cable modems and the access charges will drop. NM

Shubha Murthy can be reached at shubha_m24@hotmail.com

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