As anyone who’s shopped for an internet plan can tell you, it’s hard to separate the marketing from the truth in the internet world.
Now there’s a new broadband buzzword that may not mean what you think it means: 10G. Mediacom kicked off the transition in February in Iowa, Xfinity started offering its 10G network to most of its cable customers in June and Armstrong upgraded part of its Ohio network to 10G in August.
10G is a branding term you may encounter as you shop for internet service — and although it’s not as simple as the branding suggests, it holds significant real-world implications. With upgrades to their infrastructure rolled out under the banner of 10G, cable providers hope to eventually offer the types of speeds that have long been the primary selling point of a competing technology: fiber internet. We’re still a long way off from the 10 gigabit-per-second connectivity that inspires the 10G name, but the trend could still mean a major step up for the country’s 76 million cable customers.
Fiber internet is still the better option for most people who can get it, but with 10G on the horizon, cable internet has a real shot at tilting the calculus in its favor. Here’s what to know.
The truth about 10G and how it works
10G is short for 10 gigabits per second, which is the symmetrical speed the platform promises. Symmetrical speeds means customers get the same speed whether they’re uploading or downloading data. It’s what sets fiber internet apart from cable, which typically has much lower upload speeds than download.
10G has nothing to do with 5G, which refers to the fifth generation of wireless technology. Cable companies are “very clearly trying to capitalize on the zeitgeist created a couple of years ago by 5G,” said Christopher Ali, professor of telecommunications at Penn State University.
10G is also an attempt to compete with the frenzy over fiber internet, says Ali. One of the benefits for cable providers of 10G is that it doesn’t require an expensive infrastructure update — the coaxial cable is already there for 83% of the country. “The end game for most service providers is to take fiber all the way to the home,” said Curtis Knittle, VP of wired technologies at CableLabs, a cable industry consortium helping to build the 10G platform. “With respect to cable, though, we’ve got this really great coaxial cable already in the ground.”
To improve the speed (and reliability and latency) of connections delivered through that coaxial cable, the industry is primarily relying on something called DOCSIS 4.0, which stands for “Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification,” an industry standard for providing cable internet. Think of it like the jump in speeds that came with the introduction of Wi-Fi 6 routers or 5G phones.
With the previous version of DOCSIS, maximum upload speeds were 1.5Gbps; with DOCSIS 4.0, they’re up to 6Gbps. That’s still a long way from the symmetrical 10Gbps speeds that 10G promises, but cable companies can make these upgrades without digging up the existing cable lines.
While DOCSIS 4.0 is the cable industry’s primary avenue to 10G, the platform is not tied to one specific technology upgrade. Some providers, like Xfinity, are also utilizing fiber-to-the-home enhancements to reach the 10Gbps benchmark.
“10G today is more about a DOCSIS upgrade,” Knittle said. “But if tomorrow the cable industry were to discover some new technology that provided, in an economical way, 10Gbps service, that would be part of 10G, too.”
Even though cable companies have been using the 10G branding liberally, you’re not likely to see symmetrical 10-gig plans suddenly available in your area. In February, Mediacom announced that it was transitioning to the 10G platform in West Des Moines, Iowa. But when we checked several addresses on Mediacom’s website, all of them showed upload speeds topping out at 30Mbps — a far cry from symmetrical 10Gbps speeds. (Mediacom didn’t return our request for comment.)
Xfinity did launch its own symmetrical 10-gig service in June. An Xfinity representative told CNET that the plan is available to “98% of the customers in our national footprint” and that “depending on the customer’s location, a site visit and additional local permits may be required.” You won’t see the plan when you enter your address on Xfinity’s website, though. You’ll have to call Xfinity directly to ask about 10G availability. It runs $299 a month, plus the one-time cost of running fiber cable from the main Xfinity line to your house.
Do you really need all that speed?
It’s hard to wrap your head around internet speeds as high as 10 gigs. The average internet speed in the US was 205Mbps download and 23Mbps upload as of July this year — the seventh fastest of any country in the world. With 10Gbps, or 10,000Mbps, you’d theoretically be able to stream Netflix in 4K on 400 TVs at once. (These speeds refer to what you’d get through a wired connection; accessing the internet through a wireless router decreases speeds significantly — so more like 200 TVs at once through Wi-Fi 6E.)
While faster always sounds better, most people don’t need anywhere near 1,000Mbps, let alone 10 times that much. The 10G platform is largely a bet on the future. The internet industry loves to cite Nielsen’s law, which states that a high-end internet user’s connection speed grows by roughly 50% each year, doubling every 21 months — an observation that has held true since 1983. By that math, a high-end user would see 10G speeds sometime in 2028.
While it seems inconceivable that anyone would require those speeds today, the history of the internet tells us it’s not so far-fetched. The cable associations behind the 10G platform cite virtual reality and smart homes as applications that could fuel huge increases in bandwidth needs. Just as we couldn’t have predicted in 2005 that we would need faster download speeds to stream Netflix, it’s impossible to say what technologies will make use of 10G in the future.
“10G is like an innovation platform,” said Knittle. “We hope that by continually increasing speeds and lower latency that there will be new innovations that actually leverage the capacities that are provided.” Knittle did share one prediction for 10G’s major selling point, or “killer app.”
“It’s called instant gratification,” he said. “You know how when I get ready to go on a trip and I want to download some Netflix movies to my iPad? I want to select them and I want it to be there and in a moment. Not 2 minutes: 2 seconds.”
What about upload speed?
Most households don’t need nearly as much upload speed as download. One way to look at it is that we consume a lot more content than we produce. Take this example from YouTube: “People are uploading 500 hours of video to the platform every minute” but watching “more than a billion hours of video on YouTube every day.” That’s a ratio of nearly 1,400:1.
As late as 2019, downstream traffic was 14 times higher than upstream traffic. But that started to change with the COVID-19 pandemic. Upstream traffic growth in 2020 was 350% of historic rates — the product of millions of Americans using videoconferences for work meetings and online schooling. Comcast reported a 33% increase in upstream traffic and a 13% increase in downstream traffic, while Spectrum saw increases of 32% for upstream traffic compared to 20% for downstream. Still, upstream traffic remains a fraction of downstream.
“Right now there’s absolutely no use for 8 gigabits per second in the upstream,” said Knittle. “But you never know when that application that does require that much upstream is going to be invented.”
Fiber vs. cable: The new calculus
So, what’s better for an average internet user: fiber or the 10G version of cable?
The difference between the two comes down to the makeup of the cables that connect the internet to your home. Fiber connections transmit data as light signals through thin strands of glass, while cable transmits radio frequency signals through coaxial cables with copper cores.
Fiber-optic connections can handle a lot more data than cable, and they can do it a lot faster. That’s why upload speeds are the same as download speeds with fiber internet — there’s so much room on the fiber internet highway that providers don’t need to open more downstream lanes at the expense of upstream lanes. Cable internet has to make that tradeoff, and the result is extremely lopsided speeds. One Xfinity cable plan gets 1,000Mbps download speeds, but just 20Mbps upload. That’s the disparity that 10G hopes to address.
If 10G upgrades allow cable companies to offer truly symmetrical speeds like they’re promising, there won’t be much of a functional difference between the two for an average internet user. At that point, fiber’s advantage disappears, and your decision comes down to factors like price, contract terms and customer service.
What 10G internet means for you right now
You might already be seeing 10G advertised in your area, especially if you live in the third of the country where Xfinity offers service. So how should you factor in 10G when you’re shopping around for internet? You shouldn’t, or at least not without considering other factors that are more important right now.
The best internet provider will still come down to a combination of price, speed and customer service, regardless of whether it’s fiber or cable (10G or otherwise) delivering the connection. Start your search by entering your address in the Federal Communication Commission’s broadband map. You’ll see every ISP available at your home, the type of connection it offers and its maximum upload and download speeds. That’s a good start, but we recommend getting more information from at least three of the most promising ISPs on the list. Here’s what you’ll want to compare:
- Speed: It’s the headline on every internet plan, but how much speed you need is often much less than you think. On a 1,000Mbps plan, it will take about 5 seconds to download a two-hour movie in HD; on a 100Mbps plan, it will take 50 seconds. But with activities like streaming video or browsing the internet — a typical web page is only a few megabytes and streaming only requires about 20Mbps — a faster speed won’t make any functional difference. That said, using Wi-Fi typically cuts your speeds in half, and the more devices you have connected at once, the more bandwidth you’ll need.
- Price: This isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Internet prices are often a complicated web of discounts and price increases, and you’ll want to look at the fine print before committing to a provider. Xfinity, for example, raises prices in years two and three in some areas. Unfortunately, this information isn’t always easy to find on provider websites. Reading reviews from sites like CNET helps, but it’s a good idea to comb through the fine print yourself, too.
- Customer service: Internet providers are a notoriously loathed bunch. In the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s 2023 survey, the industry as a whole ranked second-to-last, barely ahead of gas stations. Still, some are more loathed than others. You can get a sense of each ISP’s reputation by taking a look at the ACSI’s rankings, as well as J.D. Power’s region-specific rankings. Customer care is also one of the factors that CNET considers when we review internet providers.
The truth is, we’re a long way from 10G truly mattering for most internet users. Gig speeds are already overkill for most people, let alone 10-gig speeds. But history tells us that we’ll need a lot more internet horsepower in the future, even if we don’t know what we’ll use it on yet. When that time comes, the 10G platform could be the key to bringing much of the country up to speed.
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