Cable TV Bandwidth

Cable TV uses what is known as a broadband network, meaning the bandwidth of the connection is split to simultaneously carry many signals at different frequencies. These signals correspond to the channels you see on your TV. A typical HFC network provides approximately 750MHz of bandwidth, and each channel requires 6MHz.

Therefore, because the television channels start at about 50MHz, you would find channel 2 in the 50MHz–56MHz range, channel 3 at 57MHz–63MHz, and so on up the frequency spectrum. At this rate, an HFC network can support about 110 channels.

For data networking purposes, cable systems typically allocate one channel's worth of bandwidth in the 50MHz–750MHz range for downstream traffic—that is, traffic coming into the cable modem from the CATV network. In this way, the cable modem functions as a tuner, just like your cable TV box, ensuring that your PC receives signals from the correct frequency.

Upstream traffic (data sent from your PC to the network) uses a different channel. Cable TV systems commonly reserve the bandwidth from 5MHz to 42MHz for upstream signals of various types (such as those generated by cable TV boxes that enable you to order pay-per-view programming).

Depending on the bandwidth available, you might find that your CATV provider does not furnish the same high speed upstream as it does downstream. This is called an asymmetrical network.

The amount of data throughput that the single 6MHz downstream channel can support depends on the type of modulation used at the head end. Using a technology called 64 QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation), the channel might be capable of carrying up to 27Mbps of downstream data. A variant called 256 QAM can boost this to 36Mbps.

You must realize, however, that you will not achieve anything even approaching this throughput on your PC. First of all, if you are using a 10BASE-T Ethernet adapter to connect to the cable modem, you are limited to 10Mbps. A USB 1.1 port is limited to 12Mbps, but even this is well beyond the real-life results you will achieve.

As with any LAN, you are sharing the available bandwidth with other users in your neighborhood. All your neighbors who also subscribe to the service use the same 6MHz channel. As more users are added, more systems are contending for the same bandwidth, and throughput goes down.

In November 1999, ZDTV (now TechTV) tested five brands of cable modems in typical operations and found that the overhead of CATV proved to be a major slowdown factor. The cable modems were first connected directly to the server to provide a baseline for comparisons. Some of these tests showed speeds as high as 4Mbps.

However, when the CATV cable was connected and the same tests were run, the best performer dropped to just 1.1Mbps, with others running even slower. Widespread reports from cable modem users across the country indicate that rush hour–type conditions occur at certain times of the day on some systems, with big slowdowns.

This rush hour is due to increasing use of cable modem systems in the late afternoon and early evening, as daytime workers get home and pull up the day's news, weather, stocks, and sports on their Internet connections. Because cable modems are shared access, this type of slowdown is inevitable and becomes exceptionally severe if the CATV Internet provider doesn't use a fast enough connection to the rest of the Internet.

To minimize this problem, many CATV Internet providers use caching servers at their point of presence connections to the Internet. These servers store frequently accessed Web pages to enable users to view pages without the delays in retrieving them from the original Web sites. By adding multiple T1 or T3 connections to the Internet backbones and using caching servers, ISPs can minimize delays during peak usage hours.