Direct Communications Upgrades Cable Network to new DOCSIS 3 System

Direct Communications Cable in Idaho completed a system-wide network upgrade over the course of the Summer of 2014 that will allow residents in all cable franchise towns served by the company to receive up to 20 megabit-per-second internet speeds.

The towns served by Directcom Cable include AberdeenBancroftDowneyFish HavenGeorgetownGraceLavaMcCammonMontpelierParis and Preston

More speed means more fun online.

More speed means more fun online.

The network upgrade was specifically a change from the old Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) 1.0 to a newer DOCSIS 3.0 network specification. The DOCSIS 3 equipment allows an increase in data transmission speeds (both upstream and downstream).

Brian Black, Senior Network Administrator for Direct Communications, explained that the upgrade required a complete equipment swap in all of the fiber huts. “We had to purchase three new CMTS’s to support DOCSIS 3, which cost about $50,000 each.” (Cable Internet delivery includes two primary components: a cable modem, located at each customer premises, and a cable modem termination system (CMTS) located at the Cable TV headend.)  

For existing customers, anyone requesting speeds above the previous top speed of 10Mb would need a new DOCSIS 3.0 modem. All new customers automatically receive a new DOCSIS 3.0 modem at the time of install. 

Black said: “The real difference between a DOCSIS 3.0 system and the old DOCSIS 1 system is that a DOCSIS 3.0 modem can connect to multiple channels at once, whereas the old modem could only connect to a single path. So in theory, customers will now have four times the bandwidth available to them at any given time. Right now each of our customers are set up to connect to two downstream channels, and to four upstream channels, but once we have completed the next planned system-wide upgrade to all digital cable TV, each customer with be connecting to four downstream channels, and to four upstream channels.” 

This explains part of the motivation for the company to migrate to an all-digital cable TV system, because besides improving the quality of the picture and number of available TV channels, moving to all digital TV delivery will also free up more bandwidth for the growing customer demand for faster internet speed. 

Brian Black, Senior Network Administrator for Direct Communications in Idaho

Brian Black, Network Administrator for Direct Communications in Idaho

“What this upgrade to  DOCSIS 3.0 means now for all customers is basically more bandwidth available for everyone, and more consistent speeds, especially during peak hours in the evenings when everyone wants to get online at home to stream video, or catch up with their friends on Facebook,” said Black.

“In theory, I suppose we could deliver speeds up to 50Mb or 100Mb to a single customer now on the coax cable network, but really our goal with this upgrade is to make sure we can deliver the speeds we have already sold to customers, and keep up with the customer growth. We feel pretty good about being able to deliver a solid 20Mb to everyone in town, so we want to keep an eye on that and see where the growth takes us before we start selling even higher speeds. “

Direct Communications has experienced three straight years of over 20% growth per year in customer subscriptions, as residents in small towns in Idaho adopt high-speed internet in increasing numbers, and keeping up with the demand has kept Black and his co-workers busy. Black is very pleased with how the new DOCSIS 3 network is performing.

“It’s been a huge change, and I am very happy with the results. The network is just much more stable, and people have responded by using their internet service a lot more already. We have seen internet usage double in some towns like Preston since we did the upgrade, which is great because it means people trust their internet more, have higher expectations now, and are turning to their internet service more for things like entertainment.”

“Our next step is to obviously move the Cable TV service to an digital head end, which will hopefully happen by the end of this year, free up more channels, and then keep improving our network through deploying more fiber nodes throughout the neighborhoods, and splitting up the network to make sure we can always stay ahead of the demand for bandwidth.”

Note: Aberdeen has not yet been upgraded to Docsis 3, but is on Docsis 2.0.

Directcom Completes Arbon Fiber-to-the-Home Project

This spring, Direct Communications engineers completed the upgrade of Arbon Valley from traditional copper telephone lines to Fiber-to-the-Home, enabling every resident in Arbon to receive broadband access.

The company’s fiber to the home rollout in Arbon began in the summer of 2009, and since then, Directcom crews have been working around the clock, laying fiber optic cable to all of the homes in the Arbon Valley. Even the very remote homes, from those miles up in the mountains to down the valley, can now receive better high-speed internet service than is available in most cities in the USA. The company began with Arbon because this exchange area had always been the most difficult to serve with traditional DSL over copper, and thus had the fewest broadband subscribers.

Direct Communications buried 158 miles of fiber optic cable in Arbon Valley, bringing fiber to about 90 homes.

Matt Farr, Engineer and Operations Manager stated: “Arbon was a good starting point for us because it was so open, the construction was straightforward, and there weren’t a lot of other utilities to worry about running into. Also, we had a lot of customers there in Arbon that simply could not receive any internet signal before, because the farms and homes were so spread out. Fiber was the solution. It’s been good to hear customers tell us things like: ‘We tried streaming Netflix for the first time ever last night—that was pretty cool.’”

Matt Farr, Engineer and Operations Manager for Direct Communications in Idaho, shows the new Calix ONT (Optical Network Terminal) that is installed on the side of a home to convert the fiber light signal to Ethernet and phone service.

There is no resistance in the fiber optic cable, unlike copper lines, so the signal can travel infinitely futher, because it’s light, not an electron flow. With fiber, Directcom can now serve more remote customers in rural areas like Arbon, who live many miles away from the central phone office with broadband products like ethernet, VOIP, video conferencing, home security systems, remote appliance management, and other IP-based apps, which will be vital to the future economies of rural areas. Fiber optics will open up whole new markets of people who previously were too far to pick up a DSL signal over copper.

Farr related that the residents of Arbon had been extremely cooperative during the construction, often helping out the crews, which had helped the project go smoothly.

“The farmers would let us park our equipment in their sheds or shops overnight so that things like the water trailer wouldn’t freeze; they would let us fill up with water from their pumps—the whole community was just really helpful. Larry Fitch and Monty Evans made room in their sheds for us on many a cold night.” He related that people were so excited to get internet service that they would go out of their way to help get the work completed quickly.

“Once, at the end of the season, we were stopped by a really bad snowstorm, and a resident from Garden Creek drove out in the snow to pick up our fiber splicer, and all his equipment, on her personal snowmobile, so that we could complete the fiber splicing at their home.

We had people working in some very remote areas in Arbon, and sometimes we would run out of gas. Ken Estep once came out when we were in trouble and gave us a full tank of gas from his farm tanks.

I also want to thank the County Road Crew for all their help—they were extremely responsive in issuing all the road permits and easements we needed, and were very easy to work with—we were able to coordinate our fiber and road construction schedules—we couldn’t have completed this project without them.”

Directcom used local Arbon electrician, Cody Evans, to help wire the homes internal communications lines so that they would be ready for a fiber ethernet connection, and also to connect the homes power to the fiber terminal battery backup. Unlike the old copper network terminal, the fiber electronics (called an Optical Network Terminal, or ONT) on the side of a home, needs a power supply, and that required new electrical wiring in most cases.

A friendly Arbon dog- photo by Jason Garner.

Lucas McHargue, Construction Supervisor, said he remembers those years working in Arbon consisting of long, sometimes lonely days, and each home they connected had a story to it. “I remember times when the snow was so deep on people’s driveways that even the backhoe couldn’t go through it, and we would have to move forward bucket by bucket, as I cleared the snow away. We met a lot of interesting people out there, and a lot of different dogs—some friendly, some not so friendly. People would call into the main office after we left their home and say: ‘Those guys deserve a raise,’ which I agreed with.”

Jason Garner, Rockland and Arbon Exchange Manager, who spent three years travelling to Arbon each day during this project, and personally spliced the cable to a lot of the homes, feels a real sense of accomplishment in completing the enormous job there. “We had a lot of good times together as a crew—it was good to be part of a team, all working together towards a single goal, and those years really drew us together. I want to thank everyone on the crew who put in so many hours to get this done, including Brent Moss (now retired) Lucas McHargue, Steven Robinson, Marshall Ralphs, Nathan Taysom, Allan Jones, Tim Lee, Brendon Mingo, Phil Pratt, and of course the techs back in the office like Brad Medinger and Austin Turley, who turned on the ONTs remotely, and so many others—this was a real team effort.”

Garner reported that one of his favorite memories from his years working in Arbon was getting to know each homeowner personally by name. “We were in every home. We met a lot of good people.  I always used to wonder how Brent knew every customer by name, and now I know—because he put in all the copper to those home decades  ago. Now it was my turn to meet them all during this fiber upgrade.”

Moose seen in Knox Canyon during daily commute to Arbon- photo by Jason Garner

Garner said they saw a lot of wildlife during the commute over the mountains between Rockland and Arbon, including his closest ever encounter with a moose.

Besides the direct access to high-speed internet from Direct Communications that will bring the benefits of faster broadband to residential customers and anchor institutions like Arbon Elementary School, the fiber will benefit the community in many other ways Directcom has connected fiber to two cell phone towers in the valley, which will increase coverage and data speeds for people using certain cell phones. Fiber in an area means better communications for everyone.

The Arbon area’s first telephone lines were laid by local farmers, who asked former Rockland Telephone Company owner, Joseph Lee May, to acquire the lines back in the 1950’s. He was able to connect the two exchange areas together using copper lines hung on poles. Arbon and Rockland are now connected by various buried fiber optic lines that run right over the mountains separating the valleys, and Arbon will become part of a route that transports a lot of data traffic around southeast Idaho for various major carriers.

When will the rest of Direct Communications customers be upgraded to fiber?

Farr explained: “We have a 5-year plan to basically convert all of our exchange areas from Bear Lake to Rockland to 100% fiber to the home. Arbon is complete. We started on Rockland this year, and will be completely upgraded to fiber over the next 2 years there. Bear Lake is the biggest project and that will take longer, but we already have a few subdivisions there completely converted to fiber, including The Reserve and Cottle Communities in Fish Haven. This summer we also buried new duct to about 30 homes in Canyon Estates in Fish Haven, and we hope to complete splicing the fiber there by the end of this year.”

Fiber optic cable carries an all-digital signal, which is better suited to today’s digital communication devices. Also, there is no interference from electric lines or magnetic fields like you experience with copper, so the signal is clearer, which will result in a better conversation and data transmission. Even lighting strikes, which can be transmitted by copper cabling, is not transmitted by Fiber-optic cable.

Having fiber to a home is a great modern feature that can increase the functionality and value of a home. In fact, having Fiber to the Home could increase the value of a home by as much as $5,000, according to the Fiber-to-the-Home Council *.  Fiber could be a great economic leveler for rural residents.  The homes in Arbon now have the same advanced connectivity as the most high-tech building in any major financial district in the world.

Calix ONT card that is installed on the side of a home to convert the fiber light signal to Ethernet and phone service. Note how a CAT5 network cable will plug directly into the ONT for an internet connection without needing a modem or any other equipment.