Comcast  has become the largest cable operator in North America to deploy a DOCSIS 3.0 wideband service by announcing a tier in Minneapolis/St. Paul with speeds of 50 Mbps on the downstream and 5 Mbps on the upstream.
The service is available today to residential customers for $149.95 per month, while small- to medium-size businesses can get the increased speeds for $199.95 per month.
Comcast has been a big advocate of the increased downstream data speeds that are part of the DOCSIS 3.0 feature set. Earlier in the year, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said that the nation's largest cable operator planned to have elements of DOCSIS 3.0 deployed in up to 20 percent of its footprint by the end of the year.
Comcast expects downstream channel bonding to increase download speeds to 100 Mbps over the next two years, and even reach speeds of up to 160 Mbps farther down the road.
DOCSIS 3.0 can achieve downstream speeds of up to 160 Mbps by bonding 6 MHz – or 8 MHz channels, which are used in Europe and some parts of Asia and Latin America – together.
Currently, CableLabs  has only awarded bronze certification, which covers downstream channel bonding and IPv6, to Arris  and Cisco , while Casa Systems  was awarded silver in the tiered testing system. None of the cable modem vendors received 3.0 certification in the wave that was announced late last year, but another wave is underway, with the results expected to be announced May 16.
While Videotron  announced two tiers of wideband services in Quebec in February, with download speeds of 30 Mbps and 50 Mbps, North America has trailed cable operators in Europe and Asia in wideband deployments.
DOCSIS upstream channel bonding, which provides 120 Mbps of shared throughput, is expected to be ready for deployment sometime next year.
The cable industry is putting a lot of time and effort into downstream channel bonding in order to compete with the fiber-optic deployments of services such as Verizon's  FiOS, which offers 50 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream in six markets to date. The cost of Verizon's 50 Mbps service is $89.95 in New York and $139.95 in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Comcast is not faced with competition from Verizon in the Twin Cities area, and its new speed is much faster than Qwest's  highest speed of 7 Mbps.
Comcast is not saying where the rest of its wideband deployments will take place this year, but it makes competitive sense for cable operators to offer the faster speeds in areas where it competes with providers such as Verizon.
While downstream channel bonding can bond up to four channels, Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas said the deployment in the Twin Cities is bonding three channels, which has been typical of other wideband deployments. Comcast is using Cisco's cable modem termination system (CMTS) and wideband modems in the Twin Cities.
Douglas said that one of the reasons Comcast picked Minneapolis/St. Paul for the first wideband deployment is because the plant there was already in good shape.
"It came down to they already had built the network and they didn't have to do any large hardware upgrades," Douglas said. "It was more a matter of getting new card stacks into the CMTSs.
"The Twin Cities had the right operational and technical infrastructures to dig in and really make this happen. They've done some other trials and tests in the past, so they were the right place for us to get started. They were excited to try it."
Most cable operators are in the process of adding more DOCSIS downstream channels to bond. In order to have more downstream channels, some cable operators need to free up spectrum by using techniques such as switched digital video (SDV) or analog reclamation, but while Douglas said each market will be on a case-by-case basis, there was no need to do analog reclamation or SDV in the Twin Cities.
Comcast has targeted the middle of 2010 for full DOCSIS 3.0 rollouts across its entire footprint.
Increased upstream speeds for other tiers
Comcast also announced today that high-speed Internet residential customers in the Twin Cities region will also have increased upload speeds on their existing services at no additional cost.
Comcast will nearly triple the upload speed of its 6 Mbps downstream, 384 Kbps upstream performance tier to 6 Mbps/1 Mbps, and it will more than double the upload speed of its 8 Mbps/768 Kbps performance plus tier to 8 Mbps/2 Mbps.
Douglas said that Comcast was able to increase the upstream speeds using multi-carrier technology that was first mentioned last week when Comcast and BitTorrent  announced that they would work together on better ways to handle peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic.
More Broadband Direct:
• Broadband Briefs for 4/3/08