The Tech Behind: What I Learned About Internet Connectivity from a Tour of a Comcast Control Center | Panda Anku

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If you’d asked me a week ago what the internet looks like or feels like, I’d say I have no idea.

Although I’m a technology reporter, the evolution of the Internet has been a mystery to me. In my early teens, I depended on a dial-up connection for my homework, and now, like many Americans, I use Wi-Fi to work from home. Most of the activities I do in a day are internet enabled. Until it suddenly stops working, I don’t think about how the internet got to my third floor. It’s a set-it-and-forget-it utility for me.

But throughout August Technically Reporters have immersed themselves in the digital infrastructure – the concepts and realities that shape the Internet today. We’ve talked about access funding, programs that keep school children and others connected, and the safety, equity, access, sustainability and related concerns of the digital world.

I hadn’t learned much about the physical architecture that actually powers the Internet until last week. On a muggy August day, I drove to one of the headquarters in Center City Comcast’s Headends, one of 11 Philadelphia-based Internet and cable control centers. Nestled in West Philadelphia is this simple-looking facility with a collection of the company’s new, colorful engineering trucks parked outside. The 4,500-square-foot facility houses machines that provide cable and internet to thousands of customers in the surrounding region and serves as office space for those deployed in the field.

A handful of Comcast employees—directors, engineers, and communications professionals—invited me to do a background tour of the facility to gain insight into their processes. XfinityComcast’s Internet service, is currently the largest Internet service provider in Philadelphia, serving 60 million homes and businesses across the country.

Servers in a Comcast headend. (Photo by Paige Gross)

At the start of the tour, we entered a large room with air conditioning fans whirring. A director tells me that to keep the machines cool and working at their best, they are kept at 68 degrees at all times. Thousands of yards of colorful cables run overhead, color-coded by service, so technicians know where to go in the event of maintenance.

The room is filled with rows and rows of hardware sending Xfinity cables and Internet signals to nodes in the field. The transmitters, of which there are thousands, each correspond to a few signal blocks out in the city. The thin devices route both cables and the Internet through this system. Some sets of devices send high-speed data signals to nodes in the field, while other sets receive requests such as B. ordering an on-demand video.

The director notes Comcast’s focus on redundancy – meaning they have a backup plan on top of their backup plan. The facility houses generators and backup machines, as well as the newer versions that step in when the first line of defense fails or when technology is ready to advance. The main hardware is technically refreshed every five to seven years, the director said, and at any time and in any location they swap out the hardware for updated versions.

Next-generation hardware at a Comcast headend. (Photo by Paige Gross)

Across the other half of the buzzing space are more device lockers, although these are future-proof – Xfinity’s next-generation server-driven architecture. Devices this side of the room take up noticeably less space, and as hardware updates come, the company is able to do more with fewer machines, the director says. A quick scan of the entire room shows the evolution of the hardware and how capacity has changed (and decreased), the amount of space needed to provide services to thousands of customers.

In one of the rows of machines is a patch panel that sends the signal out to the field, with the blue, orange, white, and yellow wires here in the West Philly headend correlating to tiny wires in nodes out in the field. But the signal stops first at a splice closet, where outdoor plant cables and indoor plant cables meet and marry.

A turntable. (Photo by Paige Gross)

A splice closet. (Photo by Paige Gross)

Minutes later I’m on a field trip to a huge apartment complex on City Avenue, a few miles away. As we drive to the site, I am pointed out to the phone wires that run along the road and also carry Comcast fiber.

Soon, two headend workers are clearing a node for me. We are in a concrete room in the utility part of the building where an Xfinity node lives alongside other ISP nodes. The fibers run to the buildings – either on telephone poles or underground – and meet here at the node. Each node in the field is physically connected via cable and fiber to one of Comcast’s headend facilities.

Headend employees deconstruct a node in the field. (Photo by Paige Gross)

Tiny fibers in a Comcast node. (Photo by Paige Gross)

The fibers are tiny compared to those in the ends of the head, each about the width of a strand of hair. Their colored coating, in turn, alerts technicians to their function. I learn that each of the four buildings in this huge complex will have its own node.

So if your internet or cable goes down, I ask what’s actually happening out here? An employee says it could be anything. It could be a car driving into a phone poll carrying the fiber your router relies on, a problem with the website or VPN you’re using, or something in your house.

Comcast EVP and Chief Network Officer Elad Nafshi me in an interview a few days later that the company was rolling out XMFa new network technology that is helping to reduce the time it takes for a technician to find and isolate a fiber break last year.

“Imagine, if you will, a truck that for some reason ran into a pole right off Fairmount Avenue, and now we have a fiber cut,” Nafshi said. “You’ll be amazed at how many times that happens during the day.”

The AI ​​they developed can pinpoint the location of the fiber cut and the distance to a facility, and provide a customer with an ETA of when they can potentially expect a fix. It slashed the average time from two hours to a minute and a half, the company said in its release.

Nafshi also underscored the massive shift in network usage that occurred with the onset of the pandemic: “We needed to transform our smart network into a brilliant network,” he said. “No one ever foresaw a scenario where we all go home, jump on video communications, and don’t leave for two years.”

In response, the company rolled out in 2020 octave, a cloud-based AI platform that checks tens of millions of modems on Comcast’s network for technical issues. It is an example of a distributed access architecture that eliminates inefficiencies and allows the company to scale its hardware to speeds similar to software.

When Xfinity expands its service into a new area, there is a lot of physical infrastructure involved. The company needs to set up its fibers and nodes in new neighborhoods and sometimes set up a new headend. But hardware evolution will bring some sustainability and energy savings, Nafshi said, as they’re able to do more with less material. It explains why the newer side of the headend I inspected was much sparser and why headends are likely to be smaller in the near future.

Physical infrastructure and fibers. (Photo by Paige Gross)

On the 15-minute drive home from my tour last Thursday, I stared at the phone lines for most of the drive. I now know that I can see, hear and feel the Internet and that the digital and physical infrastructure that powers one of the country’s largest ISPs is a colourful, massive, ever-changing system.


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