Cablecos of all sizes look to CBRS to ease the path to 5G

One of the groups of US operators which is likely to leverage licensed and unlicensed CBRS spectrum most aggressively, is that of the cable operators. The largest ones, Comcast and Charter, have been working together to develop a mobile network and services platform with a path to 5G and both have activated MVNO agreements with Verizon in the past year to launch commercial mobile services.

However, they have been working on their wireless strategies for far longer than that, juggling a variety of connectivity and spectrum options with a view to creating a cost-effective balance of cellular and WiFi, licensed and unlicensed, all backhauled wherever possible by their own cables. This is the approach which put Free Mobile, subsidiary of cableco Iliad, in such a disruptive position when it launched in France. It delivers a far lower cost base – backhaul already implemented, and when in-home, paid for by the user; much of the heaviest traffic pushed, through WiFi-first deals, onto unlicensed spectrum or, in future, unlicensed cellular.

The US cablecos have invested heavily in a huge network of WiFi hotspots and homespots, and granted one another roaming rights to create a near-national footprint. In addition to the MVNO deals, Comcast, Charter and Altice are all giving CBRS a central role in extending their own control of their cellular connectivity, and may acquire 5G spectrum too. They all seem to be working towards deployment of home or enterprise small cells in shared spectrum, often with their own virtualized core and and edge compute node, to support a sub-net entirely managed and monetized by the cable operator. The only reliance on the MNO’s network, and therefore the only requirement to pay MVNO fees, comes when users move off those localized residential or industrial systems onto the wide area network.

Charter provided an update about its plans on its most recent Q1 earnings call. CEO Tom Rutledge said the firm was looking at various spectrum options and dual-SIM devices to extend its own, rather than the MVNO-based, mobile coverage. Dual-SIM technology will allow the company to support its own network and an MVNO system on the same device to enable the sub-net approach. Charter has also talked before about the value of embedded SIM (eSIM) technology for IoT services.

“We’re currently testing the possibility to broaden the mobile capabilities of our network using a combination of dual-SIM technology with unlicensed and potentially licensed spectrum deployed in home, in business, on strand and across our 51m passings,” he said.

Charter launched its Spectrum Mobile product in July 2018, harnessing the Verizon network plus about 500,000 WiFi hotspots and homespots deployed by Charter or its partners. Now it is running trials in CBRS as well as further expanding its WiFi capabilities and footprint to be able to increase the traffic it handles in free spectrum.

In Q119, Charter said it added 176,000 new lines to Spectrum Mobile, bringing its mobile customer total to 310,000 lines. Mobile revenue totaled $140m during the quarter, which Rutledge said was “ramping nicely” and “promising”.

Among the objectives of launching the mobile service are to increase customer retention by tying the into multiplay bundles; to attract new customers at a time when voice and video sign-ups are in decline; and to help the company expand its enterprise and IoT offerings. Once it reaches scale, the service will be profitable in its own right, Charter has promised, though CTO Chris Winfrey said this would be “probably not a 2019 event”.

The fourth cableco, Altice USA, is planning its own mobile launch this summer, using a ‘heavy MVNO’ deal with Sprint. Speakin on the recent Q1 earnings call, CEO Dexter Goei said the company was not planning to bid for licensed spectrum, even in the upcoming CBRS auctions (though it is testing in unlicensed CBRS). “We’ll continue to look at spectrum alternatives, but where we’re truly focused on right now is launching our mobile products this summer,” he said.

It has completed much of the deployment to support that launch, including the core network and about 19,000 AirStrand small cells from Airspan. These are being rolled out as part of its agreement with Sprint – the largest user of AirStrand, a strand-mounted design which can harness cable infrastructure for backhaul. The rapid roll-out of such large numbers of cells show the advantage the cablecos have once they leverage their existing fibers and city sites, avoiding much of the red tape and negotiation with site owners that slows down most outdoor densification initiatives, including some of Sprint’s own.

Altice has now entered the phase of heavy testing for its MVNO offering, said Goei, who added: “We have major mobile handset partnerships in place and have developed our IT platforms for digital-first experience.” The identities of the handset vendors, along with any pricing information for the planned services, were not revealed.

“Our core network infrastructure is ready to go, giving us full access control over the customer experience and allows us to better manage traffic,” he said. The decision to opt for a heavy MVNO deal, which involves Altice having its own core and even some of its own RAN, gives the firm far greater control – it is in charge of SIM provisioning, roaming, partnerships, Internet access, messaging, charging, customer care and billing.

“The infrastructure-based MVNO allows us to have better control of the economics, not only in terms of our price points with our agreement with Sprint, but also in terms of the managing of the traffic,” Goei added.

This also gives the cableco greater flexibility to launch differentiated services – for instance, to deploy small cells to improve indoor coverage or to add capacity for a certain user base. This can also improve costs by keeping some traffic on its own network, reducing MVNO fees.

Goei said: “Recall we have a full infrastructure-based MVNO, which has attractive economics and flexibility features for us. We have a dedicated and experienced mobile management team which will lead the development, launch and ongoing mobile strategy. In terms of network development, the densification of Sprint’s network, which we’re helping with our AirStrand deployment, is comfortably ahead of schedule as are the upgrades to and expansion of our WiFi network. We are also testing CBRS spectrum with equipment in a 3.5 GHz band as this may be good complementary capacity for us.”

And Sprint gains too, because it has a densification partner with valuable enabling assets for city small cells, allowing it to steal a march on rivals in small cells while adopting a co-investment approach that is more modern and creative than a traditional one-way MVNO.

The biggest cablecos – Comcast, Charter, Cox and Altice – are not the only ones looking to CBRS to extend their business model into mobile broadband, quad play and private enterprise networks. The USA’s fifth cableco, Mediacom Communications, which has 2.7m customers across the Midwest and Southeast, is running tests in the CBRS band in Chester, New York, with equipment from Samsung.

And mid-tier cableco, Midco, plans to deploy fixed wireless access (FWA) services in CBRS spectrum to extend its wireline coverage area and has carried out tests with the most commercially advanced of the SAS administrators, Federated Wireless, and equipment maker Telrad.

Midco CTO Jonathan Pederson said it could use the combination of technologies to extend its current coverage area by about 30 miles in each direction, to reach about 100,000 new POPs, which he hoped would lead to adding about 20,000 to its base of 400,000 cable customers, in areas of South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Wisconsin. The firm will also target IoT applications, especially in agriculture, in its rural territories. It plans to use rural infrastructure such as water towers to site wireless backhaul antennas, operating in 11 GHz and reaching about 23 miles to support the 3.5 GHz base stations.