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30 July 2020

Cogeco whips out fixed wireless tests in Canadian cable-reach creep

Canadian cableco Cogeco has unveiled a new fixed wireless access (FWA) trial in Quebec, using the 3.5Ghz CBRS band. Using an Accelleran LTE small cell, and supporting equipment from Lindsay Broadband, Cogeco is obviously interested in using FWA to reach beyond its cable footprint.

On the one hand, FWA technologies could allow a cableco to quickly expand beyond the constraints of its cable infrastructure. Having to dig trenches, deploy loops, and then sort out all the interconnects between the homes and the street furniture is quite an undertaking. FWA could allow you to quickly reach new customer homes, with only a handful of LTE small cells and an antenna for the home.

The flip side of this is that while installing the cable infrastructure is burdensome, it remains an incredibly valuable asset because it is private and free from interference. You can guarantee that no other businesses are going to congest your network, because you have sole control over it – until a contractor with an excavator cuts through one of the ducts, at least.

A looming problem for FWA is, as you will have inferred, is the threat of congestion and interference. It’s not going to be a problem in the short term, but once you’re reliant on unlicensed spectrum, there is always going to be a risk that third parties are going to ruin your party.

For instance, we have not seen how overlapping FWA networks interfere with each other in the field, nor do we have any real-world examples of perfect coexistence between the FWA deployments, the local LTE networks, and the incumbent RF environment.

If FWA scales, and if LTE continues its creep higher up the RF spectrum table, then what looked like a great CBRS decision now could become quite the headache down the line. There’s also no reason to think that those with deep pockets won’t try to buy rivals out of the spectrum, or lobby to prevent rivals and newcomers from using the resource.

This remains the primary benefit of a private fixed-line network, and it is one of the main things propping up the valuations of many struggling cablecos. Unfortunately, if these cablecos want to expand into areas outside their footprints, they are not going to be able to leverage their own networks for the backhaul services.

Depending on the cost of local networking services, some cablecos might find it is cheaper to backhaul over someone else’s fixed-line network, rather than build and maintain a new cable deployment. Some might find through their cost analysis, that they could build backhaul to just the necessary small cells, instead of passing an entire neighborhood. One of the biggest pains of passing homes is that many of these households are never going to sign up – effectively wasting the investment.

However, Cogeco is explicitly trialing a system that does use its coaxial networks as backhaul – networks that serve some 1.8 million customers. This means that it is limiting its FWA reach to properties within range of its existing cable footprint, and it is far from clear what the effective range of these technologies are yet.

Cogeco is also somewhat constrained by the different rules for the spectrum in Canada and the US. Under the FCC, 3.5GHz will incorporate dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), which is still a controversial topic, given the prevailing doubts that the firms that win the spectrum auctions will play nicely under the DSS caveats.

In Canada’s regime, defined by the Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) agency, you can get exclusive licenses for the bands, and to this end, they can be viewed as essentially LTE services. Given the current use of small cells, which as micro base stations, don’t have much in the way of range, it seems that Cogeco is still basically looking to service homes within its footprint.

That could change, down the line, but for now the equipment is being mounted along Cogeco’s aerial cable plant, which runs along utility poles. Most cablecos use underground trenching, but if you think running network cabling across utility poles is going to be much less of a headache, you are in for a surprise.

In the Cogeco trial, the spectrum being used was secured when Cogeco bought iTéract – an ISP that served Quebec using FWA and fiber, which owned some 15 licenses in the 3.5GHz band, and five wireless broadband service (WBS) licenses for Southern Quebec.

In a comment, Cogeco explained that “iTéract’s acquisition reinforces Cogeco’s intention to enter the wireless market. Moreover, iTéract’s network, spectrum licenses and expertise are complementary assets in our strategy to extend our regional and rural internet coverage. The trial with Lindsay Broadband has been deployed in the context of a multi-vendor field trial and is a way for Cogeco to test new innovative ways of delivering wireless solutions.”

Back in April, we took a look at Siklu’s ‘fixed 5G mmWave’ proposition, which was targeting ISPs constrained by DSL lines, with a FWA offering that could be used to increase broadband speeds by an order of magnitude. The common thread between the two is that wireless options appear to be an easier way to deploy new services, but both are reliant on the cellular community to not screw things up down the line – something we have little confidence in.