5G specter still hangs over cable

Although the telco rollout of 5G service throughout the US has not had much impact on cable broadband service just yet, it still poses a serious threat in the future, according to a group of cable and mobile tech experts.

Speaking on a Light Reading-hosted panel at last week's virtual SCTE Cable-Tec Expo show, the six technologists generally agreed that telco 5G deployments have so far made little, if any, dent in the cable industry's broadband supremacy. They noted that cable operators continue to rake in broadband subscribers and revenues at a healthy clip despite the widespread availability of 5G service.

Keep eye on rural and exurban areas

But several panelists argued that this situation could easily change if AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Dish Network and other telcos decide to start offering 5G service that truly competes with cable broadband service on speed, price and other features. They especially see the potential for telco 5G offerings to make inroads on cable in unserved and underserved rural and exurban areas.

"Keep an eye on suburban and rural areas, areas on the fringe of the network," advised David Debrecht, vice president of wireless research and development at CableLabs. "That's where the threat is."

In particular, the technologists cited the threat that the widening rollout of 5G millimeter wave (mmWave) service could pose to cable broadband. They argued that mmWave seems likely to be the most competitive 5G service because of the fast transmission speeds the high-band frequency can support.

"If there's going to be a threat, it will be more at the mmWave level than some of the others," said Michael Bangert, a product line manager at Viavi Solutions. "mmWave is more of a threat from a broadband perspective."

Brad Ralph, vice president of professional services for InfoVista, heartily agreed. "I would keep an eye on the mmWave side," he said. Although the high-band technology is limited in range, he contended, it provides a great deal of bandwidth so it "can deliver blazing speeds."

New telco spectrum could change equation

Several panelists also contended that the recent federal auctions of fresh wireless spectrum for 5G service could help make the telco offerings much more competitive with cable broadband. Thanks to the FCC's CBRS and C-band auctions of midband spectrum, the telcos have now gained hundreds of GHz of new capacity to use for 5G services.

"It [the competitive situation] could change with the new spectrum," said market analyst and consultant Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. He especially highlighted the gobs of spectrum won in the recent C-band auction.

John Chapman, CTO of broadband technologies at Cisco Systems and a Cisco fellow, agreed that cable operators should take the 5G threat seriously. Between the huge amounts of spectrum that the telcos have acquired and the high speeds that mmWave technology enables, he argued, 5G could cut deeply into cable's broadband market share.

"We should fully expect new competition to come in." he said. "It used to be the DSL guys."

However, Chapman thinks that cable operators can fend off any competitive assault by continuing to upgrade their facilities at a steady pace. "Cable is in a fantastic position to compete with and beat 5G as long as it decides to invest in its plant, as long as it chooses to do so," he said.

Schurz exec not losing sleep over 5G

Not everyone on the panel, though, viewed 5G as a looming threat to cable. In fact, one outspoken cable tech executive dismissed 5G as "a marketing hoax" and made it clear that he loses no sleep at night worrying about its impact on his company's systems.

"We're not being impacted today by this [5G] in any of our five, soon-to-be six, markets," declared Tom Williams, CTO of Schurz Communications. "Am I shaking in my boots? Absolutely not."

Even if 5G does pose a big threat to the industry, several panelists argued that cable operators could turn things around by leveraging the technology for their own use. At Schurz, for example, Williams noted that he's using CBRS spectrum and 5G mmWave technology to offer fixed wireless access service in several markets despite the technical difficulties of making it work properly.

"Our customers love it," he said. "It's pretty solid and not going down when there's weather. We're having very solid reliability with it."

Could cable play neutral host?

Chapman floated the novel idea of cable operators acting as wholesalers or "neutral hosts," building the 5G networks themselves and then renting them out to the telcos and other providers. He proposed that MSOs like Comcast and Charter Communications do exactly that with the CBRS spectrum they have acquired, taking the opposite tack of the MVNO relationships they now have with Verizon.

"Wouldn't it be interesting to flip that [the MVNO situation] around and rent it out to Verizon?" he asked. "It would equalize the cash flow and reduce the investment each company would have to make," while also being "a fantastic source of new revenue for cable operators."

Chapman also proposed that cable operators look at using 5G technology themselves to bring broadband service to unserved and underserved regions. Rather than extending fiber lines to new areas, he said, operators could beam mmWave signals to a central location and then use HFC plant to serve the rest of their footprint.

"I look at mmWave as a fiber replacement opportunity," he said. "Rather than an access tool, it's a good aggregation tool."

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— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

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