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Charter CFO: The 5G threat to wired home broadband has 'subsided'

The debate about whether 5G represents a viable alternative to fixed wireline broadband won't end anytime soon, but Charter Communications isn't overly worried about 5G becoming a major competitor.

"I think the 5G threat has subsided," Charter CFO Chris Winfrey, said Wednesday at the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Communications Conference, an event held online, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Charter is interested in 5G mobile services – it recently added 5G service to the Spectrum Mobile product it delivers via its MVNO with Verizon – and does see 5G playing an important role in other areas.

"I think there will be applications for 5G, whether it's for the enterprise space ... We'd like to take part in that," he said. "As a standard or replacement to a quality fixed wireline product with Wi-Fi attached to, it is difficult to match."

Several service providers that lean on wireless and emerging 5G-based technologies to deliver home broadband, such as Starry, Verizon, Common Networks, T-Mobile and even Charter's MVNO partner, Verizon, would no doubt disagree with that assessment.

But Charter has good reason to feel confident. It and other cable operators continue to dominate US residential broadband. In a first quarter that saw a spike in broadband subscribers and network traffic during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the top US cable operators added about 1.23 million subs, the most they added collectively in any period since the first quarter of 2007, according to Leichtman Research Group. By comparison, the top US telcos lost 65,000 subs in Q1 2020.

Charter is also starting to position itself to help with cellular data offload with small cells that connect to its widely deployed cable network.

The Verizon MVNO gives Spectrum Mobile national coverage (though about 80% of Spectrum Mobile traffic goes over Wi-Fi, per Charter's estimates). Still, there are areas within the cable operator's footprint with a lot of LTE traffic today that could be offloaded to Charter-operated small cells.

Charter, Winfrey said, is taking a build-versus-lease approach to how it weighs whether the company can achieve a better return on investment by building out small cells that can offload that traffic or continue to lease access on the cellular network.

"We'll be very disciplined around how we build out any small cell infrastructure similar to what we would do with Wi-Fi outside the home," he said.

Meanwhile, Charter has also been conducting wireless tests in various bands, including the 3.5GHz CBRS band, millimeter-wave bands as well in the C-Band to see how both fixed and mobile applications perform. In the case of CBRS, Charter has already been testing it for mobile as well as a fixed option to deliver a bundle of services to areas that are not reached by its wired network.

And the result of those tests, particularly those centered on CBRS, will play a major role in determining how Charter will apply wireless technologies in the future.

"We're pretty confident as we start to deploy CBRS, for licensed or unlicensed spectrum, it will work the way we think it does because we've done it already," Winfrey said.

Charter also remains a big proponent of Wi-Fi and will be looking to use that technology to help it pursue network convergence strategies and new services via Wi-Fi as spectrum in the 6GHz band opens up for unlicensed use.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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