Cogeco tests one-box small cells for mobile over cable

Seeking to smooth the path for entering the wireless market, Cogeco Communications is teaming with several vendors on a one-box small cell solution for LTE deployments over cable's hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) networks.

Cogeco, one of Canada's largest cable providers with close to 1 million pay-TV customers and more than 1.2 million broadband subs spread across Ontario, Quebec and the US East Coast, has been putting the one-box solution through its paces in five Quebec cities over the past four months. Combining the power source and radio transmission in one compact unit, the box contains an LTE small cell operating in the 3.5GHz band, an industrial-hardened DOCSIS 3.1 modem and a surge-protected power supply for the devices.

The Quebec field trials are expected to run another six to eight months, sources say. In an email response to questions, a Cogeco spokesperson said the company may also conduct other trials "in the near future." No plans for commercial deployments have been announced yet.

The trials are part of Cogeco's preparations for entering the Canadian wireless market with a fixed wireless access service. Although no timetable has been announced yet, the cableco has submitted a Hybrid Mobile Network Operator (HMNO) framework for such a service to the CRTC, which regulates the Canadian telecom, cable and media industries.

"Fixed wireless access is complementary to our broadband network," the Cogeco spokesperson said. "We are contemplating using FWA as a complementary technology to expand our Internet coverage to serve additional populations."

Besides fostering Cogeco's wireless ambitions, what makes this small cell trial noteworthy is that it's focused on a one-box solution for mobile service over cable's HFC lines. In the past, small cell deployments over HFC have relied on separate units for radio waves and power supply.

"It's the first cable operator we've done in a one-box solution," said David Atman, president of Lindsay Broadband, one of the two main vendors participating in the trial along with Accelleran. "We've done many with two boxes." He noted that the one-box solution offers the advantages of using less space and speeding deployment.

The multivendor LTE trial is also significant because it's making use of the new 3.5GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum band. Wireless carriers plan to use this band to offer 5G service in both the US and Canada once that spectrum becomes available. As in the US, the Canadian government's plans to auction off that spectrum have been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's going to be a lot of fun over the next few years with CBRS and 5G," Atman said. "We can do the same things with 5G all day long."

Finally, the Cogeco trial is noteworthy because it's leveraging cable's DOCSIS 3.1 technology for backhaul transmission over HFC lines. The cable industry has ambitious plans to use its current DOCSIS 3.1 protocols, and emerging DOCSIS 4.0 protocols, to backhaul 5G signals over its hybrid networks, rather than rival all-fiber lines.

"The single-box solution, which supports both DOCSIS and LTE technologies within the same box, can easily be mounted on our HFC plant by our technicians," the Cogeco spokesperson said. "This is a key benefit, meaning multiple units can be deployed by a technician crew within the same day."

But the single-box solution still presents hurdles as well.

"As with any new deployment, there are always operational and technological challenges," the Cogeco spokesperson noted. "The key for us is to automate, as much as possible, all the processes around the installation and operations of small cells."

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

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