5G mobile is a big technology with a big challenge. In order to fulfill its promise of multi-Gigabit mobile broadband service, 5G requires an extensive backhaul delivery network and widespread distribution of small cell devices.
Enter the cable industry. Most cable multiple system operators (MSOs) in the US already are in the business of providing backhaul service for mobile carriers' cell towers. In addition, MSOs possess the plant and operations to distribute small cells to meet residential and business needs. Charter Communications, for example, says it connects more than 26,000 cell towers and is using test licenses to trial 5G small cells.
A new Heavy Reading report, "Cable's 5G Backhaul & Small Cell Prospects and Challenges," identifies emerging service opportunities for cable providers, including:
- Contracting with mobile network operators to provide 5G cell tower transport services and small cell support
- Offering small cell as a service to business customers
- Contracting with enterprises to support customized transport needs, such as massive machine type communications (MTC), video distribution and enhanced mobile broadband applications
- Using cable's network of fiber, coax, DOCSIS 3.1 and WiFi to support mobile densification
- Using 5G transport to support cable's own video, broadband and emerging mobile services
However, the report says, cable's 5G transport prospects are muddied because 5G's roadmap is unclear. 5G is a technology in flux, complicated by pre-5G technologies, such as LTE Advanced Pro, stringent technical requirements, conflicting timelines and fiber infrastructure investment requirements that Deloitte estimates at $130 billion to $150 billion. Most cable providers won't disclose how many cell towers they serve and tower owners reportedly exaggerate the number of towers they own.
Adding to the conundrum, fiber may be the transport of choice for backhaul, but cable's hybrid fiber coax (HFC) plant is better suited to power small cells. Cable's potential usage of HFC-based DOCSIS 3.1 for backhaul raises a debate over whether it can meet 5G's tight latency requirements. Cable WiFi hotspots, microwave, Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum and other technologies could play a role in mobile transport, but they need to be proven, the report says.
Cable providers could face stiffer backhaul competition from Verizon, tower owner Crown Castle and others that are expanding their fiber transport networks, or companies like Sprint that plan massive multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antenna systems, Heavy Reading notes. The Federal Communications Commission is seeking to ease the burden of local permitting requirements, but plans for new cell towers are rekindling unfounded concerns about public health.
Still, experts say there will be plenty of 5G transport needs to go around. The end game is to create a high-capacity mobile fronthaul, backhaul and local access network that can dynamically manage increasing traffic demands and seamlessly handle new applications. The current "dumb pipe" of mobile backhaul needs to be upgraded to support massive communications by individual enterprises and complex local access requirements at the network edge. The report identifies 12 technology suppliers that are supporting US cable provider's efforts.
Cable providers will need a flexible game plan that can accommodate the shifting market forces. They must upgrade their backhaul capabilities and find the best ways to use small cells to meet customer demands for reliable quality of service. Cable providers want to get ready for 5G. Is 5G ready for them?
— Craig Leddy, Contributing Analyst, Heavy Reading