5G Opportunity Still Outweighs the Threat to Cable Ops

Jeff Baumgartner
5/13/2019
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DENVER -- Big 5G Event -- Cable operators must remain wary of the threat posed by 5G-powered home broadband services, but the 5G era also represents significant business opportunities for MSOs because they can provide key backhaul and fronthaul capabilities for these new networks.

That was the general consensus here last week during a panel that explored how 5G stacks up as both a friend and foe to the cable industry during these still early days of 5G network deployments and service launches.

A major challenge faced by 5G network operators and service providers will be ensuring that the underlying fiber and wireline networks allow the radios to be close enough to the customer for those wireless signals to be effective, explained Chris Bastian, senior vice president and chief technology officer at SCTE-ISBE. "That's the opportunity for cable," he said.

That opportunity, Bastian said, is still greater than the threat that 5G represents as a potential in-home broadband alternative. He also pointed out that millimeter wave spectrum, which is being used early on for 5G-based in-home broadband service, has restricted range, still requires clear line-of-sight, and is, therefore, still limited as an effective, wide-scale competitive option, at least at these early stages.

Michael Calabrese, director, wireless future program, Open Technology Institute, New America, argued that too much reliance on millimeter wave technology will become an expensive proposition for companies such as Verizon, which is using mmWave to power its new 5G Home service.

He also believes that the use of mmWave as a home broadband alternative will be hard-pressed to keep up with rising consumer data demands, noting that the average monthly data consumption among cable homes is now more than 250 gigabytes per month. That rate climbs to 400GB among Charter Communications broadband subs who don't take the MSO's pay-TV package and fulfill their video needs using OTT-based options.

Starry, the startup that is using millimeter wave spectrum to deliver symmetrical 100Mbit/s services to apartment building dwellers, might disagree. Here last week, Starry CTO Alex Moulle-Berteaux noted that the average Starry sub consumes about 350GB of data per month, and that the vast majority of the company's subs rely on OTT services for video.

Still, Jim McKenna, president of Redzone Wireless, believes that it will be difficult for service providers to create scale using millimeter wave frequencies and platforms that require truck rolls and professional installations.

But McKenna still views fixed wireless as a substantial alternative to cable broadband. For its part, Redzone uses licensed spectrum in the 2.5GHz band to deliver fixed wireless broadband services (with unlimited data usage) to residential and business customers in Maine, where it competes with operators such as Charter Communications.

McKenna said Redzone has had the most success in markets served by cable operators, pointing out that 90% of the customers that come Redzone's way each month are former cable customers seeking an alternative. "Clearly we are taking some market share," he said.

Though cable operators have focused their wireless and mobile efforts on WiFi and various MVNO deals, the cable industry "is serious about ramping up their wireless offerings," Calabrese said. On that point, he referenced the cable industry's interest in freeing up more unlicensed capacity for WiFi, its "very active" involvement with CBRS (Citizens Band Radio Service) trials, and its avid interest in mid-band licensed spectrum that could become available in the C-Band, which is being used today by satellite companies to transmit video to various TV distributors.

Sanjay Patel, principal strategist at CableLabs, said CBRS could help to underpin 5G services for cable operators and improve their financial footing for developing and deploying new mobile and wireless services. "They want to move to owner economics, and CBRS is something that would allow that," Patel said.

In the meantime, the CBRS ecosystem -- from the network down to customer-side devices -- continues to develop as cable operators weigh their plans. Though some smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S10, support the CBRS band (Band 48), it could be another year or two before we see "widespread" use of CBRS at the customer device level, Steve Linke, VP of global business development at Inseego, predicted.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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