CableLabs Peeks at Picocells

CableLabs has kicked off a technical project that will take a good gander at picocells and other small cell technologies that cable operators can use in tandem with their own wireless deployments or to help beef up their growing cellular backhaul businesses.

Industry sources familiar with the work say the CableLabs request for information (RFI) on the topic hit the street earlier this month, and that it seeks data on various cable options for providing cellular backhaul services, including picocells that can be strand-mounted to hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) networks that support 3G, Wi-Fi and 4G technologies connections. That work is also seeking info on Ethernet-to-coax and Ethernet-to-fiber architectures.

Where it will go next isn't exactly clear, but an industry source familiar with the RFI says MSOs are eager to "harmonize" a technical approach for those options. It's believed that Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Cox Communications Inc. were among the operators that initially pushed for project. As with other CableLabs projects of this nature, it could turn into a set of interface specifications for vendors. (See CableLabs Completes DPoE Specs and Docsis Gets Its EPON On.)

CableLabs declined comment, but there are several vendors that have developed or are developing, on their own or through partnerships, cable-ready, strand-mounted picocells that can be powered off the HFC plant. Some in that group include Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Ruckus Wireless Inc. , Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS), Motorola Mobility LLC and BelAir Networks Inc. , which introduced a Wi-Fi/Long Term Evolution (LTE) picocell designed for MSOs and wireless carriers. (See BelAir Picocell Teams LTE With Wi-Fi , Arris to Resell Ruckus Wi-Fi Gear and Cable-ized Picocells Give MSOs Spot at LTE Table.)

Although some MSOs have built their own Wi-Fi networks, a coordinated technical approach on picocells will help the industry beef up its cellular backhaul opportunities and its overall commercial services business, Heavy Reading Senior Analyst Alan Breznick says. (See Cable's $5B Biz Services Bonanza .)

"Cable's trying not just to catch up, but get ahead in this game," he says. Based on recent reported financial figures and expected growth trends, Breznick believes an MSO group made up of Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), Comcast, Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Cox could combine for a $300 million–to–$400 million run rate on cellular backhaul in 2011. Of that group, TW Cable alone did $78 million in cell backhaul in 2010, with $26 million coming in the fourth quarter.

And picocells that can combine Wi-Fi with licensed cellular have already gotten some high marks in cable's technical circle. At the CableLabs Summer Conference last August, BelAir's Wi-Fi/3G picocell was picked as the best new product idea that's likely to succeed. (See BelAir's Picocell Gets a Plug .)

"To be able to add the licensed spectrum to it is a real business opportunity," Comcast senior VP of Strategic Planning Mark Coblitz said at the time.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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