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Charter 'Looking at All Angles' for Licensed Spectrum, CEO Says

Charter Communications continues to weigh opportunities to bid when spectrum becomes available in the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) and C-Band frequencies, but isn't ready to say if it will indeed pull the trigger.

"It's unknown to us exactly what we're going to do, but we're looking at all angles," Tom Rutledge, Charter's chairman and CEO, said on Monday at the UBS Global TMT Conference in New York.

Charter has been conducting CBRS trials, exploring both mobile and fixed wireless use cases, and is "encouraged" by what the operator has seen so far using an unlicensed part of the shared band, Rutledge said. But the MSO isn't ready to commit to bidding in an auction for licensed portions of the CBRS band that's expected to get under way next year.

"We don't need to own anything," Rutledge said. "The question is, can you use additional radios smartly to reduce your costs by moving traffic onto your own network?"

He believes Charter can do that, but noted that there's significant CBRS capacity available at no cost, and that licensed-based opportunities could come in a more targeted fashion as the operator continues to study locations where traffic is the densest. Rutledge also pointed out that C-Band capacity will come up for auction as well, opening up other opportunities.

Despite Rutledge's coyness on the subject, several industry analysts believe Charter, as well as Comcast, will participate in the CBRS auction to help them improve the economics of their mobile and wireless products that today lean heavily on MVNO deals with Verizon.

Rutledge also was non-committal about whether Charter would pursue an additional MVNO deal to help in that area.

"It's not exclusive," he said of Charter's MVNO with Verizon. "We have the right to consider others … We'll do those things that are smart for us in terms of getting our rent costs where they need to be, but our relationship is good with Verizon."

In Q3, Charter added 276,000 mobile lines, up from 208,000 adds in the year-ago quarter, extending its total to 794,000.

"It's doing what we hoped it would do," Rutledge said of Spectrum Mobile, which the MSO is using to drive and retain broadband subs. "I expect that part of the business to accelerate."

Video no longer Charter's 'main business'
Like its mobile product, Charter's video service is being woven into what's become the company's core business -- broadband and "connectivity."

"I grew up selling TV … but it isn't really what our main business is," Rutledge said. "It's not the main, be-all and end-all of the business. In fact, it's not the primary motivation."

As is the case with other US cable operators, Charter's pay-TV business is shrinking -- it lost 77,000 subs in Q3, lowering its total to 15.72 million.

Rutledge said the high price on the pay-TV bundle, along with the effects of password sharing, will continue to put pressure on Charter's video business. But he doesn't believe that the new direct-to-consumer, OTT-delivered subscription VoD services are big pay-TV cord-cutting drivers, as those services generally don't offer broadcast TV or much in the way of live sports.

"There are lots of reasons why those products won't satisfy the full need for television," the exec said.

Rutledge said talks continue with Comcast about how Charter might develop a version of Xfinity Flex, Comcast's video streaming and smart home offering for broadband-only subscribers that runs on its cloud-based X1 platform.

"We're interested in the concept," Rutledge said, noting that Charter is curious about offering a connected device that would feature a "store" that would enable broadband customers to easily upgrade to various video products. "We're looking at the whole range of opportunities," he said. "Flex is one approach to that."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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