2018 Preview: Cable infiltration into U.S. wireless market will ramp up

MWC Mobile World Congress Americas 2017
Look for cable companies like Charter to play an even bigger role in shows like Mobile World Congress in 2017. (Mobile World Congress Americas)

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our 2018 Preview feature, which looks at the big topics facing the industry next year. Click here for the 2018 preview in wireless, click here for the 2018 preview in cable and video, and click here for the 2018 preview in the wireline industry.

In terms of converging with the U.S. wireless industry, cable had a pretty big year in 2017. 

Not only did Comcast launch its MVNO- and Wi-Fi-based service, Xfinity Mobile, but the product was a modest success, with Comcast reporting 200,000 customers in October, about six months after debut. 

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Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner called 200,000 a “rounding error” for top U.S. wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T. “But what’s interesting is that Comcast might be making a profit at this,” he added. 

Meanwhile, shortly after launching Xfinity Mobile last spring, Comcast announced a major partnership with Charter Communications, combining its wireless technologies, learnings, strategies—and any related deal talks—with another major MO that has a wireless network wholesale agreement with Verizon, Charter Communications.  

Their two top U.S. cable operators sell their mobile services in-footprint and only to customers of their wireline services. But together, however, they have an almost national reach. 

Also notable in 2017: Altice recently signed an MVNO agreement with Sprint, agreeing to a kind of network swap whereby Altice will use Sprint's wireless network in much the same way Comcast and Charter use Verizon's, while Sprint will use the cable operator's fiber-rich infrastructure to deploy 5G services. 

Look for U.S. cable operators to further expand their wireless presence in 2018. Charter is set to launch its much anticipated service in the summer, and Altice's MVNO-based service could hit the U.S. market next year, too. However, the mere launch of consumer-effacing businesses combining MVNO arrangements and Wi-Fi hotspots are only a part of the story when it comes to cable's infiltration into the U.S. wireless market. Both Comcast and Charter have a ton going on in terms of both wireless technology and B-to-B market development.

“Charter already is a wireless company,” said Charter SVP of Wireless Technology Craig Cowden during a September presentation at the Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in San Francisco in conjunction with the CBRS Alliance. Charter's top wireless executive explained that the cable operator’s network carries as much as 80% of wireless traffic in customers’ homes or offices. “Although we do not monetize that. We are not a mobility provider.

“So we’ll do that using an MVNO as an umbrella coverage layer, and then we’ll start using our Wi-Fi infrastructure to offload that MVNO,” Cowden added. “And then eventually, as licensed and unlicensed small cells develop, we would further introduce that small cell infrastructure to further offload, and other use cases that licensed small cells can provide.”

Comcast, meanwhile, will undoubtedly continue its aggressive push into the IoT market in 2018. In October, Comcast announced plans to partner with Semtech on a trial of LoRa technology in an effort to provide IoT services to businesses. The trials were set to launch in Philadelphia and San Francisco toward the end of 2017, focusing on uses such as utility metering, environmental monitoring and asset tracking.

“We believe the business-to-business segment of the Internet of Things market is going to expand rapidly over the next decade as businesses look to IoT-based technology to manage their businesses in a more effective and sophisticated manner,” said Sam Schwartz, chief business development officer for Comcast Cable, in a statement. “Technologies such as LoRa are setting the stage for the era of connected devices, and we think our network potentially has a role to play in connecting the millions of internet-enabled devices deployed within enterprises.”