Comcast, Charter and cable’s uncertain wireless future

Ben Munson

PHILADELPHIA – “Wireless is in our future,” said Liberty Global CTO Balan Nair during a Tuesday morning keynote panel at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo.

Easy for him to say. Liberty Global already counts 12 million wireless subscribers.

But for U.S. MSOs, the crystal ball shows a cloudier wireless future. Comcast only now has a timeframe for its long-gestating wireless ambitions, with the middle of 2017 circled on the calendar. Charter has also signaled its intent to move into the wireless space, but has yet to set a date. Both companies will be relying on a years-old MVNO agreement with Verizon in order to achieve the ubiquitous coverage needed for a viable wireless offering.

Still, with continually expanding Wi-Fi footprints and enough backhaul to choke a horse, Comcast and Charter could finally succeed where past cable efforts to break into wireless failed. And there’s good reason to be excited about that opportunity.

As Shaw CTO Zoran Stakic put it, since his company was able to acquire Wind Mobile in Canada, he’s been in disbelief at how powerful a combination it is once a company can offer broadband, Wi-Fi and LTE.

“I think we’ll be able to deliver solutions for our customers that we didn’t think were possible a few years ago,” said Stakic.

And Nair offered a glowing review of the full MVNO deals that Liberty Global has been able to do, which have given the MSO the flexibility to control its own SIM and switch wholesalers should the need arise because of price changes.

But perhaps the most hopeful sign for cable operators looking toward wireless is that, as wireless network architecture is shifting away from the macro tower paradigm and toward smaller, denser infrastructure schemes, telco and cable nodes are getting closer and closer to one another in the network.

That’s according to Nokia CTO Marcus Weldon.

“We’re seeing that wireless small cells and wireline nodes are moving to the same location in the network,” said Weldon, adding that telco and cable nodes, Wi-Fi access points and licensed spectrum cell are all moving to about 100 to 200 meters away from the end user.

“When that happens, those who own fiber going to that location, who own power going to that location, naturally are the best ones to provide that set of services across wireless and wired technologies,” said Weldon. “I think cable, with its fiber deep architecture and power, now has more of an advantage to enter the space than it did when it was trying to build a macro architecture, which essentially in no way resembled the cable architecture.”

With common deployment strategies for cable and wireless now in place, Weldon said it’s now a question of what spectrum to use. That could mean becoming a licensed spectrum owner or using unlicensed spectrum.

With the ongoing 600 MHz auction, licensed spectrum could be in the cards for cable MSOs like Comcast, which is an approved bidder in the proceedings. Meanwhile, unlicensed opportunities via LTE-U, LAA, LWA and MulteFire in 3.5 GHz, 5 GHz and millimeter wave bands about 20 GHz could all potentially give cable operators a chance at offering a similar experience to the current LTE networks deployed by major U.S. operators.

Of course, Wi-Fi networks are also progressing and gaining spectral efficiency as the industry moves toward 802.11ax. And as many have been careful to point out during Cable-Tec Expo in all the excitement around wireless, that none of the proposed LTE technologies available to cable are meant to be a replacement for trusty old Wi-Fi.

Options abound for cable companies seeking that wireless service piece that will help augment their video and broadband strategies as well as help them gain foothold in emerging markets like the Internet of Things. Now it’s up to the likes of Comcast and Charter to choose the right path to make sure another wireless flop doesn’t lie in cable’s future.--Ben