Nokia CTO Marcus Weldon says cable could win at wireless this time

Nokia's Espoo campus
Nokia campus in Espoo, Finland. Image: Nokia
Marcus Weldon

Comcast and Charter have made it known their intentions to become wireless service providers. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time cable companies have taken a shot at offering wireless. In 2007, Comcast, Cox and Time Warner Cable started a JV with Sprint called Pivot geared toward selling mobile. By 2008, all had jumped ship.

But Nokia CTO Marcus Weldon, who also serves as president of Bell Labs, sees reason to be more hopeful this time as cable again takes tentative steps into the wireless ecosystem. Following his keynote presentation during SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, FierceCable sat down with Weldon to discuss wireless architecture paradigms shifting in favor of cable and how that could help spawn service agreements that move beyond MVNO deals.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

FierceCable: Cable has tried before to get into wireless. What do you see that’s different this time?

Marcus Weldon: Yeah, what we’re seeing is architectural. So, independent of business model, if we just think about technology and architecture you can find clues about what will happen there. What we’re seeing is that wireless small cells and wireline nodes are moving to the same location in the network. So whether that node is a telco node or a cable node, and the cell is either a Wi-Fi access point or a licensed spectrum cell, they’re all moving to the same point in the network, about 100 to 200 meters away from the end user. When that happens, those who own fiber going to that location, who own power at that location, naturally are the best one to provide that set of services across different wireless and wired technologies. So we’re seeing increasingly the recognition that fiber-deep, power at the location, and that fact that all the technologies now require you to be about 100 to 200 meters away because propagation characteristics, mean that these things are naturally coming together.

So, to answer your question, I think cable, with its fiber-deep architecture and power, now has more of an advantage to enter the space than when it was trying to build a macro network, which essentially in no way resembled the cable network. Now you can think of it as future wireless resembles where the wired network is going. The two become common in terms of deployment strategy and then it just becomes a question of what spectrum do you use. Do you become a licensed spectrum owner, do you partner to get access to that licensed spectrum, or do you use unlicensed or shared spectrum as your primary strategy?

FierceCable: So the move toward small cell architecture gives cable an advantage this time around?

Weldon: Advantage in the sense of its architectural commonality. It doesn’t mean that they’ll be better at it than the telco segment but it means they are now legitimately deploying an architecture that can be turned into a wireless architecture, as opposed to trying to overbuild themselves with a whole wireless macro layer.

Now fiber nodes, cable and small cells will become one in the same location, which means one field force, one backhaul, one powering. Then the question becomes, do they actually become one node? At Bell Labs, we’re actually working on a way to put them in one node but that’s sort of the last step in that process, where it’s in one box. It’s now possible to put them in one box but we’re talking three to five years out. Why would you put them in one box? Why would you even own both technologies? Well, a thing that’s becoming popular is the idea of hybrid access.

Hybrid access basically says, even if I have a wire going into your home, maybe with some of the emerging wireless technologies in 5G, there’s a lot of capacity on the wireless side I can use to augment your wire. So maybe you do want a gigabit per second periodically and maybe I don’t have it available in the cable, but maybe I can use wireless to augment that.

The other degree of hybrid is, when you leave home, you don’t have a cable at all. So can I have seamless service delivery by having a wireless layer outside the home, so I can offer you a continuous experience, not one that’s disjointed when I have to hand you off to someone else’s network with much lower capacity.

FierceCable: With the wireless playing field now more level, what could that mean for network infrastructure investment as a whole?

Weldon: It does provide more options, doesn’t it? Because it means the telco and cable architecture are both compatible with future wireless. So now whoever you are, you have the option of working with a partner who can help you deploy highly distributed nodes and cells, whereas before you had no such option but to build it yourself. I think it’s an interesting time where those you own fiber, power and locations, they’ll be more people who can deploy wireless architectures that will give rise to more alliances that won’t be just MVNO-type alliances. They might resemble tower sharing. Now those could be fiber-deep sharing architectures where perhaps someone is deploying a small cell for you.

You can even look in the telco space in rural areas, often the rural provider deployed the radio piece and the national carrier deployed the core. So you could imagine a model like that where there’s much more cooperation between those trying to deploy next-gen architecture because they all have something to bring to the table.

FierceCable: So the MVNO agreements that both Comcast and Charter are exercising with Verizon could at some point be mutually beneficial?

Weldon: I think so. Once you go to fiber-deep architecture in cable, you start having an asset you can deploy small cells on, which is more of an MNO than an MVNO. It’s an MNO incorporation with the cellular provider who needs access to those locations and may not have all the fiber-deep architecture that they would like to have.

You’ve got fiber going to every base station now, but base stations are a kilometer away on average and sometimes tens of kilometers away from end users. So if you’ve got someone else who has fiber going deeper than that, then it starts becoming quite attractive as a place to deploy a radio. Then if you can work out a business model where you both benefit, then I think you’ll start seeing those agreements coming into play where you’re not an MVNO in the way we do it today where you take an API into an HSS, basically subscriber management interface. Now you’re really doing something much deeper in the network together, which helps everyone.