New thoughts on cable in wireless

It’s been a while! I haven’t touched this blog since Tim Farrar wrote of rumors that Dish, T-Mobile, and Amazon would be creating some sort of partnership. It turns out that after more than two years, we have finally found there was some truth to those rumors. Though maybe not with Amazon involved. The State AG anti-trust lawsuit to block the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint has dragged out much more interesting insights into these negotiations than initially expected.

All this chatter about the merger trial and what executives of T-Mobile, Sprint, and Dish have been texting each other has placed discussion of CBRS and cable in wireless on the wayside. Charter continues to experiment with CBRS and mmWave networks with the intent to offload traffic from its MVNO with Verizon. Altice has entered the market using the Sprint network and offering highly competitive rates that undercut even some of Sprint’s own offerings. Comcast recently unveiled their “next generation” Xfinity Mobile plans which encourage pay-per-GB pricing and are now subject to network congestion management. A sign that Comcast has renegotiated their deal with Verizon (or simply that new terms of the deal are now in effect based on customer thresholds).

In this big cable/wireless sideshow, the most progressive entrant is actually the smallest. Altice’s partnership with Sprint might offer great pricing but it also reveals a blueprint of where cable operators might go wireless-wise in the future. Altice has lent its regional HFC networks to Sprint to use as backhaul for tens of thousands of strand-mounted small cells. Sprint, in exchange, has given Altice a sweetheart MVNO deal that allows them to offer incredible pricing. A mutual exchange of one network for another is a more friendly path than the one Charter and Comcast are taking with Verizon. However, the idea of using an existing cable network to create a cellular network is a very interesting one. Charter has been testing a similar strategy in CBRS spectrum. The difference is they’ll be running the CBRS network and pulling devices off of Verizon and onto their own service rather than letting Verizon install strand-mount small cells on their cable lines.

Looking beyond small cells, things get even more interesting. Creating offload networks to complement MVNO agreements could be Charter and Comcast’s strategy to ease reliance on their wireline competition’s wireless network. Comcast holds licenses in the 600 MHz band including in major markets where Charter is the main cable operator. The two cable operators, known to work together, have agreed on a short-term de facto transfer lease on Comcast’s 600 MHz A block license in the New York City PEA. A lease of this kind means Charter is testing hardware for the band in this market. Considering the propagation characteristics of 600 MHz, Charter would likely be testing hardware for a macro network and not just small cells. This makes clear Charter’s intent to build a full cellular network where possible. It also brings up the possibility of both Charter and Comcast partnering on such a network since this license covers cable territory for both operators. To say they will dump their MVNO agreements with Verizon and start furiously building out LTE or 5G across the nation is very premature but – long-term – if they intend to head further into facilities-based wireless, a nationwide build is the endgame.

Suffice it to say the wireless industry is about to get even more interesting in the next few years. T-Mobile/Sprint merger or no.

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