Wireless companies see 5G fixed wireless as alternative to wired home broadband

NEW ORLEANS–On a January earnings call, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson characterized 5G as a viable replacement to fixed broadband, recalling how in the 1990s there was skepticism that wireless could serve as a substitution for fixed line voice. “I have little doubt that in the three to five year time horizon you’ll see substitution” of 5G for fixed line broadband. “This will play itself out that way.”

In February, T-Mobile US Chief Operating Officer Mike Sievert said initial home broadband pilots will use LTE but sees 5G as potentially a disruptive force in the home broadband segment. “In 2019 we are gonna begin piloting home broadband offers,” Sievert said. “They’re based on 4G LTE for some of this year; later it’ll move to 5G and it’s a pilot. You’re going to see us doing activity and it’s for a reason. We expect in New T-Mobile for this to be a substantial part of our growth story. We see the opportunity for millions of household. We intend to market home broadband service in 52% of U.S. zip codes.”

Verizon’s initial 5G go-to-market was based on a fixed wireless home broadband service, which the carrier is expecting to restart this year using NR-complaint equipment rather than CPEs based off of the in-house Verizon Technical Forum specification.

In May this year, Verizon’s Adam Koeppe, SVP for technology strategy and planning, said fixed wireless is “a huge growth engine for us overall. From a business perspective, 5G will have extensions through all the various ways we monetize our network assets.”

So, if you assume the Sprint/T-Mobile US merger goes through, that would be all three Tier 1 U.S. operators looking to leverage 5G investments to take on cable companies in the home broadband segment. So what does that mean for cable companies? Is 5G a friend or a foe?

That question trickled through conversations this week at the Cable-Tec Expo in New Orleans and was even the topic of a panel session where CommScope’s John Ulm, who joined the company via the ARRIS acquisition, dissected the potential upsides and downsides.

“5G as a foe…” he mused. “The potential is certainly there. But for them to offer it as a service, they’ve got to address where does the backhaul come from, how am I going to power it, what do the economics look like?”

But 5G as a friend? “It appears that HFC overlays fairly well with putting down a 5G small cell network.”

Indeed, this is a big part of Sprint’s network upgrade investments. Sprint has an MVNO arrangement with Altice that, to a certain degree, was predicated on Sprint’s ability to access Altice’s network footprint to add small cells for its own densification efforts. So to Ulm’s point, if a wireless operator needs to cost-effectively install a lot of small cells, it’d be prudent to find an arrangement wherein power, backhaul and sites are readily available.

So, “How do we map 5G wireless into an HFC cable plant? One of the assumptions we made is let’s assume that the 5G small cell is co-located with the HFC amp. We wanted to make sure we’re in a location where power came to it.” And, as fiber nodes begin to replace amps, power consumption goes down meaning there’d be more headroom to add more small cells without hitting a wall in terms of power availability.

“You’ve got to understand your plant, how much power is out there and where you have enough. Fiber nodes take much less power than the amplifiers. So when you go to a fiber-deep system…you cut your power almost in half,” Ulm said. “I think there’s real potential that 10G and 5G can become good friends over the long-haul.”


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