Cable television and broadband service providers around the world have historically found new ways to expand the suite of services that they deliver to their subscribers and increase their share of the consumer wallet. Mobile services are a logical consideration, and in the U.S., Comcast, Charter and Cox have all launched retail mobile service as mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) initiatives over the past several years. Traditionally, such ventures have relied on network infrastructure deployed over expensive, dedicated licensed spectrum owned and operated by AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. In the case of the U.S. cable operators, all three partner with Verizon.
However, things are quickly changing, especially with the democratization of access to licensed spectrum in the U.S. with Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and the OnGo general access and paid access license exchange. To this end, major cable operators have spent a combined $3 billion on CBRS 3.5-gigahertz mid-band and 600-megahertz low-band spectrum to seek new monetization opportunities through private and public cellular network deployments. This has led to an interesting scenario where cable companies can now leverage established local presence to help offload network traffic through small-cell deployments using newly purchased licensed spectrum assets.
In this article, I would like to share my insights into what is compelling about the unique approach that U.S. cable operator Charter is taking in offloading mobile traffic on the 5G CBRS network that it is building and how Nokia is helping it, and potentially others facilitate such offload.
Defining mobile offload
Mobile offload is, in essence, building a network within a network. When Apple introduced the first iPhone and partnered with AT&T for its U.S. launch over 16 years ago, Wi-Fi served as a needed offload to avoid taxing the AT&T network. Today, cable operators can do the same thing with newly acquired spectrum to improve network service quality for mobile subscribers and reduce the egress fees paid to mobile network operators under MVNO agreements.
This arrangement also creates tremendous added benefits for subscribers, including consistent, higher-availability connectivity experiences, as well as unencumbered access to enhanced mobile services that leverage 5G’s “superpowers” in the form of ultra-low latency, massive device support and lightning-fast throughput.
Nokia’s plug-and-play platform
Nokia has long held a leadership position in the radio access network (RAN) segment of the cellular infrastructure market, giving it ample opportunity to capitalize on mobile offload. The company’s Strand-Mount all-in-one small cells solution plays in this space and its economics appear compelling. Strand-Mount small cells have many advantages, including the ability to connect the hardware to existing and readily accessible coaxial network deployments from which they can be powered. Significant cost savings can also be achieved by avoiding the need to lease traditional tower space, and faster time to deployment can be realized since little to no permitting is required.
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These efficiencies enable communication service providers (CSPs) to build out network infrastructure faster and cheaper. Even better, the required backhaul multi-gig support already exists based on cable operator investments to support traditional cable services, so it’s an easy lift.
Nokia is positioning its Strand-Mount solution as a compact yet rugged, all-in-one design that supports a plug-and-play installation. The latter is critical, given that cable operators will rely on existing field service professionals to manage the deployments. Pairing the hardware with carrier-grade software that does not require a separate baseband is also a plus, because it dramatically reduces complexity. Nokia has a great depth of expertise in mobile and fixed-line networks, as evidenced by its broad portfolio of solutions, so the company is a perfect partner to enable cable operator success, such is the case with Charter in the U.S. Nokia was recently selected by Charter to support 5G connectivity for Spectrum Mobile customers. This win represents Nokia’s first big deal for large-scale 5G deployments with a cable operator. I expect other wins to follow, furthering Nokia’s burgeoning leadership in the mobile offload space.
I am impressed with Nokia’s ability to identify new monetization opportunities tied to disruptive trends, including private cellular networking and now mobile offload for cable operators. Mobile offload can improve performance, coverage and the economics for these CSPs as they deploy and manage cellular networks at scale. Mobility represents a vast profit pool for cable operators; these companies likely have only one chance to get it right.