Cowden says Charter is looking at more Wi-Fi for wireless offload

DALLAS – Craig Cowden, SVP of wireless technology at Charter Communications, said the company is considering using home-based Wi-Fi, that operates similarly to Comcast’s Xfinity Wi-Fi product, to help offload more traffic for its Spectrum Mobile service.

Speaking at FierceWireless’ Next Gen Wireless Networks Summit in Dallas this week, Cowden said Charter already uses public Wi-Fi hotspots to help offload traffic from its underlying mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) service — Spectrum Mobile. Charter uses Verizon for its underlying network. But it saves money on wholesale leasing costs when it offloads traffic to its own 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots. He said Charter has about the same number of these outdoor hotspots as Comcast.

Charter launched its Spectrum Mobile service in the summer of 2018, and at last count it has about 794,000 total lines. Cowden said, “75% of our existing MVNO traffic is actually offloaded onto our Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi offers.”

But Comcast boosts its Xfinity Mobile MVNO offering with millions more of its in-home Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots.

RELATED: Comcast taps its 19 million Wi-Fi hotspots to offload Xfinity Mobile traffic

“We already offload significant traffic onto Wi-Fi,” said Cowden. “Comcast has 19 million hotspots that are called home-as-a-hotspot, using the existing router in the home. We see a benefit of doing that.”

Leveraging its cable plant

In addition to augmenting its MVNO with more Wi-Fi, Cowden said, “We’re always looking at how we can optimize the cost structure of our products,” and in that vein, the company is also considering “the use of our distributed wireline assets to help with small cell placements.” The company could deploy small cells that would tap CBRS spectrum.

“We would look to place small cells on strand mount because it provides power, backhaul and right of way,” said Cowden. “But we’re not always going to have aerial strand mount. We also have to look at other form factors — rooftop and pole attachments.”

RELATED: Charter, Comcast could deploy strand-mounted wireless small cells

Cowden said Charter is simply considering these ideas at this point and hasn’t made any firm decisions about deploying small cells. “We could consider the use of our distributed wireline assets to help with small cell placements,” to “drive fixed/mobile convergence,” he said.

Charter has been testing CBRS radios on its plant with dual SIM devices that allow a customer to use the wireless MVNO or alternately use Charter’s network, whichever is best from an economic standpoint.

“We have done a lot of testing with small cells using dual SIM,” said Cowden. “We tested CBRS in 2017 in Tampa and Charlotte. We had eight different vendors just to test how CBRS would work. At end of 2018 and through now, we’ve done the next phase of dual SIM testing in New York and Los Angeles, where we have prototype devices to test the seamless switching between small cells and the macro domain.”

He said if the company does decide to use CBRS spectrum and deploy small cells “We would certainly build in those mobile traffic-dense areas. We think it would take about two years, if we decided to do that.”

CBRS and C-Band

The FCC has set a June 25, 2020 date for its CBRS auction.

Cowden said Charter is studying the possibilities for using CBRS, not only for MVNO offload, but also for fixed wireless and private LTE. “We think of all those use cases are ideal for a cable company to use CBRS. We look at fixed wireless access for a rural broadband extension…We’re trying to edge out on the boundary of our HFC plant,” he said. 

And when asked about Charter’s interest in C-Band spectrum, Cowden said the company has not committed to going after C-Band. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai this week said he wants a public auction of C-Band. Cowden said, “Charter is pleased with the C-band direction. We’ve always been supportive of a public auction, it provides a more open and transparent auction.”