The cable operators in the US and some other countries have already highlighted the disruptive potential of a cableco armed with a huge WiFi network. Now those providers are getting into cellular too, and while Comcast and others may have been dragging their feet in bringing mobile services to market courtesy of MVNO agreements with Verizon, they are likely to get a lot more active in the run-up to 5G.

Comcast was a bidder in the recent 600 MHz incentive auction, though it remains to be seen whether it is successful in winning licences – but its participation shows that the larger cablecos are being tempted back into the world of licensed mobile networks. A decade ago, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and BrightHouse were buying up spectrum and planning 4G build-outs, but they they changed tack, sold their licences to Verizon in return for an MNO deal, and focused on WiFi hotspots and homespots to add wireless capabilities to their broadband and TV services.

Now Time Warner Cable and BrightHouse belong to Charter, which before those acquisitions was the least interested of the major cablecos in wireless. Now, though, it has its new units’ MVNO arrangements and their participation in the huge CableWiFi roaming system. And it is set to be the first US cableco to embark on 5G trials, using experimental licences from the FCC.

There are several likely characteristics of 5G which will interest the cablecos, as they look to build quad play bundles and carve out a strong role in the telecoms value chain. One is the increased use of shared and unlicensed spectrum, reducing the need to buy expensive airwaves and lowering barriers to entry for non-MNOs. Another is the increasing density of mobile networks, which will require large numbers of backhaul and localized fronthaul links. This need could be met by cablecos’ last mile wireline connections – either on an ‘as a service’ basis for MNOs, or as a cost-effective infrastructure for their own deployments.

Cable operators are unlikely to want to roll out national or large wide area mobile networks – instead they will invest in localized indoor or indoor/outdoor subnets, composed of WiFi and cellular small cells running on their own cable infrastructure. These could use an MVNO deal purely for wide area roaming – significantly less of a financial burden than current agreements – while gaining full control of the customer’s wireless and multiplay experience and monetization.

Although several companies – and the industry’s R&D and standards arm CableLabs, which is taking part in several 5G initiatives – have discussed these issues, Charter’s is the most concrete statement of intent to get involved in 5G, at least in the US (Altice, which owns Cablevision, has stolen a march by setting up a 5G Lab in Portugal). Read More