Thune: Cable Faces a 5G Cage Match

WASHINGTON — Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has offered up some words of warning for cable operators last week: 5G is coming — fast.

Admittedly, he was preaching to and for the choir, specifically wireless broadband operators gathered at a CTIA-The Wireless Association event here dubbed “The Next Generation of Wireless: 5G Leadership in the U.S.” But he directed his comments at cable operators, too.

Thune’s underlying message, and one that cable operators would agree with, was that the marketplace for broadband competition is heating up, and does not need regulators to choose whose flame to fan, as it were.

But he also appeared genuinely high on the prospects of high-band wireless broadband to put a crimp in cable’s business, and backed that up with news that he was reintroducing his “Mobile Now” bill, which will push the FCC to study and open up millimeter wave bands for 5G wireless broadband.

Thune talked up the power of 5G wireless to fuel the Internet of Things and become embedded, literally, in the fabric or our lives. And that didn’t just sound like a commercial for cotton. He ticked off the types of things that would be connected, including socks, wheelchairs and light bulbs. But TVs and tablets are also part of that power equation, Thune suggested.

“It is quite likely that the first time many Americans subscribe to a Gigabit broadband connection will be with a 5G-based wireless service, not a with a fiber- or cablebased offering,” he said, even as cable’s DOCSIS 3.0-fueled speed upgrades multiply. For instance, just last week Comcast said it would start rolling out Gigabit service to Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Miami and Nashville, Tenn.; and CenturyLink is deploying a Gigabit-capable network.

He also cited testimony by University of Nebraska professor Gus Hurwitz before his committee that cable operators should be “scared to death” by millimeter wave technology, which could allow for new competitors for residential broadband at speeds equaling or exceeding cable.

Thune suggested Aereo founder Chet Kanojia’s planned Starry wireless broadband service, which uses antennas and millimeter waves combined with current-generation wireless technology to deliver high-speed residential broadband, could be the evidence that the future is now.

Thune’s main point was that the FCC should not try to engineer a competitive future that is in many respects already here.

“Some people today, many of them at the FCC, have spent a lot of time trying to convince us there is a broadband monopoly and that only government intervention can protect consumers, drive innovation, and create competition,” Thune said.

The FCC, for example, has declined to say that either the wireless or wired broadband markets are competitive. “But tell that to the dozens of wireless companies and foreign governments around the world racing to bring ultra-high-speed, Gigabit wireless Internet services to market within the next four or five years,” Thune said. “Tell that to the cable companies who realize they are already in a competitive cage match with wireless providers.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.