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Tech Roundtable 2017: Mobile & Wireless

The 2017 Tech Roundtable Panelists
Kevin Hart, executive vice president and chief product and technology officer, Cox Communications
Dan Hennessy, chief architecture architect, Liberty Global
Jay Rolls, chief technology officer and senior vice president, Charter Communications
JR Walden, senior vice president of technology and CTO, Mediacom Communications
Tony Werner, president of technology and product, Comcast Cable
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MCN: What are your wireless priorities?
Dan Hennessy:
We believe that connectivity to the home, around the home, and on the go needs to be a high performance, reliable and seamless experience.  As such, we are focused on three areas.

For fixed broadband connectivity services in the home, we want to ensure that our customers are able to benefit from the power of our network -- both to and around the home. That’s regardless of where they live, what their home is like (how big and what it’s made of), or how many devices they want to connect to their in home WiFi. This is where a significant amount of engineering and innovation effort is spent.

From a mobile services perspective, it’s about making sure our customers get the best quad-play deal and experience out there. To do that, we will build on our MVNO capabilities across our markets. Where needed, we want to leverage VoWiFi technologies, to solve for in-home/business coverage issues. As well, we want to ensure that our customers are able to leverage our WiFi access points--roughly 10 million, across Europe. The goal is to bring the fixed and mobile connectivity experience together, seamlessly. To give our customers the best of both.

The third areas is specific to where we have a full MNO footprint, such as in Belgium. Telenet’s acquisition of the mobile operator, BASE, presented an opportunity to upgrade and deliver a world-class radio access network -- alongside the power of a cable access network.

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Jay Rolls: First is the launch of WiFi-first MVNO service with Verizon next year, which will serve us well for our short- and medium-term wireless goals.

Second is optimizing the WiFi experience for our residential and business customers. So many people equate “the internet” to “the WiFi signal”! That’s why it’s important that we continue to improve everyone’s WiFi.

Beyond that, we’re conducting both lab and field trials of CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service), in the unlicensed 3.5 GHz spectrum, as well as 5G millimeter wave technologies for fixed use cases, like backhaul.

Kevin Hart: The in-home experience, the on-premises experience and the experience within common spaces in MDUs -- about a third of our residential footprint is multi-dwelling units, so having a having a best-in-class WiFi experience there is key. We've also done a ton with convention centers with hospitality networks and hotels. We made an investment in a company [Blueprint RF, acquired by Cox over the summer] that's going to be bring best in class WiFi for commercial businesses. 

We’ve done some 5G trials, in conjunction with CableLabs. From a technical standpoint, we’ve been one of the leaders in small cell deployments, because of what we’ve been doing with some of our key partners and customers. The 5G trial was a fixed point to point [test]...just to prove out some of the technology and the performance.

JR Walden: We've been focused on in-home WiFi for many years. Maybe 60% of our customers pay us for a managed home WiFi solution. About 90% of our new customers do take that product. We have also been rolling out community WiFi, or metro a number of our communities, but not as aggressively as some of the big guys as we tend to have more low-density markets. I’m not necessarily convinced there are any business models around that. The theory around that is it's a customer affinity [strategy]. But it's not super-expensive to do, so you don't have to gamble too much on that. 

In regards to getting into more of a mobile play, we certainly haven't announced any plans. We've certainly been looking at what options might be and things like 5G and CBRS or other kind of solutions might impact us, both as a B2B or wholesale kind of enabler, like we were with cell tower backhaul, but also potentially getting into the retail side. 

That's one of those areas we'd rather be a fast-follower, frankly, so I’ll root for Comcast or Charter or somebody to blaze a successful trail, and then maybe we'll be prepared to invest in that. 

MCN: What are you doing to make WiFi better or best in class?
Tony Werner:
We’re committed to offering a fantastic Wi-Fi experience to our customers, and from our perspective, that means providing a combination of speed, coverage and control. When it comes to speed, our xFi Advanced Gateway is not just the fastest gateway we’ve ever built, we believe it is the best device available today anywhere in the world.

On coverage, we want our customers to have amazing online experiences wherever they go, in or out of the home. On the go, that means continuing to expand our network of more than 18 million Wi-Fi hot spots, and at home, it’s a combination of our world-class gateway, and our forthcoming pods, which will give customers who want it a powerful Wi-Fi mesh network that can blanket any size home with great Wi-Fi. Finally, on control, we really believe xFi is a game changer. We launched it in May to more than 10 million devices, and the response we’ve seen has been tremendous, both in terms of adoption, and customer satisfaction. Today with xFi, our customers can pause WiFi to their kids’ devices for bedtime or dinner (our most popular feature), track the activity of devices on their home networks, and troubleshoot when things go wrong.

In addition, as you know we’re big proponents of RDK-B, where the B stands for “broadband.” It’s similar intent to RDK-V, video, which is the core foundation of our X1 UI. RDK-B is piled with techniques and technologies to continuously improve WiFi experiences.

KH: On the residential side, our offering, called Panoramic WiFi with the tagline of "It's wall to wall fast," has had an excellent take rate from a customer perspective. NPS (net promoter score) is up significantly. It's a combination of having a better in-home device, a professional install and additional to make sure your signal strength, location, quality of service is what you want it to be inside your premises. 

DH: Our WiFi strategy focuses on both raw hardware capabilities, and the software we use to optimize for value and performance. Both solve for whole home connectivity. We are constantly evaluating hardware-related developments and standards to include in the equipment we deploy in customers’ homes.

Alongside that, we are focused on software developments (embedded and cloud-based) to optimize WiFi range, reliability and performance. That means channel optimization, air time fairness, band- and client-steering. We have a range of embedded software and cloud-based services going to market in 2017 and 2018.

We’re also looking at the best ways to give our customers the right equipment to ensure whole home coverage, from point-of-sale to care. This includes developing a mix of property profiling (size, fabrication etc.) and machine learning techniques.

Making WiFi better for our customers is very much about giving them visibility and control.

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Ensuring all the hardware and technology we’re using works in harmony, such that the customer can see it, configure, it, and personalize it. We’re doing this with our “Connect” app, which – in addition to allowing them to manage their mobile tariffs and access hotspots while on the go -- brings all of this to the customer. Whether it’s parental controls, guest WiFi access, speed tests, onboarding of powerline devices, resetting passwords. It’s all the things our customers would and should expect. Meaning WiFi that consistently works well, with control in the palm of their hand.

JR: We’re currently deploying 802.11ac Wave 2 in the home, which has impressively nerdy feature names, like beam-steering and multi-user operation. Bottom line, they make the signals behave better in a given (and often hostile) environment. We’re also actively testing the benefits of 802.11ax, which works in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectral areas and enables multi-gigabit speeds.

On top of that, we’re planning a 2018 deployment of cloud-based radio resource management, which is all about optimizing the WiFi experience -- it takes some of what’s traditionally been processed locally, and pulls it back into the network. And, we’re testing some distributed WiFi solutions, to expand indoor coverage.

MCN: Is 5G an opportunity for small cell and backhaul, or a threat to the last mile? (A little bit of both?)
The business model [for 5G] kind of confuses me some. For the markets that Mediacom operates in, which are much lower density than maybe the average -- we're well below 50 homes a mile. Although we don’t have as many line-of-sight issues with many tall buildings, the reach of these very high frequencies are really going to limit their use in lower density markets. 

I realize that Verizon and others are talking about 5G...but it's starting to feel a lot like 3D, in that there's a ton of talk about it, but when you go and look at the engineering, this is not going to be like LTE. When 4G came along, it was really about enabling a new frequency and new, more efficient protocols. This is fundamentally a different architecture. You're not going to enable with this with macro towers; you're going to have to build a whole new network to do this. And it's going to cost a lot of money. I think they have the performance to compete with landlines, but I don't think they have the any cost-effective rate to really compete with landline. 

JR: It’s both, but probably more of an opportunity for backhaul. I mean, in rural areas, or very non-dense areas, having a wireless option, vs. wired, may make sense. We’re testing 5G for both, but to us it looks better for fixed use cases. That’s because millimeter wave comes with very large channel sizes, that can offer very high bandwidth -- but at those frequencies, propagation can be really challenging. Anything in the line of sight -- a tree, a building -- can mess things up.

DH: We don’t see 5G as a threat to the last mile. For starters, the economics aren’t there, at least in the foreseeable future. Plus, a 5G last mile will not offer the performance equivalent to fiber rich and deep access networks.

Spectrally, 5G performance will require larger bandwidths, which implies higher frequency spectrum and the use of advanced radio technologies, such as Massive MIMO or coordinated multi-site transmissions.

Higher spectral bands imply denser deployments of radio access nodes (smaller cells) with more backhaul locations, so for sure there are opportunities to scale backhaul revenues here.

When asked what a good coverage 5G access network might look like, I often point to one of our cable access maps showing our WiFi hotspots.

Ultimately, it’s not a question of 5G or cable access in the last mile. More, it’s a question of how will 5G radio access and fixed, fiber-rich cable access complement each other. Just like how unlicensed WiFi radio access compliments fixed cable access today.

KH: It is a little bit of both. From a technical perspective, we're taking advantage of some of the small cell opportunities.  

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