Over the past two decades, cable broadband providers have invested over $275 billion in building robust high-speed broadband networks that power the online experiences for millions of Americans every day. As a result, more than 90 percent of U.S. homes now have hyper-fast connectivity, but there are still areas where there is not sufficient access to high-speed broadband. To continue closing this gap, ISPs are hard at work looking for innovative ways to bring fast and reliable internet to such communities.
Charter Communications—which spans 41 states and has invested more than $27 billion since 2014 to expand its network—is one of the leaders in this space. The "connectivity company" is currently conducting various trials in the wireless sector as it encourages the FCC to move towards a spectrum solution that will allow access to certain spectrum bands, in particular the 3.5GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum, for both fixed and mobile broadband.
Charter Senior Vice President of Wireless Technologies Craig Cowden testified before the Senate Commerce Committee this past summer about how policymakers can develop a balanced spectrum policy that would help advance Charter's wireless initiatives and connect more underserved and unserved Americans. In a recent interview with NCTA, Cowden elaborated on the company's trials of fixed wireless access technologies in the 3.5GHz band which could potentially be used to deliver wireline-like connectivity to areas that are often cost prohibitive to reach with fiber.
Since the start of 2017, Charter has been testing its 3.5GHz fixed wireless solution for rural broadband in the following markets, selected for their different clutter and terrain characteristics and during different times of the year to analyze and test how weather affects performance: Bakersfield, Calif; Tampa, Fla.; Denver, Colo.; Coldwater, Mich., and Lexington, Ky. Cowden explained that these factors are ultimately the obstacles that stand in the way of connecting many rural areas. "We knew that would be the biggest challenge, that we'd have 'clutter variables' that affect signal performance like foliage density, the amount of commercial building activity, water, environment, rain and snow," he said.
Cowden further indicated that this is new territory not just for Charter but also for the industry as a whole:
"For 3.5GHz in particular, there's not a lot of rich RF performance information out there on how CBRS performs in rural areas. There are other frequencies that have been in commercial use for a lot longer at scale where those 'clutter database' models are well understood. For 3.5GHz there's an initial benchmark, but what we essentially have had to do was to create the 'clutter database,' and expand our set of information about how 3.5GHz would perform particularly in rural areas. That's what we've been doing this whole time."
As far as next steps for the 3.5GHz fixed wireless solution, Cowden said that they are looking to move into a more expansive trial in 2019 in select counties in New York and North Carolina, when the service will be developed for prospective customers whom the ISP could reach through its future fixed wireless buildout.
Other trials that Charter is conducting include its venture into mobility broadband in the 3.5GHz band, with tests occurring in Charlotte and Tampa, and soon in over 250 sites in New York City and Los Angeles. The ISP is also testing its fixed wireless millimeter 5G solution in select markets to see if it can serve as an extension of Charter's commercial enterprise-based services for customers who don't have access to fiber.
Cowden emphasized, however, that these "next steps" are dependent on the FCC finalizing rules for both General Authorized Access (GAA—similar to unlicensed) and licensed use of the 3.5 GHz band. Towards that goal, Charter has encouraged the FCC to make GAA available for deployment as quickly as possible and adopt licensing rules that will enable efficient use of CBRS shared spectrum and lower the barriers to entry for new entrants like Charter.