In March, Neil Smit, the former CEO of Comcast’s cable unit, said a recent study from outside independent experts found that the MSO’s fiber network plans showed “excellent compatibility” with 5G. Research from a top industry analyst seems to share that position, at least when it comes to the fiber part.
“At first blush, cable’s dense wired infrastructure deep into residential areas would seem ideally suited for deploying small cells/5G using high frequency spectrum,” Craig Moffett, analyst with MoffettNathanson noted Monday in a second report about small cells providing the underpinning infrastructure for 5G.
However, the “relevant infrastructure,” at least for the densest part of the capillary network, is primarily coax, not fiber, he added.
He outlined a couple of possibilities for the cable industry – that cable has an incremental cost advantage in deploying fiber by virtue of its existing assets to support small cell networks that require fiber, or that the engineers will figure out a way to “make it work” as it did earlier with high-speed Internet using DOCSIS.
Moffett said the first possibility – the cost advantage of deploying fiber off the existing assets, -- appear somewhat limited, as most cable plant is aerial, not buried, and because utility poles are subject to fairly permissive attachment rules that other players can take advantage of.
As for that second possibility: “[Could a bunch of really smart engineers figure out a way to make it work? Perhaps. Time will tell,” he said.
Notably, the cable industry continues to get more bang out of its HFC networks with DOCSIS 3.1, a multi-gigabit platform, and its pursuit of Full Duplex DOCSIS, a longer term annex to D3.1 that will support symmetrical multi-gigabit speeds.
“The industry’s network assets appeared to give it a leg up, at least as it pertained to small cell deployments (although it lacked the macro network, brand equity, and distribution resources of the incumbents,” the analyst explained.
Earlier in the report, Moffett held that Verizon’s wireline/wireless network in Boston, where the telco said it would need 1,700 strands of fiber in each cable, sheds lots of light on the amount of glass Verizon will need.
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“Most industry observers tend to think of fiber counts of 100 and up as high. With both its words and actions, Verizon scuttled that convention and made clear that it views the fiber assets in the market today as wholly inadequate for its small cell and, eventually, 5G needs,” he wrote.
Moffett also doesn’t believe that Verizon will be able to pull it all off in-house, while also acknowledging that the “gargantuan fiber counts” for Verizon in Boston aren’t “representative of the baseline standard for all its markets.”
He said it is reasonable to thing that Verizon will have to partner with a “natural partner” such as Zayo Group to maximize the amount of network it can deploy per dollar invested.
However, Moffett questions whether it makes sense for Verizon to buy Zayo. Zayo’s core business is dark fiber leasing, making it a neutral host arms dealer, and that core business would not be as effective if it was under Verizon’s control.
“Customers avoided doing business with direct competitors when feasible,” Moffett wrote.