Charter to expand LTE small cell tests to New York City, Los Angeles

Verizon small cell in Sacramento (Verizon)
Wireless network operators are deploying small cells to improve coverage. (Verizon)

Cable giant Charter is currently testing LTE small cells in locations around the country and said it will expand those tests into major markets New York City and Los Angeles in the next few months. The news is noteworthy considering Charter recently launched its Spectrum Mobile MVNO service and is hoping to use small cells as a way to offload traffic from Verizon’s LTE network and onto its own wireless network, thus saving money.

Charter is one of several major cable companies that have been making advances into the mobile market. Charter already operates a network of public and private Wi-Fi hotspots, which the company said serves more than 280 million wireless devices. (The company also announced this week that it recently launched services using the new, faster 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard.)

But this year, Charter expanded beyond Wi-Fi and into the smartphone business via the launch of its Spectrum Mobile MVNO. That operation essentially piggybacks on Verizon’s LTE network, but Charter handles customer activities like billing, service and handset activation.

As Charter’s Craig Cowden explained, Charter works to reduce the usage of Verizon’s network—and therefore the payments it makes to Verizon—by routing Spectrum Mobile customer traffic onto its own Wi-Fi hotspots. “Spectrum Mobile customers enjoy the same ubiquitous mobile coverage they get from traditional wireless companies, but their connections are through a Wi-Fi-first MVNO that incorporates our robust indoor and outdoor Wi-Fi network with Verizon’s cellular network,” he said. “The data switchover from our Wi-Fi to Verizon’s network is seamless and not noticeable to customers, yet it can save them money.”

And, as Cowden explained, the next step in Charter’s efforts in this offloading area will involve the deployment of LTE small cells and, eventually, 5G technology. “We are conducting extensive trials using small cells in Tampa, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and will expand this testing to Los Angeles and New York City within the next few months,” he said. “These trials will inform how we will leverage these innovative technologies to improve our wireless products.”

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News of Charter’s latest mobile moves was contained in Cowden’s prepared remarks for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which is holding a hearing today titled “The Race to 5G: Exploring Spectrum Needs to Maintain U.S. Global Leadership.”

In his comments, Cowden also said Charter has been testing fixed wireless services using 28 GHz and 3.5 GHz spectrum in locations around the country “for things like multiplayer AR/VR interactive gaming, multiple simultaneous 4K-quality video streaming, and ‘Desktop-as-a-Service’ models that push compute functions to the network cloud but require large bandwidth and low latency.”

He also urged the Senate to push for the release of additional spectrum for commercial uses, including in the 5.9 GHz and 3.7 GHz-4.2 GHz bands.