Charter Communications activated its mobile effort less than a month ago, but the US cable operator is already plotting a path to 5G that includes the integration of multiple access technologies, such as enhanced Wi-Fi and fixed wireless.

Craig Cowden, Charter’s SVP of wireless technology, revealed in testimony at a US Senate committee hearing the operator recently became the first provider to deploy routers featuring the latest Wi-Fi technology, called 802.11ax.

As noted by Wireless Broadband Alliance CEO Shrikant Shenwai in November 2017, the upgrade enables 5G-like service, pushing Wi-Fi speeds into the gigabit realm, improving coverage, reducing congestion and slashing power consumption.

The change is significant because Charter’s Wi-Fi network provides a key connectivity layer for the operator’s new Spectrum Mobile wireless product, which debuted at the end of June.

While the service provides cellular coverage via an MVNO agreement with Verizon, it primarily relies on Charter’s network of Wi-Fi hotspots, meaning the 802.11ax update will be felt not just by Charter’s broadband customers but also its mobile subscribers.

More to come
Cowden said the next step is for Charter to deploy LTE licensed small cells and integrate 4G and 5G access technologies into its existing infrastructure. He added the operator is already trialling small cell technology on 3.5GHz spectrum in Florida and North Carolina, and will conduct additional tests in New York City and Los Angeles in the coming months.

Additionally, Charter is exploring how it can use 5G fixed wireless access technology to improve both broadband speeds and coverage. Cowden said the company has conducted a number of trials at 3.5GHz and 28GHz, and noted the former shows promise for rural broadband applications.

“5G is a technology standard, it’s not millimetre wave….so when we talk about 5G for rural broadband, it probably won’t occur in millimetre wave, not in a significant way, but it will likely occur in mid-band.”

Cowden stressed the key to bringing its 5G plans to fruition is spectrum availability: “We are approaching exhaust with Wi-Fi and that is a critical concern we should address. As far as unlicensed spectrum for 5G, it’s critical, it’s definitely part of the equation.”