4G LTE + Cable = 1 BIG Problem

Posted November 7, 2013

Sam Matheny, Vice President of Policy and Innovation for Capitol Broadcasting, at the Mobile Emergency Alert System preview event at the NC Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, NC on Thursday, September 13, 2012 (photo by Jack Morton).

Cable has a problem with 4G. I’m not talking about spectrum warehousing, wireless strategy, or even OTT and out of home content rights. I’m talking about how 4G deployments are wreaking havoc with their set top boxes all across the country.

Specifically, they have a problem with Verizon’s 4G LTE service that operates in the 700MHz band. I discovered this problem as a consumer right after I upgraded my iPhone to the new 5S model with LTE. I’m writing this post both as a personal consumer and customer of Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Verizon, and as the VP of a media company whose channel is being affected.

So, here’s the deal…

I brought my new iPhone home and put it on the nightstand as I prepared for bed. That night and the next morning I noticed the video on my TV becoming very pixelated and jerky. It was full of glitches. It was very frustrating and I noticed it was somewhat exclusive to WRAL. I assumed I just needed to reboot my box, but that didn’t work.

When I got into work I asked our director of engineering and operations if we had a problem with our TWC signal. He said no and immediately asked me if I recently got a new phone? I was like, “Huh-what? Well, yes I did. How did you know that?”

He grinned, well actually it was more of a grimace, and laid it out for me.

And here is the problem…broken down into pieces.

  • Verizon has deployed 4G LTE in the 700 MHz band of spectrum.
  • TWC recently moved TV channels to new spectrum assignments within their cable system as part of their management of their internal capacity. In our market they moved some of these channels, including WRAL, into the 700 MHz band of their cable system.
  • Cable set top boxes (at least the models we have) lack the appropriate shielding to block interference from other devices. In fairness, until recently the 700MHz band wasn’t being used by devices like cell phones, so this wouldn’t have been a problem.
  • The Verizon LTE signals from phone usage are creating interference with the TV signals inside the set top boxes. Every Verizon LTE handset creates hyper-local interference. It really can be as simple as taking the phone to another room to eliminate the interference. That said, see the stats below about how this isn’t a viable solution.
  • So, every time somebody with an LTE Verizon phone checks email, sends a text, visits Facebook, tweets, or uses their web browser on the LTE network the signal bleeds into the set top box and cause the video signal to falls apart.
  • It can even happen when one is not actively using their phone, like when the phone is sitting on the night stand or is still in your pocket or purse, as the handset is often doing background communications over the LTE network.

Check out this video to see it in action:

This is not just a Time Warner Cable issue, but is an issue for the entire cable industry. The issue is severe and is at the very nexus of all digital trends…falling squarely, I believe, into the land of unintended consequences.

It deserves immediate attention as it is sure to get worse, and fast based on these user stats:

  • The average mobile phone user upgrades their phone approximately every 2 years, meaning millions of new LTE devices are being activated every month.
  • Nielsen reports that the average American watches nearly 4.75 hours of live television per day.
  • IPG Media Lab reports 60% of TV viewers use a second screen (smart phone or tablet) while watching TV. Forrester's numbers are even higher, with them reporting 84% for Gen Y and 77% for Gen X.
  • Verizon has 101.2 million subscribers
    • 67% of Verizon retail subscribers already own a smartphone
    • 34% of Verizon retail subscribers already own an LTE device

The immediate solution is to use the 700MHz band on cable systems for services that don’t require reliable delivery of linear programming. Cable companies need to remove linear channels from this band. And they really don’t want to put their most viewed channels, such as WRAL, in this space. This band should be reserved for other purposes.

Longer term, but starting immediately, boxes with better shielding need to be built to accommodate the new reality of the 700 MHz band.

So, if you see that your TV is on the fritz and aren’t sure why, it might just be your phone. Try airplane mode or taking the phone to the other room and see if that fixes it. If so, call your cable company and let them know what’s up.


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