Cable Companies Relieve Overloaded Wireless Networks

As smartphone use has increased, we've seen more and more instances where wireless networks get jammed as data-hungry users attempt to surf the Web and perform other tasks from their handhelds. These wireless carriers could soon get relief from a somewhat unexpected source—cable companies.

Time Warner Cable is trying to sell wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless on a service that uses its underground cables to carry mobile calls and Web downloads. This service would ease the load on the wireless carriers' networks and help to avoid some of the jams. The service is known in the industry as wireless backhaul. After revenue tripled last year, it has become the fastest-growing business for Time Warner Cable.

When mobile calls are made, a signal travels over radio waves to an antenna. The backhaul system pulls this signal from the antenna into a wired network. During high-demand periods, carriers can add capacity by adding lines to the backhaul pipes.

“Backhaul is the first line of defense in addressing the capacity pressures on wireless networks,” said Craig Moffett, a Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst in New York who has followed the telecommunications industry for more than two decades.

According to Bernstein, Apple's iPhone eats twice the capacity of other smartphones. This strains AT&T's network. In December, AT&T wireless chief Ralph de la Vega admitted that New York and San Francisco are particular trouble spots. Time Warner Cable currently has backhaul lines in place that could serve New York. Comcast is the major cable company in San Francisco.

Sadly, backhaul alone won't solve the crunch; there can still be congestion while the signal is traveling from tower to tower in the air.