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Liberty Global CEO Talks Broadband Growth and Rise of 5G

Liberty Global is about to see a windfall of some $15 billion following a series of asset sales in Europe. But Liberty CEO Mike Fries is not ready to disclose what he plans to do with the considerable influx of cash on the books.

In an interview Wednesday at the Paley Center for Media in New York, Fries spoke with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin about the importance of broadband to the pay-TV world and his experience in steering global partnerships. During the session, Fries discussed how consumers are interested in streaming video from handheld devices and how vital it is to invest and develop infrastructure to make access possible. When pressed by Sorkin about what he might do with all of Liberty’s new capital, Fries spoke about the “insatiable” consumer demand for broadband.

“I’ve never seen a product that grows 30% to 40% a year and has insatiable consumption characteristics,” Fries said. “So, anything having to do with broadband infrastructure, wire towers and fiber networks being lifted out of companies and monetized by infrastructure funds, is 5% returns because there’s nothing but growth in that space. To me, that’s a space that can be really interesting.”

Fries also spoke about the growth of 5G telco service, saying that everyone will have the advanced capability in three to five years. He said this need caters towards those who prefer streaming video on handheld devices but he emphasized that he has no worries that 5G will replace fixed wireline broadband.  To emphasize his point, he asked the audience how many people have watched more television this year than last year. More than half of the audience members raised their hands.

“Everybody in this room will have a 5G phone in about three to five years. Why not? Because you used to have a 4G phone, because you used to have a 3G phone. What did you get? You got a 4G phone. Why? Because it was faster,” he said. “You’re never going to be able to consume as much broadband as economically over a cell phone tower as you’ll be able to with your fixed network at home.”

Sorkin argued the point by saying that it is harder to get 5G service in the U.S. than it is in Europe. Fries responded that it will take an estimated $2.7 trillion to make 5G widely available across the U.S.

“5G needs more spectrum, more towers, more money. It needs new handsets, new chips. It’s definitely an evolution. It’s all going to happen, but it’s going to take a boatload of capital,” he said.

(Pictured: Mike Fries, Andrew Ross Sorkin)

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