Cable falls out of lock-step when it comes to wireless

The cable industry, which usually marches in a lock-step that would impress the former Soviet Red Army, is stumbling all over the place when it comes to wireless. A bad relationship can do that to you.

"We did have a little bit of a false start with Pivot," said Stephen Bye, vice president of wireless strategy and development for Cox Communications, speaking during a panel at the recent National Cable Show in Washington, D.C.

In Cox's case that's an understatement. The Atlanta-based multiple system operator, more than any other, took it seriously when cable and Sprint Nextel banded in a joint venture they eventually named Pivot. Cox put out money and effort trying to get its subscribers into the Pivot fold, and when that relationship failed, as relationships sometimes do with cable operators, Cox was burned.

Bye prefers to look at it as a learning experience that "galvanized our thinking about what we want to do going forward," he said. "We want to have a Cox-branded experience."

Cox has bought both 1.9 GHz spectrum as part of a cable initiative and 700 MHz spectrum to build its in-market wireless play. It cost about $50 per potential household to do so. The MSO also has arranged roaming agreements to make certain its wireless subscribers are never left without service. The firm recently signed up Huawei as its CDMA network provider.

"Our business is local; our customers are local. At the end of the day a wireless network is only wireless in the last mile," Bye said, adding that Cox will "be launching later this year and people will be suitably impressed."

Time Warner Cable has taken off in a different direction, climbing back into bed with Sprint--or at least a facsimile of Sprint--in the new Clearwire WiMAX initiative to "put together the beginnings of a wireless broadband network," said Mike Roudi, vice president of wireless at the cable vendor.

To Roudi and Time Warner, which joined Comcast and Bright House Networks as major cable investors in Clearwire, WiMAX is "fun stuff to work with" because it's a clean palette on which a service provider can design and paint a new picture.

Time Warner will launch service in the fourth quarter using an "inside-out" wireless strategy, Roudi said. "Our excitement starts with the data piece. We don't think of it as a quad play (wireless add-on to voice, video and data). Mobility is going to become a feature."

That feature will be very dependent on Clearwire, which, thanks to its cable investors and deep-pocketed friends such as Google and Intel, has enough money to start building a regional-then-national mobile broadband network. Time Warner will let Clearwire build the network, then will build out all its own custom touch points to develop relationships.

But that's not the way Cablevision Systems looks at it. Cablevision isn't really looking at wireless at all. In fact, the New York metro-based MSO isn't looking at voice, per se, as part of its wireless play. WiFi, inside the home and into the service area footprint, is the key to Cablevision wireless.

Cablevision is about half finished with a microcell-based network architecture that will eventually include service on all major train lines going into New York City from the New York and New Jersey suburbs. There's already service, jointly offered in some cases with Comcast, on train platforms. The rest of the mass transit space will be part of the $300 million Cablevision is investing in its wireless play, including an unrelated DOCSIS 3.0 high-speed data platform that improves wireline connectivity, said John Bickham, president of cable and communications at Cablevision.

The service is free, with a qualifier--users must be Cablevision subscribers and authenticate themselves as such. The initial offering delivers 1.5 Mbps of symmetrical service but that figure is "flexible," Bickham said.

More than 65 percent of all Cablevision subscribers are triple-play users, so adding wireless connectivity outside the confines of the residence "makes this investment look pretty reasonable," Bickham said.

Cablevision is serious about using wireless as a fourth leg of its service offering and has done "quite a lot of heavy lifting" to make certain subscribers can use it and others can't, Bickham said.

Cablevision's offering is made even more complex by something that's very rare in cable: It's device agnostic.

"It's an odd sort of position to be in that we're really agnostic," Bickham said. "It's an interesting place to be; it's one we haven't been in before."

Wireless, no matter how it shakes out, is a different place for any cable operator because it requires a different approach to the end user. No longer is service fed to a household or small business; it's personalized. "Wireless," concluded Roudi, "is a very, very, personal service."

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