Comcast continues to hint at wireless plans, says NBC will likely give up spectrum in incentive auction

Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) executives said the company's NBCUniversal unit will "likely" give up spectrum to the FCC as part of the agency's incentive auction of TV broadcasters' 600 MHz spectrum. However, Comcast Cable chief Neil Smit said the company hasn't yet decided whether it will participate as a bidder in the auction in order to purchase spectrum.

Further, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said he has "no news" on whether the cable company will offer some sort of wireless service using its public Wi-Fi hotspot network and Verizon's (NYSE: VZ) wide-area cellular network.

Comcast is in a "test-and-learn mode" when it comes to the combination of Wi-Fi service and cellphone service, said Comcast's Smit during Comcast's third-quarter earnings conference call with investors this morning. And, according to Deadline, Comcast's Roberts said that the company has "always felt it [wireless] is part of a product set," but he said the company doesn't "necessarily have to seek owner's economics."

Roberts did say though that Comcast will "trial and test some things" following the activation of its MVNO deal with Verizon.

The comments from Comcast's executives are notable because last week Verizon CFO Fran Shammo said Comcast and perhaps Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), Bright House Networks and Cox Communications may be preparing to execute on their MVNO deals with Verizon. The companies were part of a 2012 deal to sell AWS spectrum licenses to Verizon for $3.6 billion; the transaction included the option for the cable companies to resell Verizon's wireless services under an MVNO model.

Shammo's comments generated plenty of industry interest last week, but some Wall Street analysts urged restraint: "In our view, this was a formality, not an indication that the fifth wheel is being aligned," Jefferies analyst Mike McCormack said in a note to investors shortly after Shammo's comments. "We believe Comcast was merely preserving its right to offer service through the agreement, and see no imminent move by Comcast."

Nonetheless, during the company's earnings call this morning, Comcast's executives made it clear that wireless remains a key focus for the company. Specifically, the company said it now counts fully 11.7 million public Wi-Fi hotspots across the country, up from just 10 million a few months ago. 

Comcast was among a consortium of companies that purchased spectrum licenses in the FCC's AWS spectrum auction in 2006. However, the company has not participated in any spectrum auction since then. The FCC is hoping that Comcast and other non-cellular players participate in its upcoming incentive auction of 600 MHz spectrum, an event that is scheduled to start early next year.

Analysts had been expecting Comcast's NBCU business to participate in the "reverse" portion of the auction. In the reverse auction, TV broadcasters are expected to sell some or all of their spectrum to the FCC. Then, that spectrum will be auctioned out to bidders like T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and others in a traditional "forward" auction.

For more:
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this Deadline article
- see this FierceCable article

Related articles:
Comcast will not make imminent move into wireless, analyst says
Analyst: Comcast triggers MVNO deal, will launch Wi-Fi-first service in 2016
Verizon exec hints that Comcast, others will execute on MVNO deal

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