Comcast vows to launch bundled wireless service by midyear with 'the best mobile devices'

Comcast Center's office in Philadelphia. Image: Comcast
Comcast has long been planning its entry to the wireless market, saying last year that it would leverage its network of 15 million Wi-Fi hotspots and a 5-year-old MVNO agreement with Verizon to do so.

Comcast reiterated its plans to deploy wireless service in 2017, vowing to roll out bundled offerings by the middle of this year.

The cable behemoth has long been planning its entry to the wireless market, saying last year that it would leverage its network of 15 million Wi-Fi hotspots and a 5-year-old MVNO agreement with Verizon to create a new revenue stream and compete with incumbents. The company divulged a few more details this morning on its fourth-quarter earnings call, acknowledging it will sell high-end phones and package wireless service with its other offerings.

“We plan to include wireless in our multiproduct bundles in a way that is designed to add value to our customers, improve retention and ultimately benefit lifetime consumer economics,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said on the call. “I believe that we’ll find out—and we’re hoping—it’s an end-state strategy and that it’s sustainable, and the goal of the business is to have better bundling with some of our customer who want to save some of their bill, get a world-class product and take a bundle, and have lower churn.”

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Comcast didn’t say where it planned to launch service, exactly, although it is expected to be limited to its existing customers. And Roberts said Comcast plans to sell “the best mobile devices” directly to users, just as major carriers do.

The company will wade into the market cautiously, however, comparing the initiative to the progressive rollout of the company’s X1 offering.

“We crawled before we walked, and we walked before we ran” with X1, Roberts said. “We knew we had a really special thing before we hit the pedal.”

Comcast’s massive fiber footprint is a major weapon as it gears up for battle with major wireless carriers, of course. And Roberts said that those assets provide a way for the company to leverage the emergence of 5G “no matter how it happens.”

But the company also faces serious challenges as it prepares to come to market. Comcast will have to pay Verizon for use of its network, of course, which makes for a difficult financial model. And the service will be Wi-Fi-first, using cellular only as a backup, which sometimes doesn’t match cellular in terms of service.

"For a cable MVNO to be heavily dependent on deployed public Wi-Fi hotspots or cable Wi-Fi hotspots (such as Xfinity WiFi), especially outside the home, there is a lot of work still to be done to improve the user experience," Mark Lowenstein of Mobile Ecosystem said several months ago. "Even though there is significant density of able Wi-Fi hotspots in some cities, there are lots of issues around quality of signal, reliability, interference and authentication that need to be resolved for an MSO (multiple system operator) to be able to rely on those hotspots for a 'cellular' service."

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