Sprint inks small cell deal with Cox but remains silent on MVNO front

Cox vans
Sprint's latest agreement for backhaul and small cells is with cable company Cox. (Cox Communications)

Sprint and Cox announced an agreement today that will allow Sprint to use Cox’s wireline network for its backhaul efforts and small cell build-out. The companies concurrently said the deal represents the end of their patent-infringement battle. However, neither company made any mention of Cox potentially using Sprint’s network to offer its own Cox-branded wireless services through an MVNO agreement.

"This is another opportunity to work with a strategic partner to accelerate our densification plans to improve our network performance and experience for Sprint customers throughout Cox's national territory," said Sprint CTO John Saw in a release. "Moving forward, we will continue to look for new opportunities to work with Cox in ways that are mutually beneficial."

In the announcement, Sprint said it would use Cox's network to “accelerate the densification of the Sprint network while simultaneously increasing efficiency of its macro backhaul and small cell deployment.” It did not provide any further details.

Cox operates six cable systems in 18 states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Virginia. Wells Fargo noted Cox is the nation's third largest cable company that offers service to roughly 6 million homes. The Wall Street research firm added that Cox's network passes around 10 million homes or around 8% of all U.S. households.

"From S's standpoint, we view these type of partnerships as quite positive to help S move more quickly in its 'neighborhood expansion' efforts," wrote Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche in a note this morning to investors. "Given that both S and TMUS are wireless only (with no deep wireline infrastructure), having access to the 'pipes' the cable cos provide in some key dense markets should allow S to more quickly deploy small cells in its markets. Given the majority of S's spectrum assets are high band (S has 160MHz of 2.5GHz in the Top 100 US markets) this fiber access is critical in the backhaul part of the network (which often is the most expensive part of any network build)."

The new agreement between Sprint and Cox appears similar to the one Sprint and cable company Altice inked in November. At that time, Sprint said it would “leverage the Altice USA broadband platform to accelerate the densification of its network.” In return, Altice said it would use Sprint’s network to launch wireless services via an MVNO relationship, similar to how Comcast launched its Xfinity Mobile service last year via Verizon’s wireless network.

The absence of an MVNO component to Sprint and Cox’s deal doesn’t necessarily mean Cox won’t return to the wireless playground. After all, Cox began building its own wireless network roughly a decade ago and in 2010 inked an MVNO deal with Sprint to offer nationwide wireless services. Cox in 2011 shuttered that effort.

Sprint’s agreement with Cox likely will work similarly to its agreement with Altice. Earlier this month, Sprint’s Saw offered some details about exactly how Sprint is moving forward with its Altice agreement.

“The Altice agreement is unique,” he said. Saw explained that Sprint, for example, will be able to tap into Altice’s wired network in places like Long Island to more quickly deploy small cells. Saw added that those small cells will be backhauled through Altice’s DOCSIS network. 

“We obviously have the option of running dedicated fiber, but I think to get it out fast and to leverage what is already there, I think we’ll manage to use what is already there, to use the DOCSIS backhaul that we have with Altice,” he said.

Finally, the settlement of the patent dispute between Sprint and Cox follows a similar agreement Sprint struck with Comcast late last year. Comcast said it settled its patent-infringement battle with Sprint by paying Sprint $250 million.