Cable hedges its wireless bets

Cable companies are ponying up big bucks to get into the wireless market, but will their strategies be successful?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read

It's mobile or bust for cable operators that seem to be trying anything and everything to get into the wireless market.

One of the biggest shifts over the next decade in the cable market is likely to be a move toward wireless services. As cable operators face stiff competition from phone companies, cable operators large and small are looking for ways to take their services mobile.

Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, the largest cable operator in the U.S., talked up his company's investment in a new joint venture to blanket the country with 4G, or fourth-generation, wireless at the industry's trade show in New Orleans this week.

Earlier this month, Comcast and Time Warner joined forces with Sprint Nextel and Clearwire to form a company that will build the next-generation wireless network using a technology called WiMax. Comcast is fronting $1.05 billion as part of the deal, and Time Warner Cable is putting in $500 million to help make the new network a reality.

Roberts said during his keynote speech Sunday that he sees the network as a way to open up new applications and devices for the company.

But Comcast and Time Warner aren't the only cable operators getting into the wireless game. Cablevision recently announced it will expand its Wi-Fi hot-spot service to create an outdoor Wi-Fi network throughout its existing cable footprint. The idea is to extend its Optimum broadband service to customers on the go.

So why are cable companies, which have no history of successfully doing anything in wireless, so hot to get into the market? The answer is simple. They have to if they want to compete with AT&T and Verizon Communications.

"The delineation between wireline and wireless services is starting to blur."
--Mike Roudi, group vice president, Time Warner Cable

The phone companies have introduced TV service and faster, fiber-based broadband services into cable's territories. Services like Verizon's Fios are gaining market share. And even though the phone companies haven't integrated wireless into their offering yet, it's coming.

But with the cell phone market already 84 percent penetrated--according to the CTIA--the cable industry recognizes it needs to offer a new kind of wireless service. As wireless networks get faster, consumers are taking many of their broadband applications, like e-mail, Web surfing, and social networking, on the go.

"The delineation between wireline and wireless services is starting to blur," said Mike Roudi, group vice president of wireless services for Time Warner Cable. "And we think about mobility as a long-term opportunity that occurs when new networks are built that can deliver true broadband speeds wirelessly."

Roudi said this is why Time Warner has joined Google and Intel as investors in the new Clearwire.

Comcast's head of wireless, Tom Nagel, echoed Roudi's comments.

"Customers are already showing us that mobility and wireless are important," Nagel said. "And with wireless we can let them enjoy our products inside and outside the home with ubiquitous connectivity to a high-speed network."

Cablevision is taking a slightly different route. The company is using Wi-Fi to extend its existing broadband network to more customers, a smart choice considering the number of Wi-Fi devices already in the market. Not only do most laptops come with Wi-Fi embedded in them, many cell phones are also getting Wi-Fi. In fact, in the next three years some 1.2 billion Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets will be in the market, according to IDC.

"As more and more devices become Wi-Fi enabled, whether they be laptops, iPhones, BlackBerrys, or other portable devices, we believe we can create a compelling broadband wireless network throughout our footprint for our Optimum Online high-speed data service customers," Tom Rutledge, Cablevision's COO, said during the company's conference call with investors this month.

Cablevision will build the new network in the same footprint as its existing cable infrastructure. And the network, which will take two years to deploy, will deliver 1.5 megabits per second. The service will be an extension of it broadband service and will be offered free of charge.

Cablevision already has Wi-Fi hot spots up and running in 15 highly trafficked areas, such as tourist destinations. For example, Cablevision's Wi-Fi is available on all three Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry boats that connect Long Island, N.Y., to Bridgeport, Conn., a popular summertime route for many Optimum Online customers.

Risky business for cable
While it makes sense for cable operators to get into the wireless market, there's no guarantee that any of the plans that have been announced will actually work. In 2005, Comcast and Time Warner, along with Cox Communications and Advance/Newhouse Communications, formed a joint venture with Sprint Nextel called Pivot that was supposed to develop wireless services that the cable operators could bundle and resell to their customers. Two and a half years later, Comcast and Time Warner have pulled out of the partnership and Pivot is essentially dead.

Executives at the cable companies say the new Clearwire deal is different from the Pivot relationship.

"When we did Pivot it was a co-marketing arrangement with Sprint," Time Warner's Roudi said. "From a retail perspective, Time Warner was selling a Sprint-branded service and device. But with Clearwire, we will control the customer relationship including the service and phones. We will handle pricing, marketing, customer care, and billing."

Comcast and Time Warner believe that they each learned a great deal from the Pivot experience. And the companies believe they won't make the same mistakes in the new Clearwire partnership.

But many of the same challenges that the companies faced before haven't gone away. For instance, Comcast and Time Warner still need to figure out how to integrate their existing services and platforms into a wireless network. And while they may be marketing and selling the service themselves, technological integrations are still difficult when working with a partner that controls the network.

Even AT&T and Verizon Wireless, which essentially own their wireless networks, are still trying to figure out how to integrate their services.

Cable's "plan C"
But if the Sprint Nextel/Clearwire investment doesn't pan out, Comcast and Time Warner still have another shot at the wireless market with 20 megahertz of spectrum they acquired from the Federal Communications Commission's Advanced Wireless Spectrum auction held in 2006. Through a consortium called SpectrumCo., Comcast, Time Warner, and other cable operators spent $2.37 billion on a large swath of wireless spectrum that covers about 99 percent of the country.

Comcast's hiring last month of Dave Williams, the former CTO of Telefonica O2 Europe and former vice president of strategic planning at Cingular Wireless, prompted speculation that the company may be considering building its own wireless network or even buying a wireless company. But so far the company remains mum on its plans for the spectrum.

"Wireless spectrum is a valuable commodity," said Comcast's Nagel. "It's like holding the rights to oil or water. It will always have value. And it gives us flexibility for the future. We don't have any specific plans now, but over time we'll understand how to best use or monetize the spectrum."

"Wireless spectrum is a valuable commodity. It's like holding the rights to oil or water. It will always have value."
--Tom Nagel, wireless head, Comcast

But as cable companies, like Comcast, look to invest in new wireless networks, they might be overlooking a big opportunity. In cities, such as Philadelphia and New Orleans, citywide Wi-Fi networks built by EarthLink are being shut down as the Internet service provider abandons the network service market.

Comcast, which serves Philadelphia, and Cox Communications, which serves New Orleans, could easily buy these assets for a fraction of what EarthLink paid to install them. (EarthLink spent $20 million to build Philadelphia's network, which is 80 percent complete.)

For example, Comcast could test new wireless services using the existing network. It could see how customers use wireless broadband services outside their home, and then apply the lessons learned to services it plans to develop for the Clearwire WiMax network.

But so far, Comcast has not shown any interest in the network. The reason is likely political. Comcast was among the most vocal opponents to the Philadelphia Wi-Fi network. So justifying the purchase of these assets might be too difficult to spin.

But as other citywide Wi-Fi networks falter, cable operators in different parts of the country might consider picking up the assets. According to The Wall Street Journal, MetroFi, a Wi-Fi service provider, is also struggling. It has networks in Portland, Ore.; Aurora, Ill.; San Jose, Calif.; and other Silicon Valley towns.

"These citywide Wi-Fi networks could let cable companies put their toe in the water," said Craig Settles, an independent consultant specializing in municipal Wi-Fi. "Wi-Fi networks in many cities have failed because of the business models, not because of the technology. Cable companies already have the customer base and the services that could be rolled out onto these networks. So it makes sense."