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Sprint Nextel, cable to test cell service

Sprint Nextel, four cable operators to begin pilot program for cell phone service integrated with cable services.

Sprint Nextel and a group of four cable operators, who announced a joint venture last year, will be testing wireless service in several markets starting this summer.

Comcast will initially test the service in two markets--Portland, Ore., and one city in Massachusetts. Time Warner Cable will test it in Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C. Cox Communications said it will test the service in two markets but hasn't made public which cities will participate. The fourth cable operator, Advance/Newhouse Communications, also hasn't identified the cities in which it plans to test the service.

The cable operators announced they were working with Sprint Nextel back in November. Adding wireless to the cable bundle of services--which now typically includes phone, television and broadband--is part of a broader strategy to compete more directly with phone companies that are starting to add television to their service packages. Verizon Communications has already begun offering TV in several parts of the country, and AT&T is testing its TV service in San Antonio, Texas.

The cable companies say they intend to do much more than resell cell phone service. Eventually, they hope to integrate existing cable television services into the cell phone experience, a plan that could include allowing customers to program their digital recording devices from their cell phones and watch programs recorded on DVRs at home on their cell phones. Other features that have been discussed include allowing customers to get caller ID while watching TV.

Initially, most of these features won't be a part of the new services being tested, but new capabilities will be added in the future. Early features include allowing customers to access cable program guides on their cell phones and e-mail from their broadband accounts on their cell phones.

The new cell phone service will also provide free calling between cell phones and cable broadband phones. Customers will also be able to access their wireless or home voicemail from either their home phones or their cell phones. There will also be some additional cable content on the Sprint TV menu. And finally, the customer service and billing of the services will be integrated so that customers get a single bill from their cable company.

Pricing of the new service hasn't yet been set. Cable operators plan to offer the service more widely in early 2007.