Big MSOs Launch Mobile Service
Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading
Several months later than originally planned, at least three of the nation's top MSOs have begun rolling out mobile phone and video service to cable subscribers in select markets.
Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), and Cox Communications Inc. have all launched wireless service from Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) in two markets apiece under their year-old joint venture with Sprint. Comcast has started promoting its wireless packages in Boston and Portland, Ore., while Time Warner is marketing mobile in Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C., and Cox is pitching service in San Diego and Phoenix.
A fourth large MSO, Bright House Networks , also intends to inaugurate service in one market early this year. But it has not yet divulged its launch plans.
The four cable providers initially intended to launch service by last summer. They then pushed the introduction back to the end of the year, prompting industry speculation that the joint venture with Sprint had already run into snags.
Cable and Sprint executives, though, insist that the venture remains on track. They say they simply needed more time to integrate all the new services smoothly.
"We were going to launch before the end of the year, and then the holidays encroached," says a Cox spokesman. "We're just doing a little fine-tuning now."
Using the identical basic formula, Cox and Time Warner are offering the same wireless pricing plans used by Sprint, starting with individual plans that cost $29.99 a month for 200 minutes. Calling rates range as high as $149.99 a month for family plans featuring up to 3,000 minutes.
For its part, Comcast is promoting its basic wireless service for $33 a month. That's the same price it charges for its other three main services as part of its $99 triple-play bundles.
Like Sprint, all three MSOs are offering mobile TV service through a deal with MobiTV Inc. announced early last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Cable subscribers can sign up for the mobile video service for an extra $15 a month and up, depending upon the channels chosen.
In Raleigh, for example, Time Warner is marketing an "Enhanced TV" package of 11 video channels for the basic $15 a month. The offerings include ABC News Now, E! News Update, several Music Choice channels, and several movie-trailer channels.
Raleigh cable customers can also opt for a "Premium TV" package of 20 video channels for $25 a month. Besides the channels in the basic plan, this lineup features live TV and video clips from Fox News Channel, Bloomberg, ESPN, Weather Channel, Discovery Channel, and Fox Sports.
In addition, Time Warner is offering nearly three dozen mobile TV channels on an à la carte basis, even though it and other MSOs have resisted going that route for regular cable viewers. The à la carte channels, ranging from mobile versions of CNN and ESPN to MTV and Comedy Central, cost an extra $3.95 to $6.95 a month.
Besides wireless phone and mobile video packages, Sprint's cable partners are offering access to home email accounts, Internet access, unified voice mail for VOIP and mobile phones, and access to home TV program listings. In addition, they're offering unlimited free calling between subscribers' VOIP and mobile phones.
"This is definitely not an MNVO," says a Comcast spokeswoman. "This is about getting access to your home products on your cell phone."
MSO officials aim to add other "mobile access" services later this year, including the ability to program home digital video recorders remotely. But they apparently won't be offering Sprint's upcoming high-speed WiMax service.
Each cable operator is making three or four phone models available for its new wireless service. For example, Cox is reportedly plugging handset models from Katana, Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. (Nasdaq: SANYY), and LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) in its markets.
But the cable companies' marketing plans, which have not been formally spelled out yet, may still vary in other ways. In particular, the MSOs may differ over whether to bundle mobile access with their existing triple-play packages of digital cable, broadband, and VOIP services.
In a product demonstration in New York earlier this week, Sam Howe, chief marketing officer of Time Warner Cable, said his company will not promote wireless as a discounted, fourth element in a prospective "quad play" package. Instead, he said, Time Warner will market its Sprint-provided mobile service as an integration of its home products.
All of the MSOs are gearing up to launch the mobile services in more cable markets. But they all decline to say where and when.
"We intend to launch in numerous additional markets this year," the Cox spokesman says. "Part of the when and why depends on how it goes in the first two."
— Alan Breznick, Site Editor, Cable Digital News