Will Cox Communications Inc. suck it up and remain in the wireless business for the long haul? Will the MSO cut its losses and sell off its valuable wireless spectrum to a capacity-starved carrier? Or, will Sprint Nextel Corp. step in and simply buy the nation's third-largest incumbent MSO, giving it a coveted wireline broadband, video and cell backhaul play?
Cox insists that wireless remains crucial to its overall strategy, but those are just some of the questions and speculation swirling about amid word that Stephen Bye, Cox's VP of wireless, has left the company and is about to join Sprint, one of the MSO's key wireless partners.
Bye, a Sprint spokeswoman confirmed via e-mail, is joining Sprint on March 14 as vice presidentâ€“technology development.
While the new Sprint gig offers a fresh opportunity for Bye, the move would seemingly come at a less-than-opportune time for Cox. The MSO, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its wireless bet so far, is just starting to get its mobile voice and data services off the ground following a seven-month delay. It's currently available in Hampton Roads, Va.; Omaha, Neb.; and Orange County, Calif., with Oklahoma City and Tulsa on deck. A recent local report indicates that Cox may turn up wireless in San Diego by mid-2011 or 2012. (See Cox to Flip Wireless Switch in Oklahoma and Cox Wireless Is Go for Launch.)
Cox is already moving to fill the wireless leadership vacuum left by Bye, telling Light Reading Cable that Len Barlik, Cox's EVP of product development and management (who is late of Sprint), is taking over Bye's duties on an interim basis as the company seeks a permanent replacement. (See Sprint Exec Joins Cox.)
"We appreciate Stephen's contributions to the successful launch of our wireless business," a Cox official says in an e-mailed response to questions. "We are thankful for the dedication and operational excellence of our wireless team as we deliver on our commitment to launching additional markets and enhancing the Cox customer experience."
An industry source familiar with the situation at Cox tells a slightly different story, noting that several Cox Wireless employees are currently searching for jobs amid fears that the MSO is contemplating the long-term future of its wireless business and whether it will invest in additional markets.
"The writing on the wall is to get out before you are forced out," the source said.
The MSO, however, says the plan remains the same. "Cox certainly remains committed to launching additional wireless markets," a spokesman adds, referencing the upcoming Oklahoma launch and that "we'll have more news to share about future market launches soon."
By U.S. cable standards, Cox's wireless plan is the most ambitious. It's starting off by leasing access on Sprint's 3G network, but it's also building its own wireless network, with plans to tap into the 700MHz and Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum it won at auction and eventually migrate to Long Term Evolution (LTE). (See Cox Wireless: Soup to Nuts .)
Cox says it has reached "several milestones" regarding its wireless network build, but has yet to say when it intends to activate it for wireless service.
Exec moves and Sprint-Cox connections
Bye's departure follows other big changes at the top of Cox. The MSO confirmed that SVP of Program Management Mimi Thigpen is no longer with the company, but did not elaborate on the reason, though a source said her departure partly stems from Cox's frustration with the pace of its wireless strategy. Last month, former Cox EVP and Chief Strategy Officer Dallas Clement left to become CFO of AutoTrader, which is majority-owned by Cox Enterprises. (See Cox Cable Exec Heads to AutoTrader.com.)
Among other big moves, Cox CTO Scott Hatfield resigned last year due to "personal reasons." Cox is still seeking a full-time replacement for him, but Don Hallacy, yet another former Sprint exec, is currently serving as interim CTO. Cox CFO Mark Bowser also hails from Sprint. (See Cox CTO Resigns , Cox Hires Interim CTO and Sprint Exec Joins Cox.)
All of this cross-pollination between companies is causing some in the industry to speculate if they'll just tie the knot, with Sprint playing the buyer.
In the meantime, Sprint's interest in cable continues on and the value it places on wired connectivity is becoming increasingly apparent. Another industry source says Sprint has recently issued a request for information (RFI) for cell backhaul, and Cox, Charter Communications Inc., Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc. are among the major MSOs that have responded.
â€” Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable