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What's Next for Cox Wireless?

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner

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 Corp. (NYSE: S) 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 president–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. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) are among the major MSOs that have responded.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:11:25 PM
re: What's Next for Cox Wireless?

Coffeebydesign, you need to keep up with the news.  Sprint did get poor customer service ratings for a couple of years, but the January 2011 issue of Consumer Reports had Sprint in a virtual tie with Verizon for having the BEST customer service.  Consumer Reports also indicated that AT&T had the worst customer service by a large margin.  AT&T has come in last for the past two years.

Jeff Baumgartner
Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:11:25 PM
re: What's Next for Cox Wireless?

Couple of things to clarify:  Mimi Thigpen was promoted to SVP of Strategy in 2008, but she was serving as SVP of Program Management when she departed the company. Also, Phil Meeks didn't hail from Sprint, but was a 20-year MCI vet before joining Cox.  Those changes are reflected in the story. JB

Jeff Baumgartner
Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:11:25 PM
re: What's Next for Cox Wireless?

Thanks, good to hear from someone who signed up for Cox wireless. it's my understanding that Cox is handling pretty much all the customer-facing functions for the wireless service, so what's been your experience with it so far and how has that matched up with your prior experience with VZ?  JB

User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:11:25 PM
re: What's Next for Cox Wireless?

I joined Cox Communications Wireless service, and the one concern I had, that would have prevented me from joining their service was whether or not Cox Communications Wireless would be handling customer service, or whetherS Sprint would be handling customer service, considering the Cox network utilizes the Sprint towers. I think its a rather well known fact that Sprint has by far, the worst customer service in the industry, and should they take over those duties, I will be paying the early cancellation fee and switching back to Verizon. I like the services that Cox offers, and that the services are bundled with my television and internet, and the wireless plans were comparably, if not better priced, so I chose to leave Verizon after 10 years of service with them. While I think Verizon has always had stellar customer service, Cox communications has always outshined them in my opinion, and there aren't any other companies that I would have left Verizon for. That is my two cents, and if I ever look in the sky and see nothing but black clouds, I'll know that Sprint has taken over Cox, and it'll be time to cancel service.

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