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Cox Wireless: Soup to Nuts

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner
10/28/2008
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When it comes to wireless and mobility, Cox Communications Inc. isn't messing around this time.

It's putting its money where its mouth is, going "all-in," and jumping in with both feet all at the same time as it builds out elements of its own 3G network, installs the steps necessary to make the climb to Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology, and takes control of the services that will ride on top of it all. Although Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) is playing a part in this ambitious project, there's no mistake that Cox has cast itself in the starring role. (See Cox Preps Cellular Network, Eyes LTE.)

Cable Digital News caught up with Stephen Bye, Cox's vice president of wireless, to discuss how the MSO plans to ramp up for mobility, including some details about its service, spectrum, and network plans, how this approach differs from the former "Pivot" project, and why Cox picked LTE.

Adding wireless to Cox's DNA
Cox isn't saying how many people are dedicated to the wireless project, but the MSO is weaving wireless into every aspect of the company's operational fabric as opposed to basing its strategy on a separate stand-alone wireless unit. That means wireless personnel are becoming part of Cox's engineering, product, and marketing organizations.

"We're building it from the engine room out, as opposed to putting up a facade on the outside," Bye explains. "It's not a small undertaking, but it's a very deliberate and very intentional decision we have made, and it's not a decision we came to lightly."

And that attitude will also apply to Cox's planned suite of mobile services and how they will be linked to the existing cable bundle. Cox, Bye says, plans to bring mobility to the MSO's voice, video, and data services.

"Clearly wireless voice is important today and will be important in the future. We think there's a new frontier... which is mobile data services and being able to take that broadband experience out of the home and take it with you," Bye says.

And video? "We think there's a tremendous opportunity there, and one that we will certainly be a part of."

3G and the road to LTE
A big question on everyone's mind is how Cox plans to knit together the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum it obtained in 2006 as part of the SpectrumCo joint venture, and the 700 MHz spectrum licenses it won more recently at auction... and how the MSO expects to apply them to its initial 3G and future 4G offerings. (See SpectrumCo Gets Licenses and Cox Waxes Wireless .)

Bye says Cox will use its AWS spectrum to support a 3G network based on EV-DO Revision A. "We're on the CDMA track," he says, noting that also wants to see how it can use both the AWS spectrum and the 700 MHz spectrum for LTE field trials, which will get underway sometime in 2009.

"LTE is an emerging technology. We'll be looking at the feasibility and how quickly we can move to commercialize it," Bye explains.

At the same time, Bye believes 3G technology has plenty of legs left. "Interestingly enough, one third of handsets in the market today are 3G-capable, [so] it's still sort of an emerging technology in terms of consumer adoption. But clearly we see a future in 4G."

Cox isn't going into great technical detail yet about its 3G-to-4G migration plans, but Bye says the network is being built to enable as smooth a migration to LTE as possible.

"We're trying to build a network as future-proof as you can with as much foresight that we have today," Bye says. Some upgrade paths, including the move from CDMA to WiMax "are not necessarily smooth transitions and require a significant amount of investment. We're trying to minimize that incremental step."

New Sprint deal 'fundamentally different'
Bye is quick to point out that the new agreement with Sprint looks nothing like the deal that Cox and other MSOs cobbled together to create the now-defunct Pivot experiment. (See MSOs Pivoting Away From Sprint JV.)

Rather than a co-branded, shared service, Cox will have relative autonomy on the Sprint network, controlling the backoffice, customer service, product integration, branding, supported devices, packaging, and product plans.

"What was really important for us was to be able to control all aspects of the delivery of [the Cox wireless service]," Bye says. "From the customer perspective, the products and services we're selling will be seamless to the customer. It will be a seamless experience regardless of whether they're on the Sprint network or the Cox network."

Cox isn't saying how much of its 3G network will be home-grown and how much will rely on Sprint. Likewise, the MSO isn't ready to say where its new wireless bundle will appear first, other than to say rollouts will be "targeted... and deliberate." Cox offered Pivot in five markets: Oklahoma, New England, Arizona, Northern Virginia, and San Diego.

But Bye notes that Cox's buildout will be done in a "parallel" manner so the MSO can launch services in both network environments at roughly the same time. "There's clearly a timing consideration to that because there are some markets that take longer to build, and we'd like to be in a position to be able to offer services to customers quickly in some of those markets," he says.

Why not WiMax?
Bye didn't specifically spell out why Cox stayed out of the "new" Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR) fray while some of its MSO brethren jumped in, but it's clear that the privately held MSO was captivated by the idea of having control of its own destiny and making its own technology choices. (See Cable Plays Clearwire Card.)

As far as the technology is concerned, LTE has "the global momentum," Bye says. "Wireless and other industries are all about economies of scale. We want to take advantage of [those], be it from a network equipment perspective, be it from a device perspective. We just see the momentum in the industry globally shifting toward LTE."

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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