ORLANDO, Fla. -- TelcoTV -- Speculation around here is that if Motorola Inc. wants to sell its set-top box and home networking division, the most likely suitor is Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd.
Of course, just because Huawei is the popular pick doesn't mean anything will happen. (See Huawei Seen as Likely Nortel Suitor.)
The rumor, reported by The Wall Street Journal yesterday but unconfirmed by Motorola, is that Moto wants to sell off its home and networks mobility division, which includes its set-top business. The price would supposedly be around $4.5 billion.
(See Moto May Be Mulling Set-Top Sale.)
Huawei has that sort of cash, and it's on a big push to crack the North American market on many fronts, including cable. "They want to get into Comcast Corp. in a big way," one cable-industry source at the show said.
Huawei still carries a stigma that has carriers and MSOs shying away. But many of them might consider the set-top box to be an innocuous enough play, the source said. Moreover, many set-top models rely on fast, cheap manufacturing, something Huawei is good at.
Huawei already has some cable cred in North America. It's got Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) and optical equipment deals with two mid-sized MSOs, and a deal to sell wireless gear to Cox Communications Inc. As for those Comcast dreams, Huawei, alongside Ericsson AB, has purportedly won part of the MSO's IMS buildout. Huawei is also angling to get some of Comcast's DTA action. (See Huawei Breaks US Set-Top Seal , Cox, Huawei Make Wireless Connection , and Huawei, Ericsson Get a Piece of Comcast's IMS Action .)
Exhibitors on the TelcoTV show floor late yesterday weren't surprised that Motorola might want to sell the set-top business. They were surprised to hear the business was profitable in the third quarter (operating income of $199 million on revenues of $2 billion), and many said their impression was that the business has been deteriorating. "I'm getting emails, LinkedIns, pings -- morale is s*** over there," the aforementioned source said.
Officials at Motorola's booth declined to comment on the rumor, of course, although Light Reading did catch a joke about the whole booth being for sale.
If Huawei doesn't buy the division, who else might? The price limits the possibilities, but here are some theories that popped up yesterday:
Microsoft Corp.: Its cable ambitions go back more than a decade, and many of those early efforts in North America came up short, even after a $1 billion investment in Comcast in 1997. (Microsoft sold off that stake in January 2009.) Microsoft's last meaningful set-top software presence with Comcast ended in 2007 when the MSO switched out the Microsoft TV Foundation platform and guide in Seattle, in favor of a navigation system that Comcast had already deployed in all its Motorola-based cable systems. (See Comcast to Drop Microsoft TV Guide .)
Industry insiders at TelcoTV said Microsoft, which has turned its Xbox360 into a set-top of sorts using an over-the-top broadband video strategy, has the scratch and the motivation to buy the Moto unit, as it would automatically put Microsoft at the coveted top of the U.S. cable set-top food chain. (See BT Adds to Its IPTV Options, The Xbox X-Factor, BSkyB Offers TV Through Xbox, and Xbox 360.)
Ericsson AB: Ericsson outbid Arris Group Inc. to snare Tandberg Television, giving Ericsson a entrance to the U.S. cable market along with a line of encoders and video-on-demand (VoD) back-office technologies. Snagging Motorola's set-top business would complete the home side of that video picture and counter Arris's recent $20 million purchase of set-top and software specialist Digeo Inc. (See Ericsson Offers $1.4B for Tandberg TV and Arris Digs Digeo .)
Cisco Systems Inc.: Cisco came up in conversations yesterday, but it's considered the darkest of dark horses. It's already firmly entrenched in the cable set-top business thanks to its $6.9 billion purchase of Scientific Atlanta almost four years ago (See Cisco to Acquire Scientific-Atlanta.) A Cisco/Moto combo would turn the U.S. cable box duopoly into a virtual monopoly, so such a pairing would have trouble passing antitrust muster, people here predicted.
Nokia Siemens Networks: Hearing that NSN might be a possible suitor for Moto's set-top business came as a bit of a surprise. But a couple of industry folks here reasoned that NSN may still be smarting after losing the Nortel Networks Ltd. wireless assets to Ericsson, and might view a purchase of the Moto set-top division as a new way to expand its North American presence. (See Nortel Wireless Winner: It's Ericsson!)
â€” Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading, and Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News