5G and Beyond

NCTC, Reach strike mobile deal for 700+ US cable operators

Hundreds of US cable operators are now a step closer to adding a mobile service to their arsenals following a new, exclusive agreement between The National Content & Technology Cooperative (NCTC) and Reach.

The NCTC, a co-op that forges tech and programming deals for 700-plus US cable operators and telcos, said the deal gives its membership access to a cloud-based platform from Reach that enables them to create and customize how they market and sell mobile – either as a bundle with home broadband or even as a standalone service.

(Source: Vittaya Sinlapasart/Alamy Stock Photo)
(Source: Vittaya Sinlapasart/Alamy Stock Photo)

MNO announcement to come

Still to be decided is which mobile network operator (MNO) will be slotted into the Reach platform for this agreement. NCTC said it expects to announce that decision in the coming weeks.

"The expectation is that it's not going to be a long process," said Jared Baumann, VP of technology innovation at NCTC.

Reach's platform is already capable of supporting the mobile networks of AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, and the company is in the process of working with other US MNOs, according to Reach CEO Harjot Saluja.

WideOpenWest, an NCTC member that is already selling mobile services through a partnership with Reach, is using the T-Mobile network.

While it's technically possible for the NCTC and Reach to support multiple MNOs as the business evolves, the plan is initially to select one for the new offering that will be available to the co-op's membership.

"We've talked to everybody. We're down to brass tacks, and it's become a bit competitive," said NCTC CEO Lou Borrelli. "We're sort of like the homecoming queen now and people are fighting over us a little."

Device considerations

On the device side, Reach will provide an Amazon-like online store for the NCTC members, as it's expected that most won't want to sell such products in their own brick-and-mortar stores. And the new NCTC/Reach option will support the bring-your-own-device model for products that are compatible with the selected MNO network.

NCTC and Reach aren't revealing which smartphone models will be supported early on. But at last check, WOW's online mobile store features one iPhone model (the iPhone XR) alongside a wide range of Android devices from companies such as Google, Samsung, LG, Nuu, Motorola and OnePlus.

Meanwhile, the agreement doesn't put any limits on the use of Wi-Fi or CBRS spectrum to offload traffic to lower mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) costs.

'Junior Cable' gets into the mobile mix

Once everything is in place, a group of cable operators serving tens of millions of broadband customers will be in position to add mobile to their service menus, following in the footsteps of fellow US cable operators Altice USA, Comcast, Charter Communications, Cox Communications and WOW.

NCTC's membership, comprised of small and midsized cable ops, are part of a group of operators refered to as "Junior Cable" by Wave7 Research's Jeff Moore.

Beyond WOW, no other NCTC member has announced any specific launch plans around mobile. Mediacom Communications is evaluating a move into mobile, going as far as filing for the "Mediacom Mobile" trademark.

Cable One, another NCTC member, is also looking into mobile but has yet to make a firm commitment.

"Would we look at mobile offering? Yes. We've explored the economics multiple times and we'll keep an open mind about it," Julie Laulis, Cable One's president and CEO, said last week on the company's Q4 2022 earnings call. "We don't hear from our customers that they're clamoring for yet another provider of wireless service at this time."

"In many of our rural markets, wireless reliability is actually not where it needs to be yet for us to consider that," added Cable One CFO Todd Koetje.

'High levels of interest'

Though Cable One seems skeptical about mobile, plenty of other NCTC members appear ready to jump in.

"We have high levels of interest, and a bunch of companies ready to go," Borrelli said. "I think that's the beauty of what we've done – it allows our membership, those that have done their homework, maybe already have wireless customers, or maybe are in a different MVNO to basically jump in and execute."

Borrelli doesn't expect the ongoing MNO negotiations to hold up the plans of NCTC members since the MNO piece can effectively be slotted in after operators start the process of developing packages and services that can run on Reach's platform.

"I would be surprised if we didn't have members launched in Q2," Borrelli said.

"A lot of that [integration activity] can be worked on now," Baumann added. "We have enough guidance right now that we can let members get started on those pieces. And we do have a number of those members that are already in the works, trying to put some things together so that they're ready to launch as soon as they can."

Saluja holds that 80% to 90% of the effort, such as branding, design, the development of plans and packages, and back-office integrations, can be handled by Reach's platform before the MNO piece is settled.

'Easy button' for mobile

The NCTC contends that the agreement with Reach is flexible enough for the NCTC's full membership, including those that service millions, thousands or even hundreds of customers, to not only launch a mobile product, but also to make money on it.

"We really needed the 'easy button' for our members to be able to do this," Baumann explained. "It was important for us to put together options that allowed our members to be able to work with the big MNOs but at a cost that our smaller guys could afford."

Multiple onboarding options

To that end, NCTC's agreement with Reach supports a set of white label options that range from a very quick and easy turnkey model to other, more customizable options that give the operator a higher degree of control. Here's how that part of the program is lining up out of the chute:

  • Accelerated: Largely targeted to smaller NCTC members with limited engineering resources, operators can select from a handful of mobile plans. Operators taking that option can be up and running "in a handful of weeks," according to Baumann.
  • Accelerated+: Provides more options and flexibility than Accelerated and more consulting time with the Reach team.
  • Custom: For larger operators that have more internal resources, a desire for more control and are in a position to take on the heavier lifting of integrating elements such as back office systems.

Beyond that set of options, NCTC members will also have the option to combine their branding with a "powered by Reach" descriptor (like WOW is doing with its version of mobile), or to take it a bit further by using only their brand, effectively owning the customer and taking care of other requisite components such as FCC reporting.

Regardless of the approach or option, all are white-labeled, and all operators will be able to apply their own branding, Saluja said.

And although some options will provide NCTC members with some suggested offerings and templates to explore, Reach's platform also gives them the ability to customize their packages and plans – including shared family plans – that some MVNO deals don't typically allow, Saluja added.

Seeking scale

A broader aim here is to enable NCTC members to join in and "scale up and feel and act like and have the power of a Comcast or Charter," Baumann said. "We're big enough, combined, to be able to be just as effective as any of those guys."

Borrelli said the mobile successes of operators such as Comcast and Charter, including some of the new convergence bundles they've developed, have "changed the game" for US cable's potential in mobile.

"We want our members to be competitive and to be comparable to what's in the marketplace," he said.

"There is no reason that a small [NCTC] member with 10,000 households should have any less creative product than Charter does," Saluja said. "There's no reason for it. Not in today's world."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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