Speculating About Cox's Spectrum

Cox Communications Inc. is dumping its wireless network while continuing to piggyback on Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S)'s, but the MSO may be able to recoup some of its investment if if it opts to sell off its valuable spectrum. (See Cox Chucks Wireless Network Plan.)

Cox splashed out about $550 million on its Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) and 700MHz spectrum, and would seemingly have little use for it now. But wireless capacity is a white-hot commodity these days, so it's likely that Cox could demand a premium for what it paid.

The MSO hasn't revealed what it will do next with that spectrum, but it shouldn't have trouble attracting potential buyers, if it takes that route, says Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Inc. analyst Craig Moffett.

"The market for high-quality spectrum is pretty good right now," Moffett says. Although Cox's wireless spectrum is not a national footprint, he considers MetroPCS Inc. (NYSE: PCS), Leap Wireless International Inc. (Nasdaq: LEAP) and Sprint as possible candidates. [Ed. note: Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), Bright House Networks and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) also own AWS spectrum, but haven't revealed their plans for it, so it's hard to see them being interested in Cox's spectrum at this point.]

Cox might be able to salvage some of the value of its wireless and equipment used for its fledgling buildout, but historically there's not much value in surplus wireless gear, Moffett adds. (See Cox, Huawei Make Wireless Connection .)

If Cox decides to sell its spectrum, it may face a complicated process, but Moffett's not concerned that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would frown on it or classify Cox as a spectrum squatter and prevent it from selling the spectrum, since the MSO made a genuine effort to build its network.

But it's now clear that Cox has decided to cut its losses and go in the MVNO direction and draft off of Sprint, which could end up moving to Long Term Evolution (LTE) -- a technology of which Cox is already a fan.

"It [Cox's wireless network strategy] always had the risk of becoming a massive economic sinkhole," he says. "The economics must've been a whole lot worse than they thought."

But he says Cox's surprise decision should give investors some pause when it comes to other companies that are building wireless networks from scratch, namely Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR) and LightSquared .

Cox, Moffett points out, has wireline infrastructure, a customer base that's ready-made to sell into and other support elements, like customer service centers, already in place. So if Cox concluded that the economics of its wireless build didn't add up despite the head start it had going in, he wonders why some investors are still bullish on Clearwire and LightSquared. (See LightSquared: Testing in 2011, Launch in 1H '12 and Sprint Gives Clearwire $1B Boost.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

Jeff Baumgartner 12/5/2012 | 5:04:03 PM
re: Speculating About Cox's Spectrum

If the FCC allows it, who's your favorite to snag Cox's spectrum?  I'll put my chips on Sprint. JB

Richard McFarlane 12/5/2012 | 5:03:59 PM
re: Speculating About Cox's Spectrum

Sprint is probably the only player who might buy it all, but like most things these days, it will come down to who has the financing.  Leap just issued another round of debt, so if those funds aren't committed they might be a player.

But I agree that you have rounded up the correct suspects.

The other issue is Cox tried to adjust once to the culture difference in the MVNO and did not like it.  They are not going to like the taste any better of the second round, so some organizational stress there.

I willbe interested to see other takes on this.

jeffellery 12/5/2012 | 5:03:51 PM
re: Speculating About Cox's Spectrum

Don't forget about Dish.....!

jeffellery 12/5/2012 | 5:03:50 PM
re: Speculating About Cox's Spectrum

Dish has the fundamentals for an interesting OTT play.

Jeff Baumgartner 12/5/2012 | 5:03:50 PM
re: Speculating About Cox's Spectrum

Yeah, never count out Charlie.  He could add to the pile he's already got. JB

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