Cable's Towering Opportunity

In addition to siphoning voice-service revenues from incumbent telcos, cable operators are also well positioned to carve out a significant slice of cellular backhaul revenues, which are expected to reach $2.8 billion this year, and explode to more than $15 billion by 2011, according to the latest Light Reading Cable Industry Insider report.

The report, "Cable Backhaul: Desperately Seeking Cell Sites," estimates that cable operators, particularly Cox Communications Inc. and Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), are just scratching the surface of those potential revenues, raking in just $100 million last year.

The cell backhaul requirements are expected to surge as wireless providers build out 3G and 4G networks and support more bandwidth-eating data and video applications. Cable, with its hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) plant and ability to pull fiber to cell towers, could provide a fat pipe that fits the bill.

"What's clear is that the MSOs see there's an opportunity," says Louise Wasilewski, vice president of business development for PhyFlex Networks Inc. , an executive who is quoted in the report. "They recognize that they need to go after it [the cellular backhaul business] sooner rather than later."

Although MSOs are competing directly with telcos, wireless service providers could pick the lesser of two evils and opt for a cable backhaul partnership rather than cede any business to their mobile service rivals.

"If you're Verizon, the last thing you want to do is pay money to AT&T. Cable operators are not the enemy," Wasilewski says.

How can operators best compete in a market that is relatively new to them? They will need to brandish multiple weapons, according to Alan Breznick, a senior analyst at Heavy Reading and the author of the report.

"I think it will be a combination of lower prices and the ability to string fiber to the cell site quicker than the phone guys," he says.

At the same time, operators could find their entry hindered by the mere fact that this is a completely new service category for cable, and one that requires extremely high reliability and availability standards.

"Cable carriers are untested in this market, so [potential cell backhaul customers] might feel they are taking a gamble," Breznick says.

According to the report, several large cable operators, including Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), Charter Communications Inc. , Cox, and Cablevision, are vetting cell backhaul technologies, pricing plans, and marketing strategies. One MSO is bidding for more than 1,000 cell sites, says a source familiar with the situation.

"Everyone's waiting to see the first major backhaul contract to get announced by the MSOs," Breznick says.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

The report, Cable Backhaul: Desperately Seeking Cell Sites , is available as part of an annual subscription (6 bimonthly issues) to Light Reading's Cable Industry Insider, priced at $1,295. Individual reports are available for $900. For more information, or to subscribe, please visit: www.lightreading.com/cable.

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