Could Cable MSOs Buy Some of T-Mobile's Spectrum?

Of the spectrum of possible regulatory remedies that could emerge from the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger, one of them reportedly involves actual spectrum.

T-Mobile and Sprint are considering the divestiture of some of their combined spectrum to appease the US Department of Justice, and Comcast and Charter Communications are among the parties interested in buying any that might become available, Bloomberg reported Thursday.

Such a divestiture could pave the path toward a T-Mobile/Sprint merger while also establishing a new fourth competitor alongside New T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon, Bloomberg said.

Charter declined to comment on Bloomberg's story.

Comcast shot the story right in the foot. "We do not have an interest in acquiring divested spectrum from the Sprint T-Mobile transaction," a spokesperson for Comcast said in an email to Light Reading.

Looking beyond the MVNO
Today, Comcast and Charter market mobile services that are underpinned by MVNO deals with Verizon Wireless, and complemented by the cable operators' in-home and metro WiFi networks. Rather than competing with the mobile incumbents head-on nationally, both have focused their mobile efforts within their respective cable footprints and offer mobile bundles that help them acquire and retain high-margin home broadband subscribers.

Using that strategy alongside simple unlimited and by-the-Gig service plans, Comcast and Charter have combined to add some 1.7 million mobile lines through Q1 2019 -- 1.4 million lines for Xfinity Mobile (Comcast) and 310,000 lines for Spectrum Mobile (Charter).

While it seems unlikely that Comcast and Charter will look at the joint acquisition of any spectrum that might become available from T-Mobile/Sprint, the two MSOs have established a joint venture for mobile services that aims to lower costs and add operational scale to the combined effort.

Analysts have been concerned about the economics of their current MVNO deals with Verizon, arguing that they'll need to revise those agreements or look for opportunities to obtain spectrum.

MoffettNathanson's Craig Moffett said in April that Comcast and Charter will have a hard time turning a profit with mobile unless they can carve out new, more favorable MVNO deals.

Before the possibility of buying spectrum from T-Mobile and/or Sprint entered play, both Comcast and Charter have been testing wireless services in the 3.5GHz CBRS band, though neither has announced plans to bid for spectrum in the licensed portion of the shared CBRS band.

"We have always thought the Verizon MVNO was useful for market entry, but that cable would look to deploy its own spectrum to improve its wireless economics over time," New Street Research analysts wrote in a research note weighing the implications of the Bloomberg report. "We had expected this deployment to begin in 2020 with CBRS and the potential for additional C-Band spectrum to be layered on in ~2023."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

Clifton K Morris 5/31/2019 | 2:55:07 PM
Re: Cable's long history dallying with mobility This is certainly a smart move, especially if it involves PCS band spectrum, which has much, much more compatibility with devices already owned by customers.

Few people may remember this, but Craig McCaw and John Stanton originally owned a cable company before selling it to get into wireless in the 1980s. (McCaw Cellular). So, it can be done. Question is if other cable companies (like Cox) among with rural providers would be interested in some of these assets too. T-Mobile would still have this rural 5G deployment obligation so working together with rural carriers would be a patriotic thing.

There's a lot of interesting things that could come of this, as hardware at the node is upgraded for DOCSIS 3.1 and 2-GHz plant those upgrades could easily include a PCS/AWS LTE radio at the pillar. Containing the LTE signal to a city block (or even in a office setting) increases capacity... potentially creating wholesale business for Cable companies... who has always focus on delivering a service inside a building unlike wireless, where indoor coverage only occurs only when a large company is obligated to buy hundreds of phones.

There'd also be a complementary business for broadband when T-Mobile swallows Sprint's fiber business...

I think Comcast, whose core asset is based in content ownership (via NBC, Universal Pictures, theme parks), has always lacked the right management team to understand connectivity (especially office broadband and wireless business) which have higher margins, and the low, (usually under 0.5% annual )customer attrition/churn.  It'd be worth getting into but they just don't know how to hire the right people for it.
f_goldstein 5/31/2019 | 1:05:50 PM
Cable's long history dallying with mobility Cable has played around the edges of mobile networks for a long time. Recall that Comcast used to own Metrophone, the Philly-area A-side carrier. They sold it ca. 1999 after deciding not to go big. Cable companies may have owned an initial piece of Sprint PCS too. Comcast, Charter, Cox, and TWC later got together to do SpectrumCo, which did buy a lot of 700 MHz in 2007. But they didn't build out: Mobile licenses are speculative financial assets, and they sold it to VZW for a nice fat profit. Comcast also briefly dallied with a Sprint MVNO, Pilot.

Now the gimmick is that they have an MVNO but try to connect to their ubiquitous cable hotspots whenever possible. A Comcast Wireless Gateway is a cable modem with built-in WiFi that is both "your" home WiFi and a public hotspot. Their CBRS strategy seems similar, to put nodes on the poles/strands to pick up the phones without using MVNO minutes. And recall that it was cable interests who got the FCC to change the CBRS PALs from tracts to counties, because in some states (far from all) the cable franchises are by county.

So maybe they'll buy some S/T-M spectrumd, but it might just be speculative, until the smoke clears and VZW pays them more for it.
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