Cable operators are doing plenty of talking about that fourth leg in the product stool—wireless. But me-too products may not cut it. Listen to what Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts said last month at a luncheon event in Washington, D.C.: “We’re not as enamored with cellular as we are with what wireless could become.”

New wireless features beyond plain-old cellular could improve customer retention and, obviously, take a piece of the more than $60 billion cellular market. The CTIA reports that wireless high-speed data revenue alone grew to $6.5 billion for first six months of 2006, up 70% from $3.8 billion in the first half of 2005!

Fixed-mobile convergence could be just the thing to distinguish cable’s wireless product. This is more than just seamlessly switching voice calls back and forth from the cellular to the home network, although that’s still important. It’s also about virtually extending cable service outside the home, allowing subscribers to control a set-top or DVR, or even watch cable on a handset with stellar QoS. As the Slingbox proves, technology is no longer the big hurdle. MSOs can create new platforms or simply modify existing ones such as IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS). In fact, Time Warner Cable is already testing IMS with Siemens.

These days, the trickier part is developing business arrangements everyone can stomach. Does ESPN or MTV really want fans accessing their content with a cable-sponsored converged device that’s an extension of the cable system? Or would they rather sell direct (ESPN, which just axed its Mobile ESPN service, found out the hard way that the direct route can be a tough one). And who owns the customer when service hands off from the cell tower to the broadband home? Cable or Sprint Nextel? “The battle for who owns the customer will be, I am sure, intense, but this is where cable will likely stay very firm,” says Andy Paff, president and CEO of Cedar Point Communications, which provides equipment to help make fixed-mobile convergence a reality.

The Sprint Nextel/MSO joint venture suggests cable will partner when it makes sense. But the billions major MSOs just agreed to pay for Advanced Wireless Services spectrum suggests cable wants the ability to go it alone as well. As Roberts stated so eloquently last month, MSOs are focused on what wireless can become. They better be. Otherwise, that fourth leg in the stool could get quite wobbly.

Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX Daily. He can be reached at mgrebb@accessintel.com.

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