More than occasionally, trying to unravel the mysteries of cable industry business is like reading tea leaves. This week at CTIA Wireless in Orlando, cable’s sometimes friend, sometimes competitor Sprint Nextel tossed a cupful of tea leaves all over the table, and what they mean is still a mystery.
The joint venture (JV) partner of Advance/Newhouse, Comcast, Cox and Time Warner Cable announced it was calling its integrated cable-wireless service Pivot and making it available in 40 (32 of which are so far unnamed) metro areas this year. At present it’s available in Raleigh, NC; Austin, TX; Boston; Portland, OR; San Diego; Phoenix; Cincinnati; and Dayton, OH.
At nearly the same time – who knows in what order the press releases were placed on the table – Sprint Nextel boasted that it was expanding its WiMAX coverage area throughout the United States in 2008-2009 by adding 12 new cities, some of which duplicate the Pivot towns. Motorola, which has already been tabbed to develop Chicago, adds Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis to its resume; Samsung, already working the Baltimore/Washington DC rollout, will be moving to Boston, Philadelphia and Providence, RI next year; and Nokia, already named to develop Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio will also move on to Denver, Portland, (OR), Salt Lake City and Seattle. 3G good, 4G better? So on one side you have Pivot with its third generation (3G) wireless, and on the other you have what Sprint Nextel is calling – and not without some controversy – 4G wireless with WiMAX and licensed 2.5 GHz spectrum.
So what’s it gonna be, boys, friend or foe?
"Our cable partnership gives them access to the portfolio over time; the right business model and the right relationship has to develop," said Atish Gude, senior vice president of mobile broadband operations at Sprint Nextel, whose mobile broadband responsibilities lean more toward 4G WiMAX than 3G EV-DO.
"We’re very focused on building 3G business today, and at the same time we are focused on building our 4G business separate on WiMAX," Gude said. "Our cable partnership is very focused on using the tools and the capabilities that we have available today to really prove out and drive that business model."
The next item in today’s newsletter outlines a little of that from the cable perspective.
Sprint Nextel, meanwhile, had the wireless crowd atwitter with its WiMAX plans, which will "ultimately cover 100 million POPs (points of presence)," said Gude, adding that the focus is on the major metro areas on the I-95 corridor, but not necessarily all the suburbs. "It will not cover every quadrant of I-95 outside of the major metro areas." The I-95 Corridor For the geographically challenged, there’s a little cable company based in Philadelphia that believes it already does a pretty good job covering that I-95 corridor that might be a little miffed about Gude’s enthusiasm for the "combination of the spectrum we have where we can get a tremendous amount of bandwidth for low cost. We’ll overlay a portion of our network with a technology that delivers a lot of bandwidth."
The possibility of Sprint Nextel jumping the gun to high bandwidth, high performance mobile WiMAX, calling it 4G and overlaying its existing network drew an overflow crowd to a WiMAX panel at the show.
Gude cooled the wireless industry’s worries while fanning the flames for cable by pointing out, "Our model was never to invalidate cellular; it’s really to create a new experience called the mobile Internet, separate from cellular."
For nitpickers, that sounds remarkably like Pivot. Kevin Packingham, vice president of marketing and product development at Sprint Nextel, says Pivot is about "stuff … a pretty broad term. Stuff is e-mail, but stuff is also entertainment, and entertainment takes many forms."
Most forms of entertainment now are stuffed within the residence, thanks to cable operators who pump broadband in via HFC networks and trap it in devices like cable modems and set-top boxes. Pivot aims to rub those boxes and free the genies.
"Extending that to mobile devices is very valuable. There’s an enormous barrier between what they have on the desktop and what they have on the handset, and it’s very artificial. Part of the value of the service that Pivot delivers to customers is to start to break down some of those barriers and to blend the services together for the customers," Packingham said. How about WiMAX? Compare that to how Gude describes WiMAX as "a reasonably strong performance on bandwidth; a very competitive positioning on price; and the concept of mobility. If I combine it with a home-and-away package and allow people to experience the Internet on multiple electronic devices and really portable electronic devices … the minute I take it away from my house, having that connectivity to experience the Internet is the sweet spot."
And the tea leaves say …. – Jim Barthold