Almost five years ago, Comcast Cable president Neil Smit hailed a deal with Verizon that would “enable us to execute a comprehensive, long-term wireless strategy.” He wasn’t kidding about the long-term part.
On Tuesday, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts disclosed that after years of dithering, his company’s wireless play was finally ready for prime time—almost. The new service will launch “somewhere in the middle of next year, maybe a little sooner, but not at the beginning of next year,” Roberts said at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia investor conference in New York on Tuesday. Using leased airwaves from Verizon’s network combined with access to Comcast’s 15 million Wi-Fi locations, the service will be pitched at Comcast customers who already buy multiple services, Roberts said.
About 70% to 80% of Comcast’s 28 million customers buy a bundle of two or mores services, he explained. With wireless, “we can sell them more products,” he said. And with a bundled offering, Comcast might be able to undercut Verizon and other wireless carriers on pricing, he hinted. The new service will be able “to give you a good value proposition if you’re one of our better customers,” Roberts said.
The delays may have made Comcast’s (CMCSA) task that much tougher, although it has used the time to massively expand its Wi-Fi network.
A lot has changed in the wireless market over the past five years. Back at the end of 2011, Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T) looked healthy, but smaller competitors Sprint (S) and T-Mobile (TMUS) were hemorrhaging customers and profits. Today, energized under new CEOs, Sprint and T-Mobile have roared back to life as significant competitors. At the same time, wireless service revenue growth for the entire industry slowed to 2% last year from 6% in 2011—in part because most customers now buy their phone outright instead of getting subsidies.
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But just because competition has increased and growth has slowed doesn’t mean Comcast’s wireless effort is doomed. In fact, the millions of Wi-Fi access points and the company’s extensive wired, cable footprint could give Comcast an advantage. The big four carriers are trying to improve their networks by adding tens of thousands of smaller wireless cells—each of which needs to be connected back to the wired network at some point. And the next generation of wireless technology, known as 5G, doesn’t travel far and will need even more cells and wired connections.
“If the advantage in wireless will increasingly come from wires, then the companies best positioned to deliver the next generation of wireless services are…wait for it…cable operators,” observed Craig Moffett, a long-time industry analyst at MoffettNathanson Research, over the summer.
Now, with Comcast’s announcement, Moffett says he thinks Charter Communications (CHTR) could also enter the wireless business as it is a party to the same 2011 deal with Verizon through its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.
Selling customers a combination of communications services as those services increasing overlap could be a winning offering, Moffett said on Tuesday.
“The lines between wired and wireless networks are blurring,” he says. “For Comcast and Charter, being a wireless operator isn’t optional. All network operators are going to be in the wireless business whether they like it or not.”
For more on Brian Roberts’ views on media, watch:
Some analysts are more skeptical about Comcast’s strategy of relying on Wi-Fi and filling in the gaps with Verizon. If Comcast customers spend too much time using Verizon’s airwaves, the costs will add up quickly for Comcast. Wi-Fi first mobile carriers have succeeded to some degree in other parts of the world, but the expansive sprawl of U.S. suburban and rural areas has posed a challenge for carriers relying on Wi-Fi here.
“The wireless industry is structurally different than Europe, where WiFi First strategies have had success,” said Walter Piecyk, an analyst at BTIG Research.
Still, new services from Comcast or other cable companies will likely hurt the big four wireless carriers, according to Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst at New Street Research.
“Verizon and AT&T have the most subs to lose, but Sprint and (T-Mobile) would suffer the greatest loss to equity value due to greater financial leverage and a lack of other businesses to cushion the blow,” Chaplin wrote in a report on Tuesday. However, T-Mobile “is somewhat insulated because Cable entry significantly raises the prospect of them being acquired.”