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Comcast’s New Mobile Service Is Facing Increasingly Competitive Market

April 5, 2017, 8:32 PM UTC

Comcast is finally ready to unveil its new mobile phone service, but the market has shifted dramatically and gotten intensely more competitive since the cable giant first got started with the offering two years ago.

Comcast says it is announcing the wireless service–to go along with its cable TV, Internet, and phone bundles—on Thursday morning at a conference with financial analysts.

Based on what what Comcast executives have said publicly, analysts don’t expect the service to pose a significant threat to the four major wireless carriers immediately.

The cable company doesn’t own its own wireless airwave licenses, so the new service relies on a 2011 deal Comcast struck with Verizon to lease cellular airwaves. Comcast first made public its intention to offer wireless when it activated the Verizon agreement in October 2015.

Comcast may be supplementing its leased wireless coverage from Verizon with its extensive network of millions of Wi-Fi hotspots, creating a hybrid form of cellular and Wi-Fi phone service that’s not proven to attract many customers so far, according to analysts. And the company’s emphasis appears to be on bundling wireless service for its TV, phone and Internet service customers instead of focusing on a stand alone mobile pitch.

About 70% to 80% of Comcast’s 28 million customers bought a bundle of two or mores services, CEO Brian Roberts explained at an investor conference last year. With wireless, “we can sell them more products,” he said.

In January, the CEO was even clearer. “The goal of the business is to have better bundling with some of our customers who want to save some of their bill and get a world-class product,” Roberts said on Comcast’s January 26 earnings call with analysts.

Bundling reduces the rate of customers defecting to other companies, he explained: “If you can achieve that, we’ll see the economics really work-that’s the goal.”

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Bundling and discounting hasn’t always been a killer offer for mobile consumers and prior cable industry efforts to get into wireless flopped. Comcast and other cable companies backed startup wireless firm Clearwire, but cancelled their reseller agreements in 2011 after almost no customers signed up. Sprint ended up buying Clearwire shortly thereafter. Even before that, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks spent billions buying airwave rights in 2006 but never offered any service.

Pricing and promotion, to be revealed on Thursday, will be all-important, says analyst Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research. “There’s definitely potential for them to win some decent number of customers over the next few years if they price and structure it right and market it heavily,” he says. “But it could easily be a total non-event too.”

The group’s joint venture, SpectrumCo, sold the licenses covering 259 million people to Verizon in return for $3.6 billion and the rights to resell wireless service that Comcast’a service will rely on. Time Warner and Bright House are now part of Charter Communications, which has also said it plans to use the Verizon arrangement to offer its own wireless service later this year.

A lot has changed in the wireless market over the past five years. Back at the end of 2011, Verizon and AT&T were solid, but smaller competitors Sprint (S) and T-Mobile were losing customers. Lately, 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.

But perhaps the most important-and challenging-new development in wireless lately is the spread of relatively low cost unlimited data plans. Because Comcast (CMCSA) has to pay Verizon (VZ) for every gigabyte of data its wireless customers consume, analysts say the cable company may find it economically difficult to keep up with the major carriers’ unlimited plans.

The unlimited dilemma prompted T-Mobile’s (TMUS) outspoken CEO, John Legere, to predict that cable companies Comcast and Charter (CHTR) will soon seek to improve their financial position by buying a wireless company. And that could be when the cable guys really start to make an impact on wireless.