Why Comcast Already Sounds So Bored With Wireless

April 27, 2017, 4:33 PM UTC
National Cable and Telecommunications Association Cable Show
Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive officer of Comcast Corp., speaks during a news conference at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Cable Show in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. The Cable Show is expected to bring in more than 10,000 attendees with 286 companies on the exhibit floor. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Over the past year, Comcast has been ramping up its new wireless service, stoking fears across the industry that the cable giant would shake up the market and quickly create a fifth major carrier. More recently, Wall Street has gotten excited that Comcast may buy its way in by acquiring T-Mobile, Sprint, or even top player Verizon.

But it’s sounding increasingly like Comcast’s entry won’t have nearly the impact once hoped or feared. And there’s a good reason: The wireless market has grown much more competitive while almost every line of business in Comcast’s current stable has taken off.

One clear signal came three weeks ago, when Comcast formally announced details about the new wireless service, dubbed Xfinity Mobile. The service will only being sold within Comcast’s cable TV region, not nationwide, and the best deals will only available for customers who already subscribe to the company’s other services. Pricing will be most compelling only for customers of Comcast’s high-end X1 cable packages, who will get unlimited lines for a $20 discount.

Then two weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission announced the winning bidders in its latest airwave license auction. Analysts had expected Comcast would be fairly active and spend perhaps $3 billion to $6 billion, since it doesn’t currently own any airwave rights and is leasing capacity from Verizon. But Comcast spent just $1.7 billion and only won rights within its cable territory, leaving out other major cities such as Los Angeles and Dallas.

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Since then, three major wireless carriers have reported results. While T-Mobile (TMUS) continued to attract hoards of new customers, larger carriers AT&T (T) reported declining wireless revenue, and Verizon (VZ) had difficulty holding onto phone customers in a fiercely competitive market environment. It didn’t exactly paint a picture of an appealing new business opportunity for Comcast.

And unlike the struggling carriers, when Comcast reported its own first quarter results on Thursday, the company was firing on all cylinders. Overall, revenue jumped 9% to $20.5 billion and profits increased 20% to $2.6 billion. Despite fears of cord cutting, cable TV service revenue rose 4%, sales at Comcast’s cable networks increased 8%, and broadcast TV revenue climbed 6%. Movie studio revenue jumped 43%, fed by hits like Split and Get Out.

CEO Brian Roberts got on the phone with analysts and promised to keep the wireless effort modest. “We are taking a disciplined approach to the wireless business,” Roberts said, using one of Wall Street’s favorite metaphors for thriftiness. And he said Comcast wouldn’t sacrifice the profitability of its other businesses to build the wireless unit, promising wireless would be profitable on its own by some measures after reaching only “limited scale.”

Taken together, the statements and recent moves were enough to convince longtime industry analyst Craig Moffett that Comcast wasn’t being cagey about wireless ambitions. It just wasn’t being very ambitious.

Some analysts had argued that the limited moves to start its own service signaled that Comcast (CMCSA) was lining up to buy one of the major carriers instead. Moffett disagreed in a report on Thursday.

“A simpler explanation, however, is that Comcast stared into the abyss that is wireless these days… and decided they didn’t like what they saw,” the analyst wrote. “Not as a spectrum buyer, nor as a spectrum builder… and, most emphatically, not as a buyer of a whole company.”

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