January 4, 2007 4:02 AM PST

Forget the triple play--wireless ups the ante

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If 2006 was the year of the triple play, 2007 may very well be the year of the quadruple bundle as cable operators and phone companies start to integrate mobile wireless services into their service packages.

Even though AT&T will soon own all of Cingular Wireless, and Verizon Communications owns a significant stake in Verizon Wireless, the cable industry seems to be taking an early lead in actually integrating the services and rolling them out to customers.

"Depending on how well mobile services are received by cable customers, it could up the ante in the battle between cable and phone companies," said Jim Penhune, an analyst with Strategy Analytics. "It will force the phone companies to readdress the market and get more serious about integrating their own wireless services into their offering."

Starting this year, all four of the cable operators involved in a joint venture with wireless carrier Sprint Nextel will launch their integrated mobile phone service. Comcast and Time Warner, which have already announced public pilot programs, are expected to expand their service in 2007. And Cox Communications and Advanced Newhouse also are expected to begin offering the service in 2007.

For cable operators, adding wireless to their bundle, which already includes high-speed Internet access, telephony and video services, means more than just providing customers with a single bill and a discount for buying more than one service. These companies see mobility as a way to add more convenience and value to services they already subscribe to.

"There is no question that wireless ties all of our services together," said Tom Nagel, senior vice president and general manager of wireless services at Comcast. "The idea is you can take the services you enjoy at home with you when you're on the go using a mobile device."

In the initial launch Comcast, Advanced Newhouse, Time Warner and Cox will allow customers to access their e-mail, cable TV guide and home voice mail from their cell phones. They'll offer some video content on their phones that would otherwise be available only at home. Eventually, the cable companies want to allow customers to be able to do things like program their DVRs remotely from their handsets.

Still early in development
But the companies admit that they are still in the early stages of developing these services. This past year, they've focused mainly on logistics, such as offering customers a single bill that details charges for all their services, including, broadband, voice, TV and wireless. They've also been training sales and support staff to handle the new wireless service. And they've worked on getting the basics of the service in place, such as simplifying the user interfaces so that customers can easily navigate the services and so that those services feel familiar and comfortable to customers.

This means that when customers access their e-mail or view the cable TV guide on their phone, the interface on the phone will be similar to what they see on the PC screen or on their TV at home. The voice mail service doesn't provide a single mailbox, but it offers the home voice mail mailbox as an option in the menu when checking for wireless voice mail messages.

"We know customers aren't begging for a bundled bill," said John Garcia, president of the Sprint-Cable Joint Venture. "And they don't necessarily want a new service. What they really want is for the services they already have to work together."

While they may not be as far along as the cable operators and Sprint in developing an integrated wireless service, the phone companies made it clear during the past several months that they will add wireless services to their bundles. During the second half of 2006, Verizon began offering a voice-services bundle that allowed people to talk for free between their cell phones and their Verizon home phones. It also provides a single voice mailbox. But the service is limited to certain customers in Texas and Florida. And it doesn't yet integrate any of the broadband or TV services the company is offering.

CONTINUED: Change on the horizon…
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wireless service, Cox Communications Inc., cable company, Comcast Corp., bundle

 

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