NCTC Talks with Sprint About Wireless Resale Deal for Independents

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Monterey, Calif. -- The National Cable Television Cooperative held “exploratory discussions” with the cellular-telephony operations of Sprint Nextel, according to Scott Abbott, executive vice president of the programming- and hardware-buying collective.

The talks, which began in the past year, are one way that the NCTC -- which represents 1,200 independent cable operators in 50 states -- said at The Independent Show here Monday that it is trying to find a way to help small and midsized cable operators offer mobile-phone service to their customers.

If a resale deal were to be reached with Sprint, Abbott said, the two sides would likely focus on markets where members had better footholds with households for their services than Sprint currently does in its wireless communications. The wholesale prices of Sprint’s services would probably slide down the more members that agreed to resell its wireless services.

But Abbott cautioned that he had not had a talk with Sprint executives for about two months. A deal “is not imminently forthcoming” he told NCTC members.

A resale deal between independent operators and Sprint would be wholly different from the joint venture Sprint already has with four large MSOs: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Advance/Newhouse Communications.

That venture has begun to roll out wireless services under the Pivot brand. Cox recently began to market Pivot in New England, and Sprint said the Pivot services should be available in 40 markets belonging to the four operators by year’s end.

Abbott noted that some independents had inquired about becoming part of that venture; but that is not a possibility until the big operators have gotten further along with their rollouts. He added that the NCTC could also explore whether to act on behalf of its members in coming up with a unified agreement with the Pivot partnership.

In the meantime, he said, independents can look at signing up resale deals on their own, but he cautioned them about branding. It could be confusing in some markets if a cable operator competing with Verizon Communications’ FiOS TV services were reselling Verizon Wireless services, for instance.

Other alternatives: signing deals with “mobile virtual-network operators,” which supply wireless-communications services working off of another party’s network infrastructure; and owning and operating their own wireless-communication networks.

That last option could be too complex and costly for many operators, Abbott indicated.

But one independent -- Comporium in Rock Hill, S.C. -- already sells wireless service that it carved out in a two-county area that had been part of BellSouth’s personal-communications-system network.

Comporium will start to market that service under its own Comporium Wireless brand, according to executive vice president Bill Beaty.

Currently, about 27% of the company’s wireline customers also take wireless service, and Comporium markets it as part of a “quintuple play” of home security, television, Internet, voice and wireless services. Even so, he said, “It’s been a hard business to get into.”

Aggressive wireless pricing has to be constantly advertised, he added, and retail stores are not only necessary, but must be operated in evenings and weekends to stay in the “highly competitive” game.

Another independent -- Eagle Communications in Hays, Kan. -- took the resale approach, acting as an authorized agent of Wavelink Communications, which operates personal-communications services throughout the state of Kansas.

Rex Skiles, general manager of Eagle Broadband, said billing for wireless services gets complicated under this approach. For instance, customers can sign up in Hays for the service at one of two locations: Eagle’s offices at 2703 Hall Street and Wavelink’s store in front of a Wal-Mart location. “But you want to own the customer,” he added, and make obtaining wireless service convenient.

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