So Comcast ... where's the wireless?

Jim BartholdAn industry friend called the other day after listening to Comcast's fourth quarter earnings call.

"Where's the wireless?" she demanded, doing her best Clara Peller.

It was a good question. Wireless is an industry hot button. Cox Communications is rolling out mobile wireless and the industry's WiMAX partner, Clearwire, is backing away from its retail concept and clinging to hope with a wholesale effort and an appeal to other outside sources as its cable partners sit on their financial hands. Beyond cable, the government and wireless carriers are fighting to wrest spectrum from broadcasters for a national broadband plan that emphasizes the wireless component.

Only last summer CableLabs singled out BelAir's cable wireless concept as the top idea at its Innovation Showcase. The concept is essentially an outdoors base station deployed to leverage cable's HFC network to transceiver voice and data calls from any mobile device. It also uses the DOCSIS network to backhaul the traffic. Essentially, it makes cable a wireless player without the wireless network investment.

Mark Coblitz, Comcast's senior vice president of strategic planning was pretty effusive about the concept at the time.

"We all feel the pain that BelAir is looking to solve and we as MSOs hope we can participate in that solution of being able to get both coverage at spots and the capacity at specific locations," Coblitz said. "I think people can see the opportunity. We certainly are deploying this kind of equipment for WiFi right now, including BelAir's equipment. To be able to add the licensed spectrum to it is a real business opportunity."

It was not a business opportunity approached by executives during last week's call. They touched on myriad topics from NBCUniversal to set-top boxes and especially to home networking and Comcast's Xfinity interactive applications. But a wireless play outside the traditional home network? That was a little tougher to find.

"There's been a real technological shift with mobile devices, with WiFi and with tablets and pricing," said Chairman-CEO Brian Roberts. "If you had to look out the next couple years it's not at all inconceivable that many, many providers of these devices attached to the Internet through a WiFi connection in your home are just going to give you an array of new services that you just don't have historically."

The key phrase, in case you missed it, was "in your home." Roberts, as he has previously, stressed Comcast's in-building wireless opportunity. There was no mention of devices that used licensed spectrum as well as unlicensed (as per the BelAir picocell) and there was nothing said about going outside the home with or without Clearwire.

At the other end of New Jersey (figuring Comcast is in Philadelphia and Long Island is in New York and New Jersey, as it was during the Revolutionary War, is in the middle), Cablevision Systems had quite a different tune to sing about its wireless business. Cablevision, it should be noted, is not a Clearwire backer.

"Seventy percent of our customers have wireless WiFi installed in their house today and we're the largest provider of outdoor WiFi of any distributor in the country," Tom Rutledge, Cablevision's COO said. "Customers have lots of devices both in the home and out of the home that can use WiFi. WiFi has the capability of being higher capacity in terms of the speed than the 4G networks currently being deployed. With AT&T's experience, the existing cellular networks have a hard time managing data on the devices the way customers want to use it. WiFi is an adjunct to that and allows our relationship with the customer to improve their wireless service."

So, in answer to my Clara Peller-impersonating friend ... there's the wireless.--Jim