Wireless lurks behind the dust cloud that cable stirred up

Jim BartholdThere was, as expected, a lot of talk about "the cloud" at last week's Cable Show. Most of it was about that amorphous cloud that engineers draw in those overcluttered PowerPoint presentations they love and marketing people have now adopted.

The cloud, in cable's case, is all about servers that sit anywhere and everywhere, acting as a hoarders' closet, holding personal items, TV shows, data, anything you, or your service provider, don't want to store in a fat residential box.

But there was another cloud at the show: a dust cloud the industry was stirring up like Cheyenne warriors charging back and forth in front of soldiers to obscure their escaping villagers. That dust cloud consisted of programmers and service providers clawing at each other's throats to make money off content but in reality obfuscated what cable's trying to hide from public view: The industry still has no visible wireless plan.

This doesn't mean cable won't or hasn't drawn up said plan because, face it, cable and wireless are like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor: They're mutually attracted but it's questionable whether they can live with each other.

When asked about 4G mobile, Robert Cerbone, vice president of mobile products for Time Warner Cable said: "We don't view it as a threat. We view it as an opportunity."

Right now that opportunity is coming through Clearwire, which Time Warner Cable's executives have called a less-than-inspiring venture. Cerbone, of course, towed the company line about competitive LTE, noting, "I don't really think that's a replacement for the fixed market."

Kelly Williams, vice president of wireless product operations for Cox Communications had a slightly different take. First, he explained, his company has not abandoned its own wireless play despite the fact that it shut down its 3G operations and went to Sprint as an MVNO. No, indeed, Williams said, "We see the writing on the wall relative to 4G. That's absolutely on our radar screen."

As long as that radar screen isn't GPS-enabled. Then there might be a problem with one of the potential sources for wholesale wireless.

Kevin Curran, senior vice president of (again) wireless product development was a bit more realistic. Yeah, mobile wireless and 4G might happen someday, he said, but "we're not really bullish on voice right now; we're really bullish on the data."

That data is flowing over recently increased WiFi speeds and the "goal is to offer all the products outside the home," he said.

As long as those products are available without using licensed spectrum or newfangled mobile devices that run on LTE or some other cellular system.

When it comes to dust clouds, nobody outdoes Comcast, a company so shrouded in secrecy it's likely workers have to guess employee lunch specials.

When asked about wireless, no less a Comcast authority than Chairman-CEO Brian Roberts stirred up a huge dust cloud, calling the entire cable industry "relevant," talking about innovative customer relationships and denouncing cord cutting as any kind of trend without answering the question about where Comcast is going with wireless.

When pressed even harder, Roberts responded: "WiFi has been a game changer. If you look at wireless and the future of wireless, it keeps changing so fast. The question for me, for the ecosystem in Silicon Valley, is it a good bet?"

Roberts was eager to talk about the other cloud.

"Today," he said, "the next generation involves cloud computing, not necessarily cloud storage. The cloud allows you to be able to have faster innovation."

And the cloud allows you to obscure what others might want to know: like where's the wireless and, for the lunchtime crowd, where's the beef? Somewhere in the cloud, perhaps.--Jim