Wires lead to wireless and wireless leads back to wires

Jim Barthold
"All things wireless pretty much go through a wire at some point."

That was one line of a rather convoluted answer Glenn Britt, chairman-president-CEO of Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC-WI), offered last week when analysts at the Deutsche Bank Media & Telecom Conference asked about the MSO's wireless plans.

It was an old question, and, for the most part, Britt gave the industry's standard old answer about wireless: "We see the networks as being more hybrid ... with similar products and we see the offerings more as being bolted onto each other than as a separate thing. We've been trying to figure out the right selling proposition around this and quite frankly we haven't done that yet."

Britt didn't say--and perhaps he didn't need to--that it would be nice if Clearwire (Nasdaq: CLWR), cable's ostensible partner in wireless, would get its act together. But then again, cable has of late not seemed overly concerned about what's going on with Clearwire, which last week announced a management change at the top but not a new direction.

The Clearwire indifference could come from several quarters. The industry could be eyeing some sort of deal with LightSquared. It could be so far behind the wireless curve that it has no play and sees none coming up. Or it could be--and purists shudder at this conjecture--that cable is starting to see its service as a pipe leading from its facilities to a raft of consumer electronics that might or might not be wireless.

Or perhaps cable is double talking and obfuscating about wireless because it is doing just what its detractors say: hoarding its own wireless spectrum.

When Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH) boss Charlie Ergen offhandedly discussed his carrier's pent-up supply of wireless spectrum and what might or might not be done with it (sitting on it seemed most likely at this time), the broadcasting and consumer electronics spaces roared in indignation.

Those same groups have targeted Time Warner Cable for holding and not using spectrum even as the government tries to take back some of the spectrum it gave to broadcasters. To be fair--and who's fair anymore in any discussion on any level--the telcos, cable operators and satellite guys paid for the spectrum they're accused of hoarding. The broadcasters inherited theirs from previous generations of broadcasters who were, at one point, given the air because it was seemingly worth only what air is worth: nothing.

We now all know that the air is not free and that spectrum within that air is a valuable commodity. We've been told there's not enough of it to go around and that more must be found somewhere. We've been told by most cable operators--Cox being the exception--that wireless is a drawing board concept that may or may not fit with future business plans.

That leaves two very clear insights about wireless: it's in great demand, and it's being used. Don't believe it? Look at all those people in their cars who used to just listen to the radio (and that comes through the air too). Now, despite laws to the contrary, they have wireless devices plugged in their ears or connected through their radios or, worst of all, in their hands as they're driving.

Need more evidence? Visit the mall on a Saturday night and look at the teenagers. Then get really scared by looking at their parents--and grandparents.

The cable industry has been so secretive about what it's doing with wireless that it's a question at every analysts' conference, on every earnings call and at every trade show. What are you doing with wireless? Perhaps Glenn Britt provided an answer last week.

"All things wireless pretty much go through a wire at some point."

Few may know what cable's doing with wireless but everyone knows what cable's doing with its wires.--Jim