Comcast Says It Will Launch Wireless Service In “Middle Of The Year”

Image courtesy of Mr.TinDC

Comcast had a lot to brag about this morning when it unveiled its latest quarterly earnings: revenue is up; cord-cutting has stalled (for now); and the company’s share price is high enough for a split, doubling the number of shares to more than 4.7 billion. But the question on a number of investors’ lips today was “When is Comcast launching its wireless service?”

Just like a year ago, Comcast’s results run counter to the dire predictions that it and others made about the effect of increased FCC regulation and restored Net Neutrality. Instead, Comcast continues to thrive.

The company now boasts more than 24.7 million broadband customers, as compared to 23.3 million at the end of 2015. It also has more than 22.5 million TV customers — a modest but genuine increase since last year, which does indeed buck the cord-cutting trend, at least for the time being.

Kabletown Goes Wireless

But in a call with investors about their results, Comcast C-suite executives, despite their overwhelming giddiness with the state of the company heading into 2017, acknowledged that the future is, perhaps, elsewhere. Like, say, the mobile market.

Comcast first publicly confirmed it plans to launch a wireless service last fall. In today’s call, executives were deliberately cagey about their upcoming mobile plans, declining to provide specifics and restating that the launch window is “the middle of the year.” However, they did confirm a few key points:

First, the rollout will be slow and cautious, likely only starting in a very limited number of markets before gradually expanding nationwide.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said, “We will be measured in our rollout, learning and adapting along the way,” a sentiment echoed by executives throughout the call. Speakers likened the plan to the X1 rollout, which began in 2012 and just now is in use by slightly under half of Comcast TV customers.

Second, Comcast plans to operate just like every other wireless carrier does these days: by offering high-end phones that you buy from them and then pay back in installments over a period of years. CFO Mike Cavanagh explained to investors that the company’s approach “will be to purchase the phones and collect payments,” saying that Comcast is likely to have a big spend on handsets up-front but to see it even out in the long run as consumers pay it back.

Third, yes, of course, wireless will be a bundled service. Roberts said that Comcast feels it can fit into an admittedly crowded marketplace by “adding value” for existing customers. That value is partially price — ideally you pay less for a bundle including Comcast mobile services than you do for a Comcast and wireless bill added together each month — but also simplicity. “The goal of the business is to have better bundling with some of our customers who want to save on their bill and get a bundle and have lower churn,” one executive said during a question and answer session.

Fourth: Comcast is perfectly happy with its Verizon partnership, and has its eye on testing 5G capabilities already.

The mobile service, as outlined, uses a combination of Comcast WiFi hotspots and Verizon’s mobile network, in order to operate. But mobile companies, Verizon included, all have their eye on developing ultra-speedy 5G mobile networks in the not-too-distant future.

MORE: What the heck is 5G, anyway?

Comcast plans to be a part of that future… but it’s been a cable company, and coaxial cable has physical limits. One investor asked point-blank if coax was capable of carrying 5G traffic, or if doing so required fiber.

5G is a little tricky, executives acknowledged. “We’re doing some testing right now … it’s going to need space, power, and backhaul,” one confirmed.

“We have, call it, 150,000 miles of fiber across 650,000 miles of total plant [physical cables laid], and we think that we’re well-positioned to participate in the 5G rollout no matter how it happens, as a result of having all those assets in place already,” he continued.

But can coaxial cable support actual 5G connection speeds? That’s something Comcast is “still testing,” is all they would say.