Cox Maps Mobile Markets; Outage Hits Clearwire

As Cox Communications floated the first markets for its new 3G mobile voice and data services last week, broadband wireless provider Clearwire — whose investors include Comcast and Time Warner Cable — suffered glitches that brought some subscribers crashing to the ground.

Cox said it will kick off tests of wireless phone and mobile high-speed Internet services with small groups of customers in Hampton Roads, Va.; Omaha, Neb.; and Orange County, Calif., but the company is not disclosing expected pricing or any other details at this point.

Cox, which will be fighting head-to-head with AT&T and Verizon Wireless, is playing its cards close to its vest before the services become generally available next year. “We're not sharing those details (pricing, devices, etc.) right now, due to competitive reasons,” said manager of public relations Jill Ullman.

The company did say it plans to open new retail stores to market the wireless packages, saying that over time it will grow its workforce by about 20% throughout its retail locations in those markets.

Initially Cox will bring the service to market in partnership with Sprint Nextel, which was part of the failed Pivot venture formed by Cox, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in 2005. In March 2008, Pivot and its partners stopped selling the mobile-phone service.

With the new wireless services, Cox will manage everything except certain portions of the actual network. Cox executives have attributed the demise of Pivot to difficulty in controlling go-to-market aspects of the service, including pricing, billing, handsets, features and service enablement.

For now, Cox is claiming to be the first U.S. cable-systems operator to introduce a “fully integrated wireless phone and mobile high-speed Internet services.” The MSO is investing at least $1 billion on the wireless initiative, which includes around $550 million on wireless spectrum.

“Our customers have asked us to include wireless services as part of their bundle, and we've listened,” said Cox president Pat Esser.

But by relying on a partner to provide the underlying services, as even Cox will do initially with Sprint, cable operators will sometimes be at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

Case in point: Clearwire's wireless broadband service went offline the night of Tuesday, Dec. 8, for about five hours in Texas, Oregon, Las Vegas and Boise, Idaho — while single sites in Chicago and Seattle were also knocked out — and the outages potentially affected subscribers of the high-speed mobile data services offered by Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

“During network maintenance we encountered a software glitch that impacted service for Clear and MSO customers alike in certain markets,” Clearwire said in a statement to Multichannel News. “The issue has since been resolved, and service has been restored. This was a network issue, and customer equipment was not affected.”

Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas said subscribers in Oregon, Seattle and Chicago would have been affected by the Clearwire service disruption. A TWC Dallas representative was checking whether any mobile broadband subscribers were affected at press time.

According to Clearwire, there were two different technical issues that affected different markets.

In Texas, Oregon, Las Vegas and Boise, the network issue was related to a software upgrade Clearwire was performing on certain Motorola equipment. “We are working through the issues with Motorola, but service has been restored in these affected markets,” Clearwire said. Motorola did not respond to a request for comment.

In Seattle and Chicago, the disruptions were “isolated to single-cell sites and limited to the area those sites serve” and were unrelated to the Motorola issues encountered elsewhere, Clearwire said.