For all its impressive advances of the past thirty years -- the move from analog to digital and its data and wireline voice initiatives chief among them -- the cable industry has lagged wireless voice.
The inability to get traction in wireless voice is a fundamental flaw because it is something their core customers want and are willing to go to competitors to get. The explosion of wireless means that the liability -- as well as the sense of urgency -- is growing.
The cable industry, which held its annual convention this week in Los Angeles, certainly knows the score, and seems to be working to address the problem. This isn't the first time, however, and success is far from certain.
The cable industry's major wireless initiative is its large minority investment in Clearwire, which offers 4G services under the Clear label. Right now, Clearwire is a WiMax data service, with voice services only possible through wireless VoIP approaches such as Skype or by twinning the WiMax data service with majority owner Sprint's cellular voice.
The action is heating up. At the show, part-owners Cox and Time Warner said that they will sell Clear under their own brands in some areas beginning this summer. Sprint also said it will begin offering Clear. This week Clearwire said that it is expanding to a number of large and mid-tier cities, including Grand Rapids, Mich., Eugene Ore., Nashville and Wilmington, Del.
Meanwhile, Clear's management is increasingly vocal about the possibility of adding Long Term Evolution (LTE), the version of 4G that is expected to dominate. Its positioning has shifted subtly to encompass the possibility during the past year or so. LTE happens to be the platform on which another cable operator is banking.
Cox is the biggest cable company without an ownership position in Clearwire. BusinessWeek reports that the company will use Sprint's network to provide residential and business services in Orange County, Calif.; Omaha and Hampton Roads, Va., which are the company's traditional testing grounds for new services and platforms. The story says that the company also is building its own LTE network.
It's all confusing and has a improvised feel. The key is that cable operators must develop a wireless voice play. Since Sprint is at the root of both Clearwire and the Cox initiative, it seems to make sense that the industry could eventually buy the company.