Times are tough for the cable industry, not that they deserve much sympathy. Faced with a dizzying array of online entertainment options, it's never been easier for consumers to drop cable providers such as Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) (UNKNOWN:CMCSK.DL) or Time Warner Cable like a bad habit and never look back.
However, amid this changing climate, U.S. cable leader Comcast, aside from its recent surprise earnings beat, made waves by announcing its intentions to follow the likes of AT&T (NYSE:T) and DISH Network into what appears to be the future of the telecom industry.
Comcast crosses the spectrum?
In a move few saw coming, Comcast recently disclosed that it plans to participate in the FCC's wireless spectrum auction to be held later this year. As Comcast CFO Michael Cavanaugh said: "We will be filing to participate in the upcoming forward spectrum auction. But I want to be clear that the $5 billion in planned 2016 buybacks will not be reduced in the event that we acquire some spectrum in the auction." Comcast, however, declined to provide much in the way of guidance on the matter.
Depending on the outcome of the auction, Comcast could become the latest major telecom or cable distributor to hold an appreciable amount of spectrum. The analyst community believes Comcast could spend as much as $5 billion to acquire spectrum, though it would probably need to raise $1 billion to $2 billion of that total by divesting non-core assets. Either way, its shareholders should take solace that Comcast is aware that mobile subscribers are likely to drive the future of cable.
Industry in transition
With the explosion of mobile data consumption ushered in by 4G deployment across the U.S., wireless spectrum has become arguably the most valuable asset for telecom, and, increasingly, cable distributors.
In today's market, mobile operators have used cable and wireless bundles as an incentive to drive subscriber growth. Here, AT&T serves as the shining example, after closing on its megadeal to acquire satellite-TV provider DirecTV last year. AT&T only recently began packaging different incentives around its TV and wireless services to drive subscriber growth. For example, it recently unveiled a limited-time plan in which new subscribers can purchase unlimited-data plans from AT&T, so long as they also subscribe to either its U-verse or DirecTV television services.
Depending on the quality and quantity of the spectrum Comcast could secure, the company could create a similar offer, though deploying that spectrum independently would require massive capital expenditures on Comcast's part. But there's also a longer-term opportunity Comcast could have in mind.
Though the logistics would require some potential partnerships, there's a case to be made that the future of video content consumption could flow through cellular services such as AT&T's. If the industry heads in that direction, then the cable companies with spectrum on their balance sheets will be the ones positioned to win, or at least not lose.
To that end, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts stated on the recent conference call: "Our definition of broadband is totally different today than it was five years ago for what you get as a consumer. ... I think that goes back into whether we can do something creative in the future, whether that's involving spectrum or Wi-Fi or some of the existing relationships we've got."
It's also worth noting that Comcast competitor DISH Network also owns sizable spectrum assets, though the company has yet to elaborate on its strategy. However, with Comcast increasingly eyeing mobile spectrum, it appears the coming years could see a number of interesting changes as mobile looms increasingly large among consumers.