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Comcast planning to have its own mobile voice network?

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April 10, 2014

Cable TV and ISP behemoth Comcast is now hinting that it might be interested in luring away some of its competing mobile carriers' business as well, and it looks like it has a few plans in the works.

In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange commission this week, Comcast said that it plans to dramatically increase the number of Wi-Fi hotspots it operates in the United States, which it said "could make a Wi-Fi-first service, which combines commercial mobile radio service with Wi-Fi, a more viable alternative. And part of that plan is its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable."

Executives from both Comcast and Time Warner Cable appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to make their case for the deal, but they had a difficult time convincing some members.

"What we've heard among some of our colleagues is a general sense of skepticism, which is reflected in the general public, about how this deal will really help consumers," said Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "The case has yet to be made that consumers will benefit in a tangible, real substantial way."

If the deal is approved, the combined company will be the country's dominant provider of television and Internet connections, reaching roughly one in three American homes.

And the new company would have a nearly 40 percent share of the high-speed broadband Internet market, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

To be sure, such a service would likely be similar to what is currently being offered by upstart carrier Republic Wireless, which uses a proprietary VoIP app for Android to connect calls over the internet, only switching over to cellular networks when a Wi-Fi connection is unavailable.

It's understandable that the whole idea interests Comcast-- after all, it would bring a lot more business for the company. It also sounds similar to what Google has reportedly been planning as well.

The internet giant is said to be considering offering wireless voice and data to its Google Fiber customers, with calls running over Wi-Fi hotspots on the Google Fiber network when they are available, just like Republic Wireless.

For a company the size of Comcast to offer a Wi-Fi-first service could potentially be disruptive for the U.S. mobile industry, where customers are for the most part divided between the Big Four wireless giants-- AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

Mobile customers can choose from a number of smaller, so-called mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), but these all license their service from the giants, so the Big Four end up profiting from them anyway. It's a win-win.

By supplementing their reliance on the Big Four's mobile towers with Wi-Fi, however, companies like Republic Wireless have a legitimate shot at wresting away some control of the mobile market and potentially offering customers real value.

Republic's mobile service plans start at just $5 per month. But of course, Comcast's proposal has a catch. Everything suggested in its SEC filing on Tuesday is contingent upon regulators giving the green light to its planned $45 billion merger with current rival Time Warner Cable, a deal that has raised plenty of eyebrows, and is in front of Congress as you read this.

And the merger is no sure thing-- far from it. Critics have long argued that it will dramatically reduce competition in the U.S. wired internet business, and regulators have been reluctant to see that happen in other telecommunications markets as well, namely wireless, where top antitrust officials have studied a proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint.

It's little wonder that Comcast would try to paint its merger with Time Warner as creating more competition in the wireless market, rather than less.

In other mobile news

Apple's iPhone 5S is taking a bit on an advantage on a downturn in Android sales but its lead may not last long. But Apple is taking it anyway. And why not. Canaccord Genuity market analyst Michael Walkley said that Android smartphone sales have been lower as new devices get set to launch this month. As just one example, Samsung's new Galaxy S5 will reach consumers on April 11. So the focus of some users is still directed towards Android to a certain degree. Overall, March surveys of wireless stores conducted by Canaccord Genuity point to the iPhone 5S as the top seller in the United States and many other countries. However, Apple's victory may be short lived, according to Walkley. But not everybody may agree with him.

"With our surveys indicating gradually increasing consumer interest in and pre-order activity for these new Android smartphones, we anticipate new higher-end Android smartphones to gain some market share versus the iPhone during the April to June quarter," Walkley added.

But no matter how you look at it, the pendulum could also likely swing back to Apple in the third quarter with the expected launch of the new iPhone 6.

A rumored larger screen size could generate a significant number of upgrades among loyal iPhone users, helping Apple win back lost market share, the analyst added.

"Given strong iPhone and iPad customer loyalty, we believe larger screen iPhones and iPads should create a very strong upgrade cycle during the second half of 2014 given the popularity of larger screen smartphones and tablets combined with new hardware form factors accelerating replacement rates for Apple's growing installed base," Walkley added.

In other mobile news

Today, during a keynote address at Microsoft's Build App developer conference, executive vice president of devices at Nokia Stephen Elop unveiled the new Nokia Lumia 930, a 5-inch Windows Phone 8.1 device that features a 20-megapixel camera and wireless charging. The Nokia Lumia 930 is expected to launch sometime in June for a little under US $600. The new smartphone will be available in a wide array of bright colors including orange and green with metallic trimmings. It will include a 2.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and its powerful PureView camera has a number of photo editing features via an app called Creative Studio.

And no less than four microphones are built in for a more robust audio-recording experience. Additionally, Nokia added Living Images, which enables users to combine photos and short videos for a more creative cinematic image.

As for Windows Phone 8.1, the updated operating system will feature Cortana, a digital assistant not unlike Apple's Siri or Google Now.

Currently in its beta phase, Cortana is represented by a pair of moving circles and lives in the Windows live tile on the homescreen.

Powered by Bing, it can look up airline flights, sports scores, and even nutritional information. There's also an "Action Center," similar to the drop-down menus for Android and iOS, which allows users to quickly turn on and off settings like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as a Notifications menu.

The update also has bolstered security and privacy settings like email encryption; a refreshed Word Flow keyboard with slide-type capabilities; and Wi-Fi Sense, a service that suggests and connects to free surrounding networks.

Though the dev preview for Windows Phone 8.1 will roll out to developers this month, it will be available to consumers in the coming months only.

Existing Windows Phone users can receive an over-the-air update to 8.1 this summer. We'll keep you posted on this and other stories as they develop.

In other mobile news

For the past few months, it appears that, on average, LTE coverage may be improving somewhat for the 4 major U.S. carriers. However, data transfer speeds on 4G networks are on their way down over the last year, according to data collected from subscribers. OpenSignal, whose app users can track to monitor their own coverage, shows that T-Mobile has the fastest data transfer speeds over the last three months, averaging at about 11.5 mbps.

Overall, AT&T was placed a near second at 9.1 mbps, Verizon was in third at 7.8 mbps, and Sprint was the slowest at 4.3 mbps. But those network speeds dropped over the last year, as measured by the 103,025 OpenSignal users that reported the data in the first place.

Verizon customers are most likely to have an LTE network available, judging by data gathered by OpenSignal over the last three months.

"Mobile service operators are constantly upgrading their technologies and rolling out to new areas, while increased user load on LTE networks combats these improvements," OpenSignal said. "Consequently it can be seen that all four networks trend downwards over the past year."

The United States has leapfrogged Europe in adopting 4G, but the benefits for consumers are counterbalanced by high expenses for wireless carriers. Verizon said it'll spend between $16.5 billion and $17 billion on capital expenditures in 2014, for example.

That type of spending, along with steep fees to license wireless radio spectrum, is driving consolidation efforts such as AT&T's failed bid to acquire T-Mobile and Sprint's current push to acquire T-Mobile.

The percentage of time users could get LTE networks has steadily increased over the last year. By the percentage of time LTE is available, Verizon is at the top of the list at 83 percent.

Next comes AT&T at 71 percent, then T-Mobile at 61 percent, and Sprint again is in last place at 57 percent, OpenSignal said.

In other mobile news

Google said earlier today that it's planning a minor update to its Android platform, according to a number of sources.

It should arrive as the 4.4.3 release of Android, and the new version is expected to be all about bug fixes and minor tweaks. Suggesting the 4.4.3 build would address a known camera issue, an observer in the blogosphere say that it would debut within the next few weeks.

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A source close to Android Police most recently said that there could be upward of two dozen bug fixes in the next OS release.

As it stands today, many of these features may not even be noticeable to the average user. With that in mind, we could anticipate fixes for features such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, the camera itself, data usage and some USB debugging.

To be sure, the KitKat versions of Android were recently found to be the most stable of all mobile platforms. According to the first Mobile Experience Benchmark report from Crittercism, Android 4.4+ crashes roughly 0.7 percent of the time.

Tossing in a few dozen bug fixes should even see that number further drop. We'll keep you poeted on this and other stories as they happen.

In other mobile news

Sony said earlier this morning that it simply can't meet the strong demand for its new Xperia Z2 flagship phone, while preorders should go out sometime in April, the general public won't see the device until mid-May or even a bit later.

The company says it's working tirelessly to maximize stock levels of the new waterproof smartphone, but one online retailer is warning customers not to expect stock until May 1st at the very earliest.

The phone had previously been expected to go on sale in mid-April. "The Sony Xperia Z2 will be available in Britain during April and we are expecting to deliver to all consumers who have placed a pre-order through our key partners," a Sony spokesperson said in a statement.

"We are working tirelessly to maximise stock levels in April but currently we do not expect to meet the high demand across all our sales channels," he added.

Sony was unable to clarify who its key partners are, but we would expect high-street retailers such as Carphone Warehouse and Phones 4U in Britain, as well as the major networks. Vodafone is offering a free 32-inch Sony Bravia TV with the Xperia Z2.

The cause of the delay seems to be a small issue in the supply line. "Sony advises that they had a component manufacturing problem from a third party who make a part for the phone," according to a spokesperson for British retailer Unlocked Mobiles.

The Xperia Z2's key selling points are its new ability to record 4K-resolution video with its 20-megapixel camera, its waterproof glass and aluminium body, and a fast 2.3 GHz quad-core processor.

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Source: IWN.

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