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As cable and wireless companies become more dependent on each other, one media mogul says he feels positive that much larger consolidation is ahead for the industry.
"I don't know who buys who, or who starts what. But I know from my experience in Europe and Latin America that there's big synergies in combining the two networks," Liberty Media Chairman John Malone told CNBC at the company's annual Investor Meeting last week.
Malone is referring to his international cable business, Liberty Global, acquiring internet provider Virgin Media for $23.3 billion in 2013. The move expanded Liberty into Europe's largest cable market with nearly 80 percent of revenue post-deal coming from the UK, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Since that deal, Liberty has entered into agreements in Ireland and Austria to expand its reach even further.
Those agreements, known as mobile virtual network operator agreements — or MVNO's — allow a cable provider to essentially rent a specified amount of capacity from a wireless operator and that it then re-sells to its customers. Such arrangements allow cable companies to add to their list of services without building out their own wireless infrastructure.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this arrangement actually benefits both the MVNO, or cable operator, as well as the wireless operator. The MVNO can provide more attractive services to its customers, and the wireless operator can increase its market share without spending marketing dollars to attract customers.
Back in July, NBCUniversal's parent company, Comcast, confirmed plans to launch its own MVNO cellular service by mid-2017 in a deal with Verizon. Like most MVNO agreements, there are strict limits on how Comcast can repackage Verizon's service, and in this case, Comcast can only sell its wireless offering within a bundle of other services. (CNBC is a unit of NBCUniversal and Comcast.)
"We fundamentally believe we can make money for the shareholders through a wireless offering with the unique relationship that we have with the Verizon MVNO," Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts said in his most recent quarterly earnings call. "We can't go into detail about that relationship for obvious reasons, but we have the ability to do things that we think put us in a position to make that statement come true and create real value for our shareholders along the way."
Malone, however, said he believes that it's more likely that consolidation will take place among wireless and cable providers, rather than cable companies launching their own wireless networks.
"At some point, the [wireless] network that's supplying that to you is unhappy with you becoming a full competitor on their capital assets. And you start to get squeezed. You also don't have the ability to innovate services, because you're essentially a reseller of their service," he said.
Malone pointed to further and more aggressive relationships between cable and wireless companies as a solution to that problem.
"It's fine for Charter and Comcast to go down the MVNO road for a while, particular in the [business-to-business] world, because they have a great relationship with Verizon, which is the best technology network, " he said. "So you can start that way, but my belief is they will have to have a much deeper relationship with Verizon in the long run to make that work."
Other analysts believe that with the advent of 5G fixed wireless service in the coming years, MVNO agreements could be seen as a good defensive play for cable providers. As wireless providers get 5G into households, potentially supporting broadband, then cable providers could still offer comparable packages for wireless, VoIP phone, video and high-speed internet.
Verizon CEO Francis Shammo echoed this sentiment during Verizon's third-quarter earnings call.
"If you look at the future and you think about the [capacity-boosting] projects that we have going on, and then you look at the whole 5G world for fixed wireless, that's going to enter into a whole new growth trajectory for the entire industry," he said. "We'll respond where we need to respond, and we'll wait to see what happens."