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Like Google, Comcast might roll its own mobile voice network

Says anything's possible if regulators approve merger with Time Warner

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Google apparently isn't the only company thinking about getting into the wireless networking game. Cable TV and internet giant Comcast has hinted that it's interested luring away some of the mobile carriers' business, too.

In a filing with the US Securities and Exchange commission on Tuesday, Comcast said that it plans to dramatically increase the number of Wi-Fi hotspots it operates in the country, which it said "could make a 'Wi-Fi-first' service, which combines commercial mobile radio service with Wi-Fi, a more viable alternative."

Such a service would likely be similar to what is currently 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 also sounds plenty similar to what Google has reportedly been pondering. The Mountain View Chocolate Factory 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.

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

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.

Comcast's proposal has a catch, however. Everything suggested in its SEC filing on Tuesday is contingent upon regulators giving the green light to its planned $45bn merger with current rival Time Warner Cable, a deal that has raised plenty of eyebrows.

Said merger is no sure thing. Critics have argued that it will dramatically reduce competition in the US wired internet business, and regulators have been reluctant to see that happen in other telecommunications markets – namely wireless, where top antitrust officials have looked askance at a proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint.

Little wonder, then, that Comcast would try to paint its merger with Time Warner as creating more competition in the wireless market, rather than less. Tell us, Reg faithful, are we buying it? Let us know in Comments. ®

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