AIDED by legislation passed by Congress last year, "wireless cable" television companies hope to compete more successfully with their larger cable rivals.
The legislation, which partially reregulated rates in the cable industry, also provided that cable companies must offer their programming to their wireless competition at fair-market prices.
The improved access to programming is one reason why Robert Schmidt, president of the Wireless Cable Association International, is optimistic about his industry. He also says the wireless approach costs less to deploy than traditional cable because it does not require miles of underground cable and signal amplifiers. Instead, the same programming is sent from a transmitter to a one- or two-foot wide antenna on an individual home. This allows wireless to charge lower prices. "We maintain ... that the pict ure quality is superior to cable," he adds.
Mr. Schmidt says that as a whole, Wall Street still needs to be convinced. The financial community is just beginning to show interest: Two wireless cable firms recently had public stock offerings. Cable companies had 55.2 million customers versus 320,000 for wireless at the end of last year.
Paul Kagan Associates Inc. of Carmel, Calif., forecasts that while wireless will gain some ground, the market will remain skewed toward traditional cable. The firm foresees about 4 million wireless subscribers in 2002, but 71 million people hooked up to standard cable. So far, wireless has grown best in areas that are not served by cable at all.
In Spokane, Wash., John Hansen runs the Skyline Entertainment Network, which currently has 4,500 customers. "We spent most of our time in the first couple of years just going where people have nothing" in the way of cable TV, Mr. Hansen says.
Schmidt, meanwhile, looks abroad for opportunities, operating in Ireland and Moscow. "It is expanding more rapidly internationally" than in the US, with 1.5 million customers at present, he says. Many countries have no other cable service. Programming ranges from music to news. "Some of the most popular programming we have in Russia is [dubbed] Mexican soap operas."