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Cox starts offering cell phones in “quadruple play”

In an unusual move, Atlanta-based cable operator Cox Communications is getting into the mobile phone business, making a so-called “quadruple play”—TV, Internet, landline phone, and mobile phone—in three regional markets that cover some 1.5 million customers. And to entice customers to switch over from other mobile operators, Cox is offering an “Unbelievably Fair” MoneyBack Minutes program, whereby customers can get back up to $20 per month for unused mobile minutes.

The service is initially available in Hampton Roads, Virginia, Omaha, Nebraska, and Orange County, California. Cox plans to expand the offering, but has not yet announced any details of future service areas. Cox has bought wireless spectrum licenses in San Diego, the Atlanta and New Orleans area, Las Vegas, New Mexico, and parts of Kansas.

“Wireless consumers have long been underserved on customer service,” said Cox wireless president Stephen Bye, in a statement. “With our customer-centric approach, we’re delivering much more than excellent network coverage and call quality. We went a step further by introducing new services and features to the Cox bundle that were built on fairness.”

Cox has been planning its wireless service for some time, building its own cell towers, and eventually plans to launch LTE 4G mobile broadband technology. However, to accelerate its entry into the market, Cox is currently working with Sprint Nextel to offer service. Cox has been leasing capacity on its network to other mobile operators for some time as it has built up the service.

To entice users to switch to the service, Cox is offering MoneyBack Minutes, which essentially provides customers credit for unused minutes on their mobile plans every month, in amounts up to $20. Cox touts the program as an improvement over plans in which customers lose minutes at the end of the month, or carry them over month-to-month with no benefit. Cox also will provide customers with free text message usage alerts when they approach limits. Cox is also enticing its cable customers with offers of throwing in additional cable service when users add wireless to their service bundle.

Cox is offering a reasonable variety of handsets, including several top-flight Android-based smartphones, including the HTC Desire, Hero, and Wildfire, along with the Motorola Milestone, and LG Axis.

Cox isn’t the first cable company to offer wireless service—Comcast operated a wireless network in the 1990s and has partnered with Clearwire on 4G. In fact, this isn’t even Cox’s first foray into wireless: back in the 1999 it sold its previous wireless network in southern California to Sprint, and partnered with Sprint for a few years starting in 2005 to bundle services to its video customers. But the decision to buy spectrum licenses and built out its own mobile infrastructure is a unique move for a cable company—and one partly enabled by it being a privately-held firm.