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Cable firms now want to bundle cell service

Two months ago, Fred Poteet walked into a Sprint store to resolve some problems with his cellphone. When he walked out, he had a new wireless contract, with Cox Communications Inc., his cable television operator.

"Since I already had Cox digital TV, the high-speed Internet, and the telephone, they said they could bundle it all in one package," said the 62-year-old engineer from Goodyear, Ariz. "They were also giving away a free phone if I added another line."

Branded cellphone service is the latest attempt by cable operators to compete with traditional phone companies that themselves are invading cable's turf by offering television service. Each side wants all of the consumer's communications business, and each has plans to make the technologies complement each other.

Cox is one of four top cable companies hoping to attract more customers like Poteet as they roll out mobile phone service this year with Sprint Nextel Corp. in New York. The cell service is powered entirely by Sprint, but the cable operators do their own marketing and take over the customer service.

Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable television operator, is expanding its cellphone service this year beyond its two test markets in Boston and Portland, Ore., while number two Time Warner Cable will be launching mobile in all regional divisions by the end of the year. The Stamford, Conn., cable operator has been doing tests in Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C.

In February, Atlanta-based Cox launched a mobile plan in the Phoenix area and San Diego, as part of a bundle of services. It will be rolling out the service in more cities this year. The fourth partner, Advance/Newhouse Communications, would only say its cable arm is testing in a few cities.

But it may be an uphill battle to get consumers to think of cable companies as cellphone providers, in part because cable companies still don't have the depth of offerings available from other wireless carriers. Cable also has to overcome a reputation for higher annual price hikes than the phone companies.

Sam Gonzales, a 28-year-old marketing manager from Gaithersburg, Md., isn't attracted to cable cellphones because of the slim pickings.

"The only partnership they have is with Sprint," he said. "It was only four handsets they were going to offer. It limits you to a lot of things."

One sign the integration isn't easy: Customers still can't order the cellphone service through the cable operators' websites because of incompatibilities among all their systems.

To lure consumers, cable is not only touting the convenience of paying communications costs on one bill and cable e-mail access, but also free calls to the cable land-line phone, streaming television shows to the handset, and, later, remote programming of digital video recorders and other perks.

For Poteet, an in-store demonstration by Cox caught his eye. What cemented the deal was that by paying a bit more, he got 100 more minutes and five cell numbers instead of four, plus cable features like access to his Cox e-mail.

Cable launched the bundling trend with its triple-play discounted package of video, Internet, and phone service, which has drawn millions of customers from phone and satellite television companies. Now, it's about the quad play.

Competition is so intense that it's not unusual to see the local cable and phone companies bombard neighborhoods with direct-mail advertising and phone calls. Newspaper and broadcast ads abound, with one side, notably Verizon Communications Inc., sniping at rivals like Comcast.