Cox Communications' long-awaited wireless debut came to fruition today with residential launches in three of the cable operators' systems.

It may have taken Cox longer than some expected to get a wireless service deployed, but it has come up with a feature-rich offering for subscribers and new customers that also targets the "pain points" of other wireless carriers.

As of today, Cox's wireless and mobile data service is available in Hampton Roads, Va., Omaha, Neb., and Orange County, Calif., which were also markets where Cox first launched its wireless trials in December of last year.

As part of its overall plan, Cox has opened 25 retail stores in the three systems where its service has gone live. Along with its wireless service, Cox is offering bundled options with its traditional triple-play services, and its customers can see how the products and services are integrated through demos at the store, as well as check out Cox's lineup of devices, which includes five Android-based phones.

While Cox has ambitions for launching its own 3G network, the first three markets are using Sprint's network for now.  

"We are leveraging Sprint's radio network and their RAN (radio access network), but substantially everything else behind that is our own infrastructure," said Stephen Bye, Cox's vice president of wireless. "Taking advantage of an established wireless network is a lot quicker than what it takes in terms of building out a brand new network."

Using Sprint's 3G CDMA EVDO Rev A network, Bye said Cox's wireless data cards can burst up to 1.5 Mbps on the downstream and have throughput speeds of 400 Kbps to 600 Kbps on the upstream. Cox wireless users have access to Sprint's nationwide network when they're out of their respective Cox service areas.

Researching a better wireless service
Bye said Cox spent a considerable amount of time researching what its customers wanted from a wireless provider. While Bye described the wireless market as "formidable" with the number of entrenched service providers already offering services, Cox was able to build a brand new service from the ground up that eliminated some of the frustrations customers had with other wireless providers.

Cox has tagged its wireless service as "Unbelievably Fair," which includes "MoneyBack Minutes" that give customers credit for unused minutes on that month's billing cycle. Customers can receive up to $20 a month with MoneyBack Minutes.

In order to keep customers from "bill shock" when they find out they've gone over their plans' limits, Cox has Usage Alerts, which are free text messages that notify a user when he or she is about to exceed their plan. When customers are about to go over their current plans, they have the option of upgrading to a higher tier, or of managing their current plans better during the billing cycle.

Cox wireless users can also save precious minutes with free mobile-to-mobile calls and free calls between Cox digital customers and Cox wireless users.

Bye said Cox made a concerted effort to make sure customers could easily compare its plans to the competitions' plans.  In order to "right size" plans, Cox is offering a slate of choices:

Individual monthly rate plans
$39.99 for 450 minutes
$59.99 for 800 minutes
$69.99 for unlimited talk
$99.99 for unlimited talk, text and Web

Family plans
$69.99/month for 800 minutes
$89.99/month for 1,400 minutes
$109.99/month for 2,100 minutes
$119.99/month for unlimited with two lines

Optional features

Messaging Plans:
Unlimited messaging (text, picture and video messaging)
An additional $20 a month on individual plans
An additional $30 a month on family plans
300 messages an additional $5/month
1500 messages an additional $15/month

Mobile Web Plans:
$!5 per month for Unlimited Starter
$30 per month for Unlimited Advanced (for advanced devices)
Unlimited messaging and mobile Web
An additional $30 per month on individual plans

Power of the bundle
Cox is enticing its existing customers to take the wireless service for a spin by offering "Bundle Benefits." With Bundle Benefits, premium tier customers who subscribe to more than one Cox service can choose one free upgrade just for adding wireless voice. The choices include upgrading to Cox Movie Pak, a high-speed Internet upgrade from Preferred to Premium, or unlimited domestic long-distance calling on Cox's home service.

"Our strength with our customers is clearly around the bundle," Bye said. "We really wanted to provide more than just a competitive offer on wireless. We also wanted to show the customers that there's more value in bundling services with Cox. That's a key part of the value proposition, and also ties back into the value of our retail footprint as we show customers how we tie in those products and services."

Other features for Cox's wireless service include: a remote DVR manager, which works on both Android and Brew devices; Universal Contact Manager, which allows users to manage, backup and organize data and wireless contacts in one place; and Voice Mail to Text, which converts voicemail messages to text before delivering them to a Cox wireless device as a text message.

As for streaming video over the mobile devices, Bye said Cox has conducted its own tests and that "there's more to come on that."

Cox first announced it would pursue its own wireless plans in 2008. It acquired wireless spectrum from Federal Communications Commission auctions in 2006 and 2008. Cox spent more than $550 million for radio spectrum licenses to support its wireless plans.

Bye said there was no timetable on additional 3G wireless residential launches, or for when Cox Business would start offering the service to its customers.

Now that Cox has its wireless service available in the three systems, it can gauge customer response over the holiday season.

"We felt that as we came to market against some formidable competitors in the marketplace, we needed to make sure that we had a service and capability that we can stand up and be proud of next to the brand that we have and the relationships we have with our customers," Bye said.