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Cable WiFi: The Perfect Storm

Published on 18 Jun 2013

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However, even with the range of interesting and thought-provoking topics on offer, the media coverage from the first day of the show highlighted the event’s real headliner:

  • Cable WiFi Alliance tops 150,000 hotspots CED Magazine
  • Comcast turns wireless gateways into neighbourhood WiFi hotspots Multichannel News
  • TWC has more than 12k hotspots in Southern Cal CED Magazine

Clearly, WiFi garnered a lot of attention at this year’s event — and rightfully so. WiFi has become the preferred network architecture for cable operators enabling mobile broadband. The proliferation of WiFi-enabled “smart” devices like smartphones and tablets, along with the increasing trends of WiFi offloading and WiFi bypassing, is helping to drive the popularity of WiFi broadband consumption.

WiFi offloading occurs when cellular operators offer WiFi offloading to alleviate traffic on the cellular network to relieve network congestion. Cable companies are essential to this process because they provide the offloading service. WiFi bypass, on the other hand, refers to the increasingly common practice of consumers directing their own traffic to WiFi hotspots to avoid paying high fees for cellular data. Most of the recent traffic and growth in the wireless sector has been a result of bypass through WiFi hotspots, and this is creating tremendous business opportunities for cable operators. As a result, cable operators are all but abandoning cellular-based, quad-play wireless strategies in favor of WiFi.

If this trend continues, the bulk of wireless devices will soon bypass high-cost, low-capacity cellular networks. Providers are discovering that small, well-managed cell systems are more flexible than wired systems, easier to upgrade, and better suited to meet the needs of rapid mobile Internet growth and cloud computing. Cable operators are in the right place at the right time to turn this shift into a growth driver of unprecedented magnitude.

Wireless is the most exciting thing happening in telecommunications today. With the growth of cloud-based apps, machine-to-machine communication, and enterprise services, small-cell WiFi is emerging as the primary growth engine for telecommunications. Mobile data drives WiFi adoption, and from a cost perspective, it just makes sense when compared to cellular. Indeed, WiFi could be the perfect storm that propels cable into its next phase of growth.

WiFi can be used for customer retention and to protect cable’s revenue-generating unit (RGU) growth, while also helping to prevent subscriber erosion. In New York, cable WiFi leader Cablevision spent some $100 million on its WiFi network, which it then offered for free to broadband subscribers. Consumers with high video consumption habits were soon switching from their cellular data plans to WiFi because cellular was just too expensive and the capacity too limited for TV viewing. Low-cost WiFi is also enabling cable operators to fight back against over-the-top (OTT) offerings by adding value to cable broadband services.

WiFi provides operators with an opportunity to improve their subscribers’ quality of experience. For example, the CableWiFi Alliance is a coalition of the top five cable operators in the United States — Comcast, TWC, Cox, Cablevision, and Brighthouse — that allows subscribers from each operator to roam freely in another provider’s WiFi hotspot. Once signed in, a Comcast subscriber in Boston who travels to Virginia can automatically connect to the Time Warner Cable hotspots available there. By working together, these operators offer subscribers truly ubiquitous access to content and a seamless user experience. Connecting between providers’ hotspots is effortless and painless — the service just works.

Of course, WiFi still presents a number of challenges. The first is the need to improve the user authentication process. Over the last couple of years, vendors have worked to improve this process by making log-in procedures much easier, even between different operators’ hotspots. Security concerns have also existed since the beginning of WiFi because when you connect to a public WiFi network your communication is open to the world.

WiFi power consumption has been another issue. WiFi chips use more power than most other wireless technologies and early model smartphones chewed through battery consumption, although today we are seeing some improvements. However, WiFi spectrum is still limited and this has to improve before WiFi can take center stage as the preferred means of accessing mobile content.

Despite these issues, cable operators are turning to WiFi to enhance the user experience and looking for software solutions that expedite the deployment of WiFi services, such as tools that simplify the authorization and authentication process. It’s worth noting that WiFi deployment and adoption is a global phenomenon and that operators everywhere are racing to deploy WiFi services. Opportunities abound for vendors to help operators in all aspects of WiFi deployment, from network devices to software solutions, to improve access, coverage, and ease of use. I predict that we’ll see significant growth in the cable industry’s investment in WiFi in the near future — and as a result, consumers will be the winners.