WiFi: No Longer an Add-On

The cable industry's basic goal of using WiFi as a sticky offering primarily intended to keep current subscribers happy rather than to attract new ones is not expected to change much during the next year. That, however, may be about the only thing that stays the same about the use of WiFi by cable operators.

Obervers agree that the technology and business models are on the cusp of significant transition. "It is changing from what I would call a hotspot-oriented amenity service to a metro service," said Cam Kernahan, Shaw Communications' group vice president for WiFi. In the future, he said, "you will get connectivity across a metropolitan area automatically and seamlessly. You basically [will] have the ability to get automatically authenticated when you get outside the area in which you live."

Shaw began a WiFi trial in early December in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. That, Kernahan said, is just the beginning: "We will roll out zones across Canada, from Hamilton to Port Albeni," Kernahan said.

Shaw won't be alone. The cable industry's already significant WiFi initiatives, from Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and others, will grow in reach and sophistication. It is likely, experts say, that 2011 will be the year that WiFi evolves from being a nice add-on to a service that really will make a difference to operators.

The Next Hotspot

The industry is deeply enmeshed in a initiative known as Hotspot 2.0. The idea is to automate roaming between WiFi providers, whether they be MSOs, cable operators or others. Today, these players work out roaming arrangements involving WiFi networks via individual "one-off" agreements.

Hotspot 2.0 will automate that process. A subscriber with a tablet riding in a car that crosses into a networks footprint will recognize what providers it can connect to in that footprint. If one or more of those providers is a partnering provider, the tablet will register automatically and the subscriber will roam from one network to the other without disruption.

Hotspot 2.0 is on the fast track. BelAir Networks' CTO Stephen Rayment said the pretesting of networks is ongoing and that actual products -- assuming device vendors get on board -- likely will be available by the second half of the year.

This technical evolution is accompanied by changes on the business side. The main drivers are a couple of deals that that don't directly impact WiFi -- but that could have a profound impact. On Dec. 2, Verizon Wireless entered into a wide-ranging agreement with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Those MSOs -- who are partnered in SpectrumCo -- will provide much-needed bandwidth to the cellular provider. The cable companies will sell Verizon Wireless's cellular services and the cellular firm will sell the cable's video products. On Dec. 16, Cox and Verizon Wireless announced a similar arrangement.

For the cable industry's WiFi infrastructure, the deals -- and others that likely will follow -- are potentially lucrative because the same WiFi infrastructure that serves its subscribers can provide backhaul for cellular companies' wireless access points. In essence, access point backhaul is an extension of the type of relationship cable operators and cellular companies now have for backhaul from their primary cell towers.

The explosion of data traffic driven by tablets and smartphones and the accompanying move from 3G to 4G LTE is stressing telco networks. Their response will be to build more access points and offload much traffic as possible to less expensive wireless networks. That could be a very good thing for cable operators.

Combining backhaul and end user services can be synergistic, according to Jerry Patton, ARRIS' product manager for wireless networking. "The whole point of … mobile data backhaul is to finance the WiFi networks that cable operators build for their own customers," Patton said. "They want to build it. We've had lots of operators call and say, 'Do a metro WiFi design for us.' But it goes nowhere because the network can't justify the expense. So what we say is, 'Do some backhaul.' It uses exactly the same infrastructure."

Success in the two major WiFi-based opportunities -- inter-MSO roaming and offering up their networks to cellular carriers to help them weather the onslaught of data on their cellular networks -- is predicated on upgrading and perfecting the networks.

BelAir Networks' Rayment said that the mean size of cable WiFi networks in 2012 is expected to double over previous installations. Size alone, of course, doesn't indicate a greater level of sophistication or robustness. That is coming as well, he said. Coming WiFi projects will feature deeper integration with the core network -- they no longer can be "bolt-ons," Rayment said -- with deeper levels of policy creation and enforcement and security. "There is a switch-over from one way of doing it to another," he said.

Carl Weinschenk is BTR's senior editor. Reach him at carl@btreport.net.

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