Cable and WiFi: A Beautiful Friendship

Fans of old movies certainly remember the fade out of Casablanca, in which Captain Renault suggests to Rick Blaine that they are at the beginning of a beautiful friendship. That's about what cable operators are saying to companies in the WiFi value chain.

There is no word on which cable exec gets the Humphrey Bogart or Claude Rains roles. More importantly, however, is the reality that many elements of that beautiful relationship are in place. The bottom line is that WiFi helps the industry in many ways, and each of these creates revenue and deploys technology enabling it to incrementally build to the next step. Eventually, WiFi will end up being the technology that enables the industry to fill the gaping hole in its arsenal: A comprehensive mobile voice and data service.

WiFi helps operators and their subscribers both inside and outside the home. The impact is more immediate inside the home, where operators use WiFi to serve mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. It also is developing into a technology that can supersede wired alternatives - most commonly MoCA for cable operators - to reach hard-to-wire areas or as an option to homes in which the installed coaxial cable falls short.

In-home WiFi is growing more robust. Hal Roberts, the systems engineer and architect II for Calix (NYSE:CALX), describes research and testing in which an access point running 802.11n in the 5 GHz spectrum using advanced antenna and beam forming technology provided a minimum of 260 Mbps between the most widely separate points in a 3,700 square foot house. Measures in which the client and the AP were closer had correspondingly greater throughputs. Roberts also suggests that in-home APs - especially those with such range - can dedicate some capacity to passersby outside the home.

The marriage of the cable industry and WiFi becomes even more exciting outside the home. Two meta trends - both involving the cable industry and other telecommunications providers and vendors - are coalescing to give cable its big chance.

The first is that telephone companies to backhaul WiFi signals that are proliferating. This is parallel to, but separate from, the mobile phone companies' cellular backhaul needs. The cable industry is as well-positioned for WiFi backhaul as for cellular and can get its foot in the door in this manner.

The parallel evolution is that the WiFi industry is working hard to make the platform carrier class. The cable industry is front and center in this effort, which has several moving parts. 802.11u, said Jerry Patton, product manager II for ARRIS (NASDAQ:ARRS),  spells out the necessary upgrades to the internal network and allows access points to achieve reliability and operations that is carrier class. Hotspot 2.0 - the name most associated with carrier class WiFi - is the specification governing the implementation of 802.11u. Passpoint is the Hotspot 2.0 certification program. Finally, Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) addresses back office procedures such as authentication, access control and billing procedures that all carriers and service providers will use.

It's confusing, but the goal is not: to enable WiFi to evolve from its roots as a useful but somewhat out of the mainstream grassroots platform that essentially worked on a best-effort basis to a carrier class technology that is reliable, has the proper hooks to the back office and can roam and handoff sessions with neighboring WiFi or cellular networks.

Carrier class WiFi is a telecommunications industry-wide effort. It seems, however, that the cable industry is particularly well-positioned. Dan Rice, CableLabs' vice president of access network technology, said three things that bode well for the industry as WiFi becomes more important: It has bandwidth, power to drive APs and other gear in the field, and rights-of-way. On the latter point, Rice said that as much of 70% of the expense of establishing an outdoor WiFi infrastructure can be in "civil" costs such as real estate and permitting.

The promise, of course, is apparent to the cable industry. A clear signal of this is the CableWiFi partnership announced in May at the Cable Show in Boston between Bright House Networks, Optimum, XFINITY, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable. The initial goal of the initiative is to allow subscribers of each company to seamlessly roam in each other's service areas. The organization said 50,000 hotspots initially are included. It was an acknowledgement that WiFi had come of age - both as a technology and as an opportunity for the industry.

Another sign that WiFi is the path for the industry is the action vendors are seeing. Jared Headley, Cisco's (NASDAQ:CSCO) senior director of business development for service provider WiFi solutions, said demand for APs, routers, controllers and assorted other equipment from cable operators is exploding. "It's an order of magnitude growth (in demand)," Headley said. "I've got a factory line running three shifts building products just to keep up with cable operators worldwide."

The parallel developments of cable's move into WiFi backhaul and its participation in the general evolution to Hotspot 2.0 will allow the industry to grab a full seat at the wireless communications table. It will create relationships with carriers via backhaul and, as time passes, spin them into direct engagement with existing and new subscribers. Suddenly, the cable industry will move from where it has been since the birth of the cellular industry - on the outside looking in - to a key player.

"I think ... this has the potential to finally move cable companies into mobile services in a big way," said Jay Fausch, the senior director for strategic marketing for Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU). "Given the explosion in smartphones and amount of data traffic that will continue to grow, the macro cell structure as we know it today will give way to much more distributed architecture. [There will be opportunities] to move the data traffic through the cable WiFi side of things instead of clogging up the macro network."

Neither Rick or Captain Renault could have said it any better.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at

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