Small Biz Needs WiFi - and Ops' Help

WiFi and SMBs One of the entrepreneurial traditions of cable operators is that they do a good job of understanding what customers want and, if necessary, adjust their plans going forward in order to tap into those desires. This aptitude is more important than ever as the array of services operators offer subscribers grows. 

It is increasingly important that the commercial side of the business have this flexibility as well. A pair of surveys - one from Time Warner Cable (NYSE:TWC) and one from Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) suggests that WiFi has moved front and center in the small business universe. Cable operators have a great opportunity to take the initiative to become the main enabler of WiFi and related services to a small business segment that in most cases lacks the know-how on how to establish and maintain a reliable network. It is, in many ways, a tailor made demographic for operators.

WiFi increasingly seems to be a dealmaker - or deal-breaker - for small businesses. Comcast Business' survey, which was conducted by Bredin Research, generated a great deal of evidence that WiFi is vital. For instance, the survey found that it is equal to or more important in putting customers at ease than magazines, community bulletin boards, candy or water. WiFi keeps customers happy while waiting, encourages repeat business and brings in new customers, the survey said. 

It is not surprising that WiFi is perceived as being far more valuable than an old copy of Sports Illustrated or a Tootsie Roll. In addition to such passive uses as keeping customers (and their kids) entertained while tires are being rotated and children and siblings hair being cut, WiFi can help actively promote the business by providing access to specs on equipment being considered for purchase and access to reviews and other help information. In short, WiFi can help seal the deal. 

WiFi, of course, is growing significantly across the board. That’s a good thing, but presents a bit of a challenge for small businesses: Once something is generally available, people will expect it and be disappointed when they find that it isn’t. And it often isn’t: Small businesses run full tilt selling pizza or tires. Ancillary offerings, as valuable as they may be in the big picture, are not priorities. The Time Warner Cable survey found that 80% of respondents say their customers expect free WiFi - but that only 43% offer it.

This all is good news for cable operators: There is a shiny new service that everyone agrees is wanted by customers. Cable operators are the main provider of that service. And, to make matters even better, many of the small businesses that recognize its importance will need to rely cable operators to make sure it works adequately. 

This will not help further cement the relationship between operators and the valuable SMB segment. “We are happy about it and have a great story to tell,” said Maureen Link, the group vice president for small business for Time Warner Business Class. “My team understands the pain points and makes sure that there are programs and solutions in place.” Link said the business segment with which her team deals extends to businesses with 24 employees. 

The sense is that the rollout -- and tapping into the opportunities -- is an ongoing process. Robert Cerbone, TWC's Vice President of Wireless Products, said that build out activity -- getting an ever greater number of access points into the field -- shows no signs of lagging. "There has been a tremendous growth in the size of the network in the last couple of years and pretty significant growth in the number of users," he said. "User [growth] is not anywhere near flattening out."

There actually are two ways in which small business can use WiFi. The highest profile - and the subject of the two surveys - is customer-facing. Mike Tighe, the executive director for data services for Comcast Business, points out that WiFi can be a powerful internal tool for small businesses. It can be utilized, for instance, to perform scheduling or inventory tasks. Using WiFi in that way requires a heightened level of security. 

The bottom line is that WiFi is no longer an option and that small businesses that bypass will be at a disadvantage - perhaps a significant one. This can be a great thing for cable operators. “Eighteen months ago, if you were looking at the road map, WiFi would be important but not at the top of the list,” Tighe said. “It’s becoming so important to our small business customers that the development of WiFi services is much more toward the top of the roadmap and is getting much more priority,” he said.

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