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Rival MSOs, Tech Rivals Unite on WiFi

Mari Silbey

WiFi makes for strange bedfellows.

On the same day that Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) pulled the rug out from under Charter Communications Inc. with its bid to acquire Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), it turns out that the three cable companies are teaming with a raft of other organizations to push for expanded WiFi support in Washington, DC. Through a coalition called WifiForward, the three big MSOs are joining a group that includes Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), Best Buy, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) , and several others that would like to see more spectrum freed up for WiFi services.

Notably, the group does not include telecom companies AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ). (See Comcast Strikes $45B Deal for TWC.)

The WifiForward coalition cites as its mission to:

  • Protect and strengthen existing unlicensed spectrum designations;
  • Free up new spectrum for unlicensed use at a variety of frequencies, including low, medium, and high frequency bands; and
  • Establish investment-friendly, transparent, and predictable unlicensed rules that encourage growth and deployment.

According to a report released earlier this week by WeFi Inc. , the number of US commercial-grade public hotspots is expected to rise to 10.55 million by 2018. Consumers are increasingly flocking to these hotspots because they want to access more Internet content on their mobile devices but don't want to pay extra for cellular data plans that include monthly bandwidth usage caps. (See WiFi Data Offloading Soars in 2013.)

Given this surging demand, cable companies particularly see an opportunity to extend their services outside the home by bundling free WiFi access with traditional Internet plans. The Cable iFi Alliance, which includes five of the top cable operators in the US -- although notably not Charter -- has already linked together more than 200,000 public hotspots under the "CableWiFi" SSID. The alliance allows participant subscribers to access free WiFi from any of the organization's joint hotspots around the country. (See Cable Finally Sees Money in Wireless.)

Leading the cable pack, Comcast has rapidly activated new hotspots in homes by partitioning access in consumer gateways to create local WiFi networks that are available to other Comcast Xfinity subscribers. Comcast claims these home hotspots now number close to 1 million. (See Comcast Turns Homes Into Hotspots.)

Cable companies still haven't settled on the best ways to monetize new WiFi access. But they are aggressively courting Washington to extend spectrum availability all the same. As the WifiForward coalition shows, sometimes that even means partnering up with rivals to advance the WiFi cause.

— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading

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User Rank: Lightning
2/17/2014 | 9:41:07 AM
AT&T & Verizon vs. MSO WiFi
This is exactly the kind of reason why Comcast/TWC would be helpful. Comcast and TWC do not compete with each other. There is no loss of competition from an acquisition like that.

What there is, is the potential for real competition with wireless operators that control (I might add the much HIGHER PRICE of mobile data services than broadband wireline data services). The ability to offer more contiguous coverage areas using the same WiFi network could offer the first reasonable competition for cellular pricing.

I'm amazed that people complain about broadband Internet access cable pricing, but where are the complaints about wireless ? The prices are astronimically higher per Mbps (data rate) and with extremely low (2GB) caps on wireless.

Who wouldn't want to see the continued growth of WiFi to help compete with that ?
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/17/2014 | 9:09:51 AM
Re: No AT&T & Verizon?
I agree, the more Wifi availability the better. But will this get any traction outside of D.C.? It's rare that any tech initiative starts there, they usually move from the coasts toward the center of the country.
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
2/15/2014 | 2:33:27 PM
Re: No AT&T & Verizon?
Hard to see a downside to this proposal. Cable companies get a new revenue opportunity, consumers get less expensive wireless broadband. I wonder if a network of WiFi hotspots could seriously put a dent in 3G/4G/5G/LTE. It might in densely populated urban areas. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/15/2014 | 12:12:06 PM
Re: No AT&T & Verizon?
It only makes sense that the telcos are not happy about possible jeapardizaton of their current situation where they can demand and get high fees, and plan limits at low speeds for their services. Competion from cable, Google and Microsoft would certainly create a situation where customers would see lower costs eventually.
User Rank: Blogger
2/14/2014 | 5:57:44 PM
No AT&T & Verizon?
Sounds like the cable ops, Internet content providers and tech groups may be ganging up against the big telcos, who hold much of the available wieless spectrum. Are we about to see anothr cross-industry war break out in DC? 
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