Cable Wi-Fi on a Hot Streak
News Analysis Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading 7/5/2013
That's one of the conclusions of a recent report from Heavy Reading, which predicts that cable hotspot growth will continue apace as MSOs scramble to extend their broadband networks wirelessly, add more value to their cable packages and guard against potential encroachment by over-the-top (OTT) video players.
The Heavy Reading Cable Industry Insider report, From Wired to Wireless: Cable Uses Wi-Fi to Extend Its Reach, projects that the U.S. cable industry will deploy more than 250,000 Wi-Fi hotspots by mid-2014, an increase of more than 60 percent on the current installed base.
The report also estimates that the cable industry has already sunk more than $175 million in capital expenditures into deploying Wi-Fi hotspots during the past couple of years. Heavy Reading expects that total to double to more than $350 million by mid-2014 as the deployment pace picks up further.
"Wi-Fi has given cable a vital entry point into wireless," said Craig Leddy, a Heavy Reading contributing analyst who authored the report, in an emailed response to questions. "We found that the major MSOs are aggressively deploying hotspots and we expect that their role in wireless will continue to grow. For wired service providers, wireless has become an imperative."
Indeed, just in the past month, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications have all announced aggressive new deployments of Wi-Fi in their service territories.
In the latest instance, Time Warner said it will install 10,000 hotspots throughout its New York City service area by the end of the year, up from about 2,000 hotspots now.
As a result, cable operators have now deployed more than 174,000 hotspots throughout the U.S., according to the latest data tracked by Heavy Reading. That's up noticeably from the 150,000-plus hotspots that the five big MSO members of the CableWiFi roaming alliance -- Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Cablevision Systems and Bright House Networks -- reported at the Cable Show in Washington, D.C. just last month.
Cablevision leads the way with more than 80,000 hotspots deployed in the greater New York metro area. Comcast, which recently unveiled plans to convert wireless modem gateways in its customers' homes into Wi-Fi "neighborhood" hotspots, follows with more than 58,000 hotspots rolled out throughout its Northeastern, mid-Atlantic, Atlanta, Chicago and California markets. (See Comcast Turns Homes into Hotspots.)
The Heavy Reading report also points out, however, that cable operators face numerous technical and operational challenges in extending their Wi-Fi reach further. These challenges include quality of service, scalability and security, with service quality probably topping the list.
"Wi-Fi is an unlicensed, best-effort technology that faces traffic congestion and quality issues as public hotspots multiply," Leddy said. "So the nightmare for cable operators is if they roll out hotspots, promote mobile broadband and out-of-home video capabilities and then the Wi-Fi service just downright sucks [and] customers can't get access."
In addition, Leddy finds fault with the five big cable partners for not doing more to take advantage of their CableWiFi cross-MSO roaming capability so far. For example, he noted, although CableWiFi is available across the New York and Los Angeles areas, few cable broadband customers are actually aware of it yet. "The MSOs need to combine more hotspots and do more promotion to raise awareness of CableWiFi," he said.
Bur Leddy expects that situation to improve as such technological enhancements as HotSpot 2.0 and other emerging Wi-Fi capabilities are implemented, enabling more seamless roaming across wireless networks. "Then you might see MSOs pay more attention to promoting CableWiFi as a metropolitan, regional or even nationwide service," he said.
Although they now mostly offer Wi-Fi service for free, Leddy also believes that cable operators have the opportunity to generate revenues from the service. He said MSOs have the potential to sell daily service to non-cable customers, upsell high-speed Internet tiers and add revenue-producing business apps and services. In addition, he sees financial promise in MSOs offloading smartphone data traffic onto their Wi-Fi networks, much as they already do with cellular backhaul traffic.
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading