If there was any doubt about the growing momentum behind cable WiFi, several recent milestones have done much to dispel it.
There was the rapid growth of public WiFi hotspots in 2013. The Cable WiFi initiative has grown to cover 250,000 hotspots, or close to it. There are the early investigations underway into small-cell field trials for extending mobile connectivity through WiFi, with Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) admitting interest and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) reportedly testing the technology already. And there is the new WifiForward coalition that Time Warner, Comcast, and Charter Communications Inc. have all joined to lobby for expanded WiFi support in Washington, DC. (See Cable WiFi Hotspots Could Hit 1M in Year, TW Cable Eyes Small Cells Too, and Rival MSOs, Tech Rivals Unite on WiFi.)
Beyond these cable-specific initiatives, however, there is also important progress being made on the WiFi standards front. Next week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) will jointly demonstrate a live Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) network supporting WiFi roaming.
In this case, roaming means that visitors will be able to use Passpoint-certified smartphones, tablets, and laptops tied to different service providers to discover and gain access to the conference's hotspot network. Authentication will be tied to the original service provider, but connectivity will be delivered through the local hotspot. Eighteen operators are signed up to participate in the demonstration, along with seven hardware vendors.
WiFi standards development is important because it has the potential to accelerate the adoption of more sophisticated WiFi services.
”What's really exciting here is that we're moving from a time of proprietary solutions, agreements based on... proprietary technology... to a time when you have both the technology with Passpoint and then the roaming infrastructure that NGH delivers such that you have something really very standards-based," said Kelly Davis-Felner, VP of Marketing for Wi-Fi Alliance, in an interview. "And there's a lot of leverage in that because everybody starts doing everything the same way."
While new standards should help all network operators, cable companies arguably have the most to gain. The rapid evolution of WiFi technology gives cable providers something they've never had before: a footprint outside the home.
There are multiple use cases for cable WiFi. Cable operators are already using these wireless networks to keep their current subscribers connected when they're outside the range of fixed broadband. As cable companies increase their geographic coverage, they'll also have more of an opportunity to package WiFi service and sell it to others.
Mobile carriers are good customer candidates in that case. Shrikant Shenwai, CEO of Wireless Broadband Alliance, believes there will be more roaming agreements announced in the near future where mobile operators bundle WiFi from partners with their own mobile services.
"Operators on both sides benefit because [there are] cable companies… who have the footprint and there are mobile operators who have the subscribers… You could actually create some interesting product packaging," said Shenwai.
Not all of the pieces are in place yet for the cable WiFi revolution. Network coverage is still limited for the moment, and a lot of consumer devices don't yet support the Passpoint standard, which enables many of the more advanced WiFi features available.
However, there are positive signs even where Passpoint is concerned. Davis-Felner noted that there was an inflection point in about the middle of 2013 where Passpoint-certified consumer devices began to overtake certified infrastructure equipment. Passpoint is also being integrated directly into mobile processors now, which will make it easier for more hardware vendors to support it.
For the cable industry, all of the evidence suggests that next-generation wireless services are on the near-term horizon. So the industry's WiFi momentum will likely continue.
— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading