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Liberty Global to Try WiFi First

Brian Santo
10/15/2015
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NEW ORLEANS -- Cable Tec Expo -- Liberty Global is experimenting with a WiFi-first mobile offering and hopes to have a product out by as early as this fall, Executive Vice President and CTO Balan Nair said here at Cable Tec Expo.

Nair also said that RFPs (requests for proposals) are going out for the company's European buildout that will pass another 10 million homes. Some 30% of the total will be fiber to the home (FTTH).

Liberty Global Inc. (Nasdaq: LBTY) had previously announced a network expansion in the UK and other European countries where it does business. The company calls the initiative Project Lightning.

Nair did not offer any other details on the WiFi-first mobile service.

Cable companies have been relying on WiFi for their mobility services, but have yet to figure out precisely how to monetize these efforts. Blending WiFi with cellular service might be an avenue for making money with WiFi services (See Winning With WiFi.)

WiFi first is still rare. Several wireless carriers support it as a feature that can be enabled on handsets; they include Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), T-Mobile US Inc. and now AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) in the US, BCE Inc. (Bell Canada) (NYSE/Toronto: BCE) and Rogers Corp. in Canada, and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) in some European markets. Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) in the US is among the first companies with a WiFi-only mobile service.

Nair said that Liberty Global is seeing success with the quad play, wants to increase its availability and believes that WiFi has to be an integral part of the service. The company currently has 3.5 million to 4 million MVNO subscribers in Europe, he said.

The quad play, he said, significantly reduces churn. The downside is that problems providing mobile service are particularly damaging; an MVNO subscriber who experiences problems won't cancel just the mobile service, but the entire bundle.

Nair said there are four ways to get a mobile service: build it, buy it, go the "lite" MVNO approach, or build a core and rent base stations.

"We've done all four," he said. "Building sucks." Although successful from the point of view of its popularity, Liberty Global shut down the network after only 18 months because the financial results weren't that good and wasn't going to get any better with scale had the company chosen to grow it.

Building, buying and the lite MVNO approach all tend to leave an operator as the fourth option in the market. Nair said the lite MVNO path was even worse because that puts an operator in the position of being merely a reseller; you don't control your pricing, and you do not have the option of migrating the customers you signed up to a different network.

The only viable way to go, he said, is to build a core and then lease access to basestations. "You have to control the SIM card, so you can move to any carrier," he explained.

Regarding broadband, Nair said that LGI's "bulls-eye" product is going to be 150 Mbit/s, and that the company adopted a pricing structure to emphasize that tier. He said picking that rate had less to do with speed than with supporting consumption patterns in which the average subscriber is consuming roughly 3 gigabytes of data a day, with that number steadily increasing.

On the video side, Liberty Global intends to begin migrating away from MPEG to HEVC in support of 4K TV.

The company has been specifying set-tops based on the RDK (Reference Design Kit), all under the Horizon brand. Nair said the company is working to make it so that every functionality in the box has an API that application developers can take advantage of.

— Brian Santo, Senior Editor, Components, T&M, Light Reading

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