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Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play

Jeff Baumgartner
12/9/2011
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Forget all this TV Everywhere chatter for a moment. How about broadband everywhere?

That's the general concept the cable industry is pursuing as it makes progress on a common, scalable Wi-Fi roaming architecture that represents a step toward turning the nation into a giant hotspot that's backhauled and powered by cable's hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) plant. It'll need plenty of support by the MSOs to make that happen, but some of the technical pieces of such a system are already taking shape at CableLabs .

To a degree, this idea is already springing to life in the northeastern U.S., where Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) have inserted a roaming system that lets their cable modem subs tap into each MSO's respective Wi-Fi access points. (See MSO WiFi: Roam (If You Want To).)



But these Wi-Fi access points only support a small number of individual Service Set Identifiers (SSIDs), so the potential to scale that in many other markets and involve the participation of a much greater number of MSOs is rather limited. Plus, there's no seamless handoff, so those customers must re-authenticate themselves as they travel from one Wi-Fi hot spot to another. The next phase of cable's Wi-Fi ambitions will try to address both types of issues.

"The MSOs in the northeast would like to do that [Wi-Fi roaming] on a broader basis" as they tack on Wi-Fi in other parts of the country, says a source familiar with the plan, noting it aims for seamless authentication across the access points securely while allowing the MSOs to manage the traffic. (See TW Cable Places Bigger Wi-Fi Bet.)

Another industry source warns that MSOs are still mulling their Wi-Fi deployment commitments for 2012 but expects the results to become quite apparent within the next 12 months. The industry is also still chewing on how the MSOs might settle Wi-Fi roaming traffic and whether that might involve a financial component.

In addition to the development of a roam-able Wi-Fi network, the strategy also plays into cable's interest in using picocells to handle some of the wireless backhaul needs of mobile service providers. And that work certainly fits in with the recent deals struck by Comcast, TW Cable and Bright House Networks and Verizon Wireless . (See MSOs Sell AWS Spectrum to Verizon for $3.6B .)

Comcast Cable President and CEO Neil Smit didn't get that specific, but he did note in the announcement that the deals "together with our Wi-Fi plans, enable us to execute a comprehensive, long-term wireless strategy and expand our focus on providing mobility to our Xfinity services."

Cable's Wi-Fi roaming specs
Many cable operators may still be mulling how they'll execute long-term with Wi-Fi, but some of the technical groundwork for a common roaming system already is well downstream.

CableLabs has been tackling this for some time and, without much fanfare, issued the WiFi Roaming Architecture and Interfaces Specification (PDF) in July 2010. The goal: to specify "architecture requirements for best effort data roaming among cable operator Wi-Fi Networks."

The specs get into interfaces for Wi-Fi clients, Wi-Fi gateways (for the 802.11 air interface for the subscriber device) and MSO network systems. Like TV Everywhere, cable's Wi-Fi roaming initiative will lean on the ability to authenticate customers (probably using their MSO-supplied email addresses and passwords) so the access point can know that a customer is indeed a cable modem sub from an MSO that's a member of the roaming team.

The specs also outline some "visited" network AP SSID configurations, including the use of an unencrypted SSID that brings customers to a captive sign-in Web portal, or an optional secured SSID that's common to all roaming partners. The latter could come into play if MSOs decide to adopt a national Wi-Fi brand name or a cross-industry SSID that could apply to cable roaming club members. But nothing's been decided on that yet, sources say.

An industry source said CableLabs has been doing some periodic testing with access point vendors, such as BelAir Networks Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and with network infrastructure partners "to see how to evolve this and make it scale."

That work could have some international potential. Shaw Communications Inc. , for example, is starting to test its budding Wi-Fi network in Canada. In the U.K., Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED) is developing a Wi-Fi network for its own broadband customers (up to 10Mbit/s) and for free to everyone else, though the latter group would be capped at 500Kbit/s. (See Shaw Launches Wi-Fi Test Net and Shaw Scraps Cellular Plan.)

Cable and beyond
But not all MSOs are sold the idea of extending their broadband reach using Wi-Fi, leaving the potential for plenty of Wi-Fi dead zones. Charter Communications Inc. 's footprint, for example, tends to cover Tier 2 markets, which could make broad Wi-Fi picocell deployments uneconomical, MSO CEO Mike Lovett said at this week's UBS AG investors conference. He cited Madison, Wis., as an example of a Charter market that's dense enough to justify a Wi-Fi deployment. "It's something that our engineers are exploring," he said.

Or cable could look beyond its own kind. Another industry source suggested that cable could look to fill in gaps by notching Wi-Fi roaming deals with AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable



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AESerm
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AESerm,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:46:48 PM
re: Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play


Most consumers in the market for this kind of roaming don't care about how plastered the national or even regional map is with whichever color represents a carrier's brand. In other words, WiFi is different: It's a matter not of everywhere, but rather of connectivity from one subway or train station to another, or one entrance on the freeway to another exit. All promising use cases. CableLabs looks to have been ahead of the game here.

craigleddy
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craigleddy,
User Rank: Blogger
12/5/2012 | 4:46:47 PM
re: Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play


I wonder (and some of the MSOs probably wonder) how good Wi-Fi capability is in the long run. One of the arguments for WiMAX was that it was better suited than Wi-Fi for a national network, one that could handle voice, until WiMAX's limitations became apparent.


I have Cablevision's Wi-Fi and it's a great free added-value service. But it's spotty -- I can get it at my office but not at home. When you start adding more hot spots, increasing broadband video and data, and trading it off everywhere, can Wi-Fi cut it?


 


 


 

AESerm
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AESerm,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:46:47 PM
re: Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play


The maps are eye-catching marketing tools, very true. When it comes to actual use, what matters for many watching their data consumption or just looking for connection is whether there is WiFi from, say, West Falls Church in Northern Va. to Metro Center in D.C., or the discrete equivalent in other big cities -- in North America or around the world.

Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 4:46:47 PM
re: Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play


Maybe, but it could give the marketers something to toot their horns about, anyway.  The Verizon/ATT cellular map battle comes to mind, even if it's not an apples to apples coverage situation. JB  


 


 

Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 4:46:45 PM
re: Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play


I suppose it depends on how they intend to use it. As a way to get broadband access on the go (if it becomes more mobile allows for seamless handoffs), it's a nice value-add, as you said.  Plus it's not hard to install on the HFC plant, which provides the power. But they may have to install smaller ,more concentrated picocells if the experience you're having is common-place.  Imagine people like to stream Netflix over Wi-Fi to a tablet, and spotty coverage won't help much there.  I've accessed Wi-Fi on the train out east and it's been spotty too.  JB


 

msilbey
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msilbey,
User Rank: Blogger
12/5/2012 | 4:46:45 PM
re: Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play


Good point, Craig. And it certainly puts all the WiMAX negativity over the last few years in a different light. People love to hate on WiMAX, but when I used it for a couple years, the performance was pretty good. Can Wi-Fi on a broader scale provide that level of performance? 


Of course the difference from a consumer perspective is that Wi-Fi is a free add-on, while WiMAX means another montly bill. If cable could have offered Wi-MAX as a free perk, it would have been a different story. But infrastructure isn't free, and Wi-Fi is a lot cheaper for the MSOs.

jepovic
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jepovic,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:46:44 PM
re: Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play


Good point.


WiFi is now being developed to improve roaming, security etc. The natural question then is if there will be any cost advantage left in the end, vs LTE?


Would it be better long-term to modify LTE to handle non-license spectra?

paolo.franzoi
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paolo.franzoi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 4:46:42 PM
re: Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play


You know friend of mine just got a WiFi/4g Tablet and you know what?



He figured out within a week that if there are data caps that the 4g was not good for streaming Netflix.  The cap is eaten way too fast.  If they do Roaming WiFi what do you think the chances of it being without caps?


 


seven


 

Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 4:46:40 PM
re: Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play


I wonder if they'll have to address caps in how roaming traffic is settled. It would be interestin to know how things would be handled if I was roaming with Wi-Fi on plant operated by an MSO that doesn't cap data consumption but the MSO I subscribed to did use consumption caps. Would it be fair if your policy followed you? JB


 


 





 




bkellywifi
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bkellywifi,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:46:38 PM
re: Cable Sizes Up National Wi-Fi Play


One thing everyone forgets to take into consideration with WiFi systems, is not the wifi system but the end users device. We can build systems that scream coverage for miles, but teh end users device can only transmit a few hundred feet (in free air) at best.


So a national free wifi system must be made up of many nodes. The issues with Earthlink should have educated us on that fact. The system will work very well if we are very close to the tranmitter, but not very far in doors.


These systems can operate very well, but we will need to have a repeater or link option to other networks in teh house, hotel or shopping mall.


 

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