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.
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