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Cable Ups Wireless Stakes with Wi-Fi Sharing

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 7:20am
Maisie Ramsay

Five major cable companies plan to share each other's Wi-Fi hotspots to give customers greater access to their wireless services. 

Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable said today customers will be able to use the companies’ combined 50,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in New York City and the surrounding tri-state area, as well as Los Angeles, Tampa, Orlando and Philadelphia.  

Instead of individually branded Wi-Fi services, the operators will rename their Wi-Fi networks to CableWiFi. 

"We believe that Wi-Fi is a superior approach to mobile data," said Kristin Dolan, Cablevision’s senior executive vice president of product management and marketing, in a statement. "We've built an extensive Wi-Fi network in our own service area, and see real value and potential in other leading providers joining with us to extend that connectivity to major markets across the country." 

Bright House and Cablevision launched the service in New York City and central Florida earlier this month. The other cable providers plan to add CableWiFi to their branded hotspots over the next few months.

The companies plan to add new hotspots to existing markets and expand the service into "several" new cities. 

For now, cable subscribers will be able to connect to CableWiFi outside their home markets using the same credentials they use to access their provider's Wi-Fi network. The companies will allow devices to auto-connect to CableWiFi "in the coming months."  

The providers claim the new effort is the "largest and most inclusive" Wi-Fi sharing initiative between cable operators to date. Cablevision, Comcast and Time Warner Cable signed a similar agreement in early 2010 allowing customers to access each other’s Wi-Fi networks in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Connecticut. 

The new Wi-Fi push comes after cable operators failed to gain entrance to the wireless market by building their own networks or signing MVNO deals – most recently, Cox Communication's now-defunct wireless service and the ill-fated reselling arrangements Comcast and Time Warner Cable formed with Clearwire. Bright House Networks was also an investor in Clearwire.  

The cable industry now appears to be taking a different approach to wireless in the wake of these failures. 

Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks and Cox Communications announced late last year that they were selling their AWS spectrum to Verizon Wireless, a deal associated with a cross-marketing arrangement allowing the cable providers to sell Verizon wireless service in their own stores. So far Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox have begun cross-selling Verizon service in a limited number of markets. 

“Mobility is an increasingly important part of our Xfinity services product roadmap," Comcast COO Dave Watson said in today's announcement. "Wi-Fi technology, coupled with our agreements with Verizon Wireless, are two significant ways we are executing on our strategy to deliver the best in- and out-of-home communications experience for our customers."  

Bernstein Research analyst Craig Moffet said in a brief note on the news that the "strategic implications are profound." 

Moffet referred to a report he authored last year about cable's wireless strategy. In it, he pointed out that cable providers "have no intention of making money off of wireless, per se... at least, not in the sense of actually charging for it."  

Rather, by providing the service at no charge, the operators are able to increase their market share with a fairly marginal infrastructure investment, he said.

"The modest operating costs to run the network can be paid for with just a small uplift in market share – either gained or retained – in their wired broadband service," Moffet said. 

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