Cable execs say Wi-Fi is complementary to cellular ... for now

LOS ANGELES--Cable MSOs touted the rapid expansion of their Wi-Fi footprints but stopped short of saying that they envision a day when their wireless networks may be competitive to cellular operators.

At The Cable Show here representatives from Bright House Networks, Cablevision (NYSE: CVC), Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) and Cox Communications touted the CableWiFi Alliance's growing footprint of 250,000 hotspots nationwide.

Of course, that number will grow even larger with Comcast's announcement that its XFinity WiFi will reach 8 million hotspots by year-end, blanketing 19 of the country's 30 largest cities with WiFi access.

Despite that growing footprint, the cable execs insisted that they do not plan to use Wi-Fi network to compete with wireless operators for voice and data services.  Leo Cloutier, senior vice president of strategy and business development at Bright House Networks said that his company views its Wi-Fi footprint as a complementary offering that helps wireless subscribers manage their data usage so they don't go over the data caps imposed by wireless carriers.

That sentiment was echoed by Cablevision Senior Vice President for Video Product Management Brad Feldman.  "We are using this to help us differentiate from the telcos," he said. "We are investing in Wi-Fi and we'll see where it goes.  But we are not a direct competitor."

Tom Nagel, senior vice president and general manager of wireless services at Comcast, added that while the cable companies have built a compelling network of Wi-Fi hotspots and it can do a lot, it is not a cellular network. "Wi-Fi is not a licensed technology and it will never be. It's about nomadic sessions. They are very different."

But there are companies such as Sprint (NYSE: S) MVNO Scratch Wireless that are actively going after cable companies in hopes of getting them to leverage their Wi-Fi footprints to compete against cellular carriers. 

Scratch co-founder and CEO Alan Berrey revealed during a recent webcast presented jointly with Multichannel News that Scratch is in "active discussions" with cable operators. He said pilots of a tailored "Wi-Fi First" service could begin this summer, followed by actual deployments in the fall.

Nevertheless, these cable executives were adamant about their services being complementary.  And they sounded a bit like wireless company executives, particularly when the topic of spectrum was broached.  The members of CableWiFi Alliance all bemoaned the lack of available spectrum but said they were encouraged by the FCC's recent decision to allocate 100 MHz of spectrum in the 5 GHz band to unlicensed spectrum.  "Spectrum is the core building block of anything you want to do wirelessly," said Nagel, who praised the FCC's move.  However, he added:  "We believe more needs to be done."

However, the cable operators do have more in mind for their Wi-Fi hotspot network than just a convenient way for consumers to offload their cellular data traffic and watch videos over their iPads.

Nagel described how Comcast is outfitting public spaces such as shopping centers and sporting venues with Wi-Fi hotspots as well as giving hotspots to business customers for no charge as a value-added feature.  The company also is providing residential customers with gateways that have a second Xfinity signal that is separate from their own private Wi-Fi that can be used for visiting Xfinity customers.   The company said that currently about 54 percent of Xfinity's Wi-Fi usage in neighborhoods travels over the second signal, or SSID.

For more:
- see this Comcast press release
- see this CableWiFi Alliance release

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