Editor's Corner—Digging my new Spectrum internet service … but where’s the Wi-Fi optimization?

Will and when will Charter launch a Wi-Fi optimization service similar to Comcast's Xfi and Cox's Panoramic WiFi?
Editor's Corner Dan Frankel

The Charter tech arrived at my newly remodeled Los Angeles duplex on time—early, in fact—and with a great attitude. 

I had waffled on ditching my longtime broadband relationship with AT&T amid my latest move, but I was quickly comfortable with it. The Charter rep asked my contractor, on site that day, about the best way to route the cable, carefully explaining the parameters of what he was allowed and not able to do, while taking care to limit the number of holes drilled into my wall. 

“I’m using the other side of the duplex as an office. Will the Wi-Fi signal reach that room without extenders?” I asked. 

“It should,” the tech responded.

That floored me a little. It’s not quite like it was in, say, 2010, when AT&T would tell me that how I distributed the internet through my home beyond the modem was entirely on me. Charter did outfit me with a Wi-Fi router that effectively distributes the 100 Mbps of payload throughout my 2,000 square feet of terrain, which remains cluttered with boxes. 

But the approach seemed a little anachronistic in an age in which cable operators have begun to realize that superior broadband usage experiences are key to sustaining subscriber and ARPU growth. 

RELATED: Wi-Fi Alliance introduces certification program for new home designs

“Anything we can do to help the user have a better Wi-Fi experience will only help cable companies,” said Josh Redmore, lead architect for Wi-Fi network optimization for CableLabs. The cable technology consortium is a member of the Wi-Fi alliance, which just unveiled a new certification for new home construction, letting buyers know that their newly acquired domicile has been designed with Wi-Fi distribution in mind. 

CableLabs' backing of the Wi-Fi Alliance initiative follows a series of Wi-Fi announcements from individual cable companies this year. 

RELATED: Comcast brands smart home network product 'xFi,' deploys it to 10M homes

No. 1 operator Comcast kicked off the year with the Jan. 4 announcement of Xfi, a free cloud-based smart-home network solution that—among other benefits—lets parents keep track of the data usage on their kids’ devices, shutting them down and modulating them as needed. 

“Wi-Fi today is like the check-engine light to my 1978 Ford,” said Eric Schaefer, senior VP and GM of communications, data and mobility for Comcast. “The light doesn’t tell you what’s wrong.

“Everything is connecting via Wi-Fi in our houses now,” Schaefer added. “Less than 9% of devices now have anything connected to an Ethernet port. There are 9.5 devices, on average, connected to Wi-Fi in U.S. homes, and that number will be closer to 50 in the next 36 months. … And what we’re hearing from our customers is, they feel like they don’t have any control.”

RELATED: Cable One offering free Wi-Fi optimization for modem leasing customers

Comcast was soon followed by Cable One, which unveiled its own Wi-Fi optimization service in May, also free to customers who lease a modem from the MSO. With the new WiFi One service, one of the MSO’s technicians will visit a resident gratis, strategically placing modem, gateway and—if needed—extenders to improve in-home signal distribution.

Meanwhile, Cox announced earlier this month that it has completed the rollout of its Panoramic WiFi service across its national footprint, with deployments in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson. Launched in fall 2016, the service was already available in markets including San Diego, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and many other locales within Cox’s 18-state footprint. 

Panoramic WiFi includes a next-generation wireless modem and router (DOCSIS 3.0/dual band/802.11ac), the network management app My Wi-Fi, and customized Wi-Fi installation to prevent dead zones within residences.

RELATED: Midcontinent to deploy in-home 'intelligent Wi-Fi network' with vendor AirTies

And it's not just the larger operators who have recognized the need to control the customer Wi-Fi experience. In 2015, for example, midwestern operator Midcontinent Communications partnered with AirTies, deploying the Istanbul-based startup's "Smart Mesh" access points in homes with poor Wi-Fi coverage.

MSOs certainly know that faster speeds drive customer growth. Parks Associates found that 35% of consumers who switch broadband services do so for faster internet. But they need to understand the broader experience of in-home Wi-Fi. The introduction of value-added services comes as some investment analysts covering the cable industry have suggested that the industry aim for a higher ARPU.

RELATED: Cable broadband is underpriced, and operators should aim for $90 ARPU target, analyst says

In fact, New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin suggested earlier this month that MSOs should aim for around $90 per subscriber. 

“Our analysis suggested a ‘utility-adjusted’ ARPU target of ~$90,” Chaplin said in a June 19 note to investors. "Comcast recently increased standalone broadband to $90 with a modem, paving the way for faster ARPU growth as the mix shifts in favor of broadband-only households. Charter will likely follow, once they are through the integration of TWC.”

For my part, I’m paying Charter around $50 a month for pretty basic service with no optimization frills. Would I pay more if my Spectrum service did more?

I asked a Charter rep if there was anything similar to Xfi coming down the pipe. I’m still waiting to hear back on that.