Who needs traditional cellular when WiFi can do the job?

Jim BartholdThere has been some criticism-even within the sacred confines of this site--of cable's plans, or lack of same, for mobile wireless service. On the surface it appears that telcos like Verizon and AT&T have a big edge on cable when it comes to gluing subscribers to their services by using fourth leg mobile service connections.

Despite the distractions of mobile advertising campaigns boasting who has the most 3G coverage, the two giant telcos maintain at least a theoretical edge over cable because they can bundle their FiOS and U-Verse TV offerings with their AT&T and Verizon mobile offerings. Whether or not subscribers can really get seamless broadband across four platforms--or if they even want it--is like wondering whether or not cable has more high definition channels than satellite; it's all in small print.

Cable, on the other hand, has adopted a torturously tortoiselike pace when it comes to mobility. Big players like Comcast and Time Warner (and OK, Bright House), have put their money into WiMAX from Clearwire. Again, on the surface, this is a broadband data play more than a mobile voice offering. Cablevision, long a WiFi supporter, hasn't deviated from that course in any significant way. And of course Cox promises almost daily that it's going a more traditional mobile wireless route. If you read the tea leaves (and the local press) you get the impression that might actually happen.

It's not the cable way for MSOs to be so different. Cable MSOs recently marched so forthrightly together that they shamed the Coldstream Guards. Why, when it comes to wireless, would they stutter-step and seemingly stumble over each other? They're probably not; they're just throwing up a feint to distract the competition. In reality, the cable industry is very much in sync when it comes to providing broadband services everywhere--including without wires. Just take a second look at WiFi and what cable is doing with the so-called "fixed mobile" technology and you can see some signs of how a cable mobile wireless play might shape up.

It was big news a couple months ago when Time Warner and Comcast said they would let their subscribers roam all over the New York metro area, including Connecticut and North Jersey, by linking Cablevision's vast WiFi network with pieces of their own. This was a broadband data play, pure and simple; a way to keep cable subscribers linked to their MSOs wherever they wandered. Below the surface, it's easy to see it developing into a mobile voice play, then letting those same offerings develop into a mobile play as subscribers roam seamlessly from access point to access point using WiFi-enabled smartphones and VoIP services like Skype.

"I can't say that we know the cable strategy (who can?) but what we're seeing in the marketplace is a further extension and securing of high-speed broadband, high-speed access," said David Sharpley, senior vice president of marketing and product management for Canadian FMC vendor Bridgewater Systems.

Bridgewater's exhibit in the CableLabs section of Cable Show 2010 drew more than its fair share of traffic from operators looking at the company's wireless authentication and policy management software plays. So far, that software is used by 3G carriers but the implication is that it will work just fine as cable moves its broadband footprint out of the residence and into the neighborhood. If those cable subscribers want to further avail themselves of a VoIP service riding on top of that wireless broadband network, who can stop them? It's not as if VoIP is a bandwidth hog and it's not as if cable has to provide and maintain the WiFi devices the subs will be using.

Most likely that device, if it's a phone, came from some wireless provider who gave it away in exchange for a subscription and the opportunity to accrue thousands of minutes of 3G airtime. Cable can, with the right WiFi play, effectively keep those wireless subscribers in its fold with a VoIP-over-WiFi plan that makes slower 3G broadband an afterthought while continuing to throw the cost of the phone on the 3G service provider.

"We've been working with a lot of the cable operators particularly as they look to deploy a lot of different WiFi services," said Sharpley. "Going forward, we see them taking (the ability to authenticate subscribers on their wireless networks) and applying some intelligent policies around them ... and using the access points as enforcement points."

In other words, once you're a cable subscriber you have access to a WiFi network that's arguably faster and richer than your 3G network and with the proper authentication, your coverage area is bigger and richer than ever before. If you want to make phone calls while roaming about that area, who's to stop you?

Related articles:
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Verizon goes for the 'quad play' jugular
Sprint: 2010 is the year of 4G (WiMAX that is)
Cox to leverage Android in wireless push
Polish mobile VoIP deployment offers insights for U.S. operators
Cable operators band together for WiFi in New York
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