The industry is taking the lead, or so it appears, in creating a robust North American - and, eventually, worldwide - WiFi mesh that will act like the cellular network and, in many cases, work with it. Indeed, much of the industry’s future rests on making the right WiFi moves. “At this point, obviously the future is about wireless connectivity,” said Dave Wright, the advanced technologist for Ruckus Wireless. “If operators want to remain relevant, they need a solution in that space. For cable operators who don’t own wireless spectrum ... their solution ... is WiFi.”
The keys to the evolution are an evolving set of standards established by The Wi-Fi Alliance and the maturation of a core technology called the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS).
The cable industry already has done a lot of work on WiFi. Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and other operators have a long track record of increasingly covering their footprints with public access points, and the activity has moved indoors.
Boingo Wireless (NASDAQ:WIFI) CTO Derek Peterson said that the industry is moving in the right direction. “…[A]bout a year or two ago when we finished the Passpoint trials for phase 1, I warned the carriers that if they didn’t start moving soon the cable operators would end up embracing WiFi and be able to make inroads into the MNO [mobile network operator] space ... using WiFi,” he said. “That’s exactly what I see happening.”
That nascent infrastructure is starting to support actual devices. Cablevision’s Freewheel is an early example of the interest in WiFi voice. The service, which was introduced in January, is a phone that relies entirely on the Internet via WiFi. That limits its functionality, while at the same time showing how extensively Cablevision - and its partner operators - have built out their networks.
The WiFi industry is putting the structural pieces in place to use WiFi - and cable operators’ networks - as valuable enablers. A key is The Wi-Fi Alliance’s Passpoint program. Passpoint enables subscribers to log in once and roam to other participating networks without reauthorizing. Late last year, it added capabilities that standardize the signup method and enable policies instituted by a user - such as an edict to bypass networks that are not secure enough or cost too much - to be enforced on all Passpoint networks the subscriber uses.
Devices certified as Passpoint-compliant before the new capabilities were added can load the new features via software downloads. Those that don’t, however, won’t lose their certification, however, said Kevin Robinson, the director of program marketing for The Wi-Fi Alliance.
The IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) is another key to cable’s WiFi future. As the name implies, IMS is a structural approach that focuses on Internet Protocol and eliminates the distinction between network types. It is at home on cellular, wireless and wired networks. This creates a unified mesh of connectivity that in reality is made up of different types of networks. Voice and multimedia services can be launched simply by adding servers.
IMS is a potential game changer for WiFi voice - and cable operators’ ability to provide it - because it makes it far easier for cellular and WiFi networks to exchange traffic. In such an infrastructure, WiFi will more readily be used alongside cellular networks. Indeed, it will gain favor because it is unlicensed and therefore much cheaper. Since the cable industry has become a major player in carrier WiFi, this represents a very bright opportunity is opening up for operators, observers say.
The move to IMS - which insiders say is a top agenda item for major cable operator planning departments - could meet a key challenge operators face today: WiFi is good and growing, but at this point it doesn’t have the coverage or flexibility of the cellular networks. Call it the Freewheel challenge.
Ben Lemieux, a telecoms market analyst at Visiongain, wrote in response to emailed questions that the cable operators still have a lot of work to do. “Carrier WiFi will end up being dominated by smartphone traffic, and cable operators have a decided disadvantage in that scenario, as their hotspot users have no mobile network to fall back on, “ he wrote. “Most U.S. cable MSOs are treating carrier WiFi as a ‘complementary’ service, rather than a replacement of cellular. It will serve as a value-add to existing services - a customer retention strategy."
It seems that the technology evolution of operator WiFi is progressing. At the same time, MSOs will have to make an adjustment to selling voice-dominated products that are totally independent of the home. This challenge, which will occur in the marketing and programming arms of the organization, is just as vital to the success of cable operator WiFi.
As usual, the cable industry’s preeminent position is cemented by its massive presence in the homes and neighborhoods of most American towns and cities. “The cable operators see that they have a very, very valuable resource and see a very compelling opportunity to further monetize it,” Robinson said. “There are a number of cable operators in the ascendency that [can become] mobile providers through their WiFi networks.”