By Fred Dawson
May 11, 2012 – Can the leading cable companies pull of their latest wireless strategy with greater success than previous efforts?
It’s hard to tell at this point, but generally things are going in the right direction. In fact, some participants in cable operators’ ambitious plans to allow their subscribers to roam across all cable partners’ hot spots nationwide say privately that this will be doable by sometime this summer.
Whether or not that turns out to be the case, progress on some key details bodes well for at least the first phase of Wi-Fi roaming strategy, which envisions contiguous Wi-Fi coverage in some MSOs’ service areas and some degree of expanded coverage across other cable footprints. As previously reported (December, p. 1), roaming partnerships tied to this build-out strategy kicked off last year with an agreement covering Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and Comcast service areas in the mid-Atlantic region and southern New England. These plans dovetail in still-vague ways with MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) deals to be forged with Verizon Wireless in conjunction with that carrier’s purchase of AWS cellular spectrum from Comcast, TWC, Cox and Bright House Networks.
All of the top MSOs with the exception of Charter Communications have recently signaled stepped-up Wi-Fi infrastructure agendas. Cablevision, for example, is now testing mobile access to video as the next step in its bid to be the first MSO to provide footprint-saturation coverage that encompasses streamed pay TV as well as broadband connectivity for its subscribers.
Comcast earlier this year told investors it was committed to expanding its footprint in 2012. And sources say Bright House has stayed on course with its previously announced plans for some 2,000 new hot spots in Florida cities.
Cox, while not saying much about its plans in the wake of abandoning its mobile strategy and selling off its AWS spectrum, has offered a clue to its plans in the form of a job solicitation notice posted on its Website. The MSO says it has a position for a “wireless design engineer III,” who will serve as “part of the mobility project team to take the technical lead in the analysis, design, implementation, optimization and enhancement of Wi-Fi wireless networks with a particular focus on adding out-of-home connectivity to…high-speed broadband Internet and video services and potentially voice service.”
TWC, which told investors in early May that it is deploying another 10,000 Wi-Fi hot spots in New York and Los Angeles this year with other cities to come, makes clear its goal is to create a robust carrier-grade wireless network capable of serving its own and partners’ subscribers with mobile broadband connectivity. “Wi-Fi at the carrier level is anything but simple and requires new technologies that go beyond vanilla reference design access points and enterprise-level management,” says Mike Roudi, senior vice president of mobile services at Time Warner Cable. “The problem is finding Wi-Fi technology specifically designed for stringent carrier requirements.”
TWC has turned to Ruckus Wireless as a second source beyond Ericsson’s newly acquired BelAir Networks unit for supply of dual–band strand–mounted Wi-Fi access points that integrate a DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem for backhauling Wi-Fi traffic over TWC’s existing cable plant. TWC is also using the Ruckus 802.11n Smart Wi-Fi platform to extend broadband services to high–traffic environments using specialized, ultra high–capacity Wi-Fi access points designed for stadiums and large public venues. “Our partnership with Ruckus will be important for delivering carrier–class Wi-Fi services that offer best–in–class broadband mobility to our subscribers,” Roudi says.
As Ruckus president and CEO Selina Lo notes, a big advantage for the Wi-Fi mobility strategy is it leverages a device base that doesn’t require MSOs to get into the phone-store business. “The expansion of Wi-Fi into millions of homes, offices and public Wi-Fi hotspots, along with the growth of a vast and mature ecosystem built of thousands of devices, has established Wi-Fi as the most heavily used wireless technology in the world,” Lo says.
Indeed, at the beginning of 2012, Wi-Fi accounted for 63.4 percent of all smartphone-originated data traffic within the United States, according to a new report from Mobidia. Rising smartphone penetration rates and the successful attachment of data plans to those devices will grow the value of small–screen access revenues to operators to more than $230 billion by 2016, according to Informa Telecoms & Media forecasts.
But this means operators will have to equip their networks with capabilities that go well beyond the early iterations of Wi-Fi where laptops were the primary targeted devices. Today’s Wi-Fi enabled smartphones have very different characteristics from one brand to the next in terms of power, antennas, support for IP–based streaming video and the constantly changing angle of these devices. The simple variation of a device’s orientation can account for up to a 5x performance degradation among Wi-Fi products unable to adapt to such changes, Lo notes.
In February The Wall Street Journal reported testing TWC and Cablevision hot spots in the New York area with decidedly mixed results. “Simple Google searches took several minutes to load at both operators’ hot spots, while YouTube videos and live streams from the WatchESPN iPhone app failed to load after more than 10 minutes of buffering at various Cablevision outdoor Wi-Fi access points in Brooklyn,” the report said.
These are the kinds of issues a state-of-the-art carrier Wi-Fi platform like TWC is deploying with Ruckus is meant to solve. Lo says. Ruckus Smart Wi-Fi focuses and constantly steers Wi-Fi signals over the fastest signal paths using patented adaptive antenna technology, he says, adding that the platform uses specialized technology that accounts for changing device orientation.
Now that operators are investing heavily in Wi-Fi infrastructure it stands to reason they would want their subscribers to know this enhancement to their broadband services is provided by their cable operator. It turns out this is harder than it seems, which has prompted one of the top MSOs in this space to deploy a customer messaging solution supplied by Front Porch, Inc.
Results of this unnamed MSO’s efforts bode well for the industry’s ability not only to enhance subscriber awareness of the operator’s role in providing the Wi-Fi service but also to drive greater usage of applications the operator is providing through that broadband connection, and the legacy fixed connection as well, says Front Porch founder and CEO Zach Britton. “Operators need to speak directly to subscribers over the Internet,” Britton says. “It’s a non-trivial problem.”
In the case of the MSO now using the Front Porch system for Wi-Fi messaging, one of the major conveniences associated with the service, namely, automatic sign in, left consumers in the dark as to where the service was coming from. Notwithstanding extensive marketing touting all the conveniences associated with the new broadband anywhere service, focus group studies showed consumers thought they were getting the automatic Wi-Fi connection from their mobile service provider, Britton says.
Now, with a brief, unobtrusive message from the Front Porch network-based browser solution, which does not require client-side software, all users know where the service is coming from. Moreover, they’re now getting messages asking them if they would like to download a Mobile TV app to enable programming on the iOS phones and tablets.
This, too, has had a significant impact on consumers in comparison to the usage generated by local TV advertising, print ads, emails and app store listings. “Our customer has seen an increase in take rates on the Wi-Fi TV Everywhere app of over 20 percent,” Britton says. The message prompting activation of the app is very simple. “FREE Live TV App” with the MSO’s logo is all it takes to get people engaged, he adds.
With such messaging capabilities MSOs have an opportunity to deliver app prompts that could greatly increase perceived value as well as open the path to new revenues, Britton notes. For example, Front Porch customer have long leveraged its messaging system over fixed broadband networks to deliver promotions, provide subscribers access to account and billing information and allow them to open chat sessions with service reps.
All these capabilities can be extended to devices using the Wi-Fi network, Britton says. Also in the works for the unnamed MSO’s Wi-Fi service are messages promoting apps tied to finding goods and services from local retailers, linking users to home security services and prompting users to access their home voice service over the Wi-Fi connection.
Another barrier to building a compelling Wi-Fi experience for cable subscribers has been the absence of seamless connectivity across hot spots and other roaming-related ease-of-use issues.
But there has been considerable progress in this area, suggesting a new level of experience that will obviate re-registration as users traverse multiple hot spots both within their cable operator’s service area and partner service areas is in the offing.
One important development along these lines is the CableLabs Wi-Fi Roaming Architecture and Interfaces Specification, issued in 2010, which provides a common approach to authentication of partners’ subscribers as they enter cable Wi-Fi footprints outside their home cities. Here the idea is to support subscriber access via a Web portal sign-in with username and password, allowing the visited network to “proxie” credentials to the home network for subscriber authentication and device authorization.
More recently, TWC has made known details of a technical solution that supports seamless roaming from one hot spot to another both within a given MSO’s Wi-Fi network and within a partner’s network when a subscriber is authenticated to use the partner’s system. In a patent entitled “System and Method for Wi-Fi Roaming” filed in February, TWC engineers describe a process by which roaming subscriber devices can sustain access across multiple hot spots through a complex system of “virtual access point” instantiations tied to remotely stored Service Set Identifiers (SSIDs) that associate the device with an authenticated home access point gateway.
The system requires that the Wi-Fi network be equipped with AP roaming modules with software processing capabilities that match the MAC (media access control) address of roaming devices with SSIDs of authenticated subscribers that are stored in a roaming datastore. Once match is made the roaming module initiates a “virtual AP” which allows the device to communicate as if it were connected to its home AP. The patent also describes an alternative means of maintaining continuous connectivity whereby the roaming device can be connected via IP tunneling directly through the network back to its home AP.
And the patent application covers a means by which a session initiated by an authorized subscriber on a cellular or Wi-Fi network can be handed off to another network and then returned to the network on which the session was initiated as the user traverses the different connection points. This makes it possible to sustain continuous connection as the subscriber moves from a cellular network to a Wi-Fi network and back to cellular or vice versa, which would be a significant benefit for subscribers of MSOs who partner with an MVNO provider like Verizon Wireless.
As noted with the Front Porch customer, along with using Wi-Fi to deliver the broadband experience and TV Everywhere services beyond the home, MSOs are looking at these networks as a way to extend the reach of their digital voice services. Already, as reported elsewhere, Caribbean MSO Columbus Communications is demonstrating how this can be done over any Wi-Fi connection to a hot spot anywhere in the world using the integration platform supplied by UXP Systems. These new seamless roaming capabilities would allow operators to support an all-IP mobile triple-play service at a fraction of the costs of building an LTE (Long-Term Evolution) 4G mobile infrastructure.