December 3, 2012 – Time Warner Cable is taking a new approach to maximizing the effectiveness of its Wi-Fi infrastructure from both a consumer and investment perspective that could have important implications for cable operators in their efforts to expand wireless business opportunities.
In the fast-moving cable Wi-Fi scenario strategists are debating whether it makes sense to go beyond merely using hotspots to enhance subscriber satisfaction and convenience in favor of pursuing the full-bore wireless play that has eluded them so far. As previously reported, advances in Wi-Fi support systems enabling mobile usage in combination with a heavy build-out commitment could put operators in position to offer branded mobile services in their metro service areas while extending the reach of such services through MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) affiliations with mobile carriers.
While it remains to be seen which cable companies other than Cablevision will move to the level of saturation Wi-Fi coverage in their markets that would support a mobile footprint, the case for doing so has grown more persuasive in the wake of the federal government’s recent action on the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum deal between cable MSOs and Verizon. In approving the AWS sale the Justice Department and FCC ruled the cablecos should have the option to enter into MVNO agreements with Verizon right away rather than waiting four years as originally envisioned in their agreement with the carrier.
A new software platform implemented by TWC could be a key factor in the technological underpinnings of such a strategy. Indeed, Mike Roudi, senior vice president of corporate development at TWC, says the new Wi-Fi planning tool supplied by WeFi, a Tel Aviv-based firm, is “crucial for TWC WiFi to deliver the best possible mobile Internet service.”
According to WeFi chairman and CEO Zur Feldman, the company’s WeANDSF (WeFi Enhanced Access Network Discovery and Selection Function) platform uses a deep database identifying wireless sites and time-of-day usage patterns in conjunction with tie-ins to client software on mobile devices to facilitate optimum, seamlessly connected usage of mobile and Wi-Fi access options wherever customers happen to be at any moment. “TWC is deploying Wi-Fi with a commitment to having the best connectivity experience for their customers across tens of thousands of Wi-Fi locations in their service territories,” Feldman says. “We are a part of that solution.”
WeFi’s WeANDSF platform was first developed for mobile operators to intelligently manage mobile device offloading from saturated mobile data networks to available Wi-Fi networks. To make this possible WeFi built a database from information generated by client software on mobile devices and other sources that now identifies and tracks usage on over 145 million hotspots worldwide, Feldman says.
Over the course of six years more than seven million people have downloaded WeFi’s free software app, which helps users identify the best connection options when they want to hook up to Wi-Fi. By seeding all those devices with that app, WeFi has been able to amass a continuously expanding flow of information about hotspot locations, usage volume and connectivity patterns for different times of day and different days of the week, Feldman says.
“Users get to enjoy a better experience at no cost to them, and we have in place the database we need to drive our business with mobile operators, MSOs and content providers,” he explains. “By collecting information from the smart client on each specific device, we can use the sophisticated algorithms of our analytics engine to provide our customers visibility into user experience across their territories.”
TWC’s Roudi describes WeANDSF as “the most complete and efficient network management toolset we have evaluated.” The functionalities are vital both for ascertaining and maintaining user quality of experience and for strategic planning purposes, he says.
“WeFi analyzes massive amounts of real-time data on Wi-Fi hotspot locations and conditions and gives TWC real time feedback on the quality of the Wi-Fi networks,” he notes. At the same time, the data is letting TWC know where its customers are spending time on Wi-Fi in areas not served by TWC. “Their powerful Wi-Fi network planning tool is giving us great insights on where best to deploy our Wi-Fi hotspots,” he says.
Data for these purposes is quite extensive, Feldman says. “We know, for example, whether their customer is connected to their router or to an AT&T router close by and what the bandwidth rate is on that connection,” he explains. “We can determine within a specific geographic area which routers are most useful and which ones are not effective and are a waste of infrastructure money. We can tell where the customer is likely to get a better experience at any time of day. You have a lot of information to work with based on device behavior across your user base.”
Tracking user experience on cable Wi-Fi networks is an especially tricky proposition compared to the challenge for mobile operators. “MSOs, unlike carriers, don’t have control over their customers’ mobile devices,” Feldman notes. “But they want to keep customers on their networks and to provide them a high-quality experience when they’re away from home.”
By virtue of the interface between WeFi’s platform and the MSO’s Wi-Fi network management system, the operator is able to use the feedback from the client software to ensure that when its customers are looking for hotspots they’re automatically connected to its Wi-Fi locations. This not only keeps subscribers happy by assuring they get the free access they’re entitled to; it keeps the operator’s video and other service options in front of on-the-go users.
All of this has profound implications for MVNO deals or other business relationships involving offloads between mobile and Wi-Fi networks. In the case of an agreement that supports seamless offloading from mobile to a cable Wi-Fi connection, the WeFi platform lets the partners set the parameters for determining what the triggering conditions should be based on what’s going on hour by hour at any given location, Feldman notes.
“When is the right time to connect customers to Wi-Fi rather than to leave them on a specific mobile network? Is the network becoming saturated? Do you need to offload customers to Wi-Fi to alleviate congestion? These are things you need to know,” he says. “Our customers have the ability to put policies in place based on the specific requirements of each relationship.”
Feldman declines to discuss details of where things stand in WeFi’s efforts to engage more MSOs, but he makes clear discussions along these lines are underway with other members of the cable Wi-Fi federation, which includes Comcast, Cox, Cablevision and Bright House Networks as well as TWC and possibly others. “We have other customers I can’t identify,” he says. “For MSOs who have committed to the federation to provide roaming support for subscribers in different territories, WeFi can be the glue that allows them to be proactive about the experience they want to provide to their customers.”
Now that Justice Department and FCC rulings give MSOs who sold their AWS holdings to Verizon the option to enter into MVNO deals with the carrier immediately rather than waiting four years as the original deal envisioned, operators who build out their Wi-Fi coverage areas with technology supporting mobile communications have an opportunity to offer a branded mobile service that limits reliance on the mobile supplier’s network. This would allow MSOs to compete cost effectively as quadruple-play providers with a national mobile footprint, possibly in conjunction with other operators in the Wi-Fi federation.
Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Craig Moffett recently lent his support to this notion, calling it “potentially a highly disruptive wireless offering.” As quoted in Light Reading, Moffett said, “Paired with an MVNO agreement…a Wi-Fi-first network could be a game changer…but only if the cable operators had sufficiently dense Wi-Fi networks … and a willing MVNO partner.”
And, it should be added, only if the underlying technology foundation is equipped to handle the complexities of delivering a seamless mobile broadband experience under such conditions. TWC’s move with WeFi suggests that at least this part of the challenge may now be handled.