By Fred Dawson
November 22, 2013 – The cable industry’s roller coaster ride on the wireless frontier has finally brought it to a point of embracing the idea that a truly ubiquitous Wi-Fi access footprint must be a defining component of the business going forward.
Over the past year build-out of Wi-Fi hot spots has accelerated to where keeping up with the numbers is nearly impossible. In June the National Cable Telecommunications Association said there were over 200,000 cable-operated hotspots up and running in the U.S. Testifying before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology on November 13, Comcast senior vice president Tom Nagel said his company alone had deployed some 350,000 hotspots and, through its roaming agreement with other MSOs, had made available 100,000 more for free access by its subscribers.
Nagel made clear this is just the beginning for Comcast as it moves ahead with another component of its Wi-Fi strategy, which is to deploy dual-use Wi-Fi home gateways that allow in-door residential hotspots to support outdoor access by any authenticated subscriber. “We are rolling out a new neighborhood hotspot initiative that has the potential to add millions of additional Wi-Fi access points throughout our footprint, thereby significantly enhancing consumers’ ability to stay connected,” Nagel said. Already, he noted, “Comcast now records more Wi-Fi user sessions in a single month than it did in the first two-and-a-half years of the Xfinity WiFi project.”
Nagel’s testimony, quoted here from a transcript of his prepared remarks, made clear his company has embraced the idea of ubiquitous wireless access, which, as reported two years ago, could put operators in a powerful position to both compete with and draw revenues from mobile carriers. While the idea of negotiating deals with mobile carriers that would engage cable Wi-Fi hotspots as offload points for mobile subscribers has been on the table from the outset of cable’s switch to Wi-Fi, the unanswered question has been whether the industry was ready to go all the way with the Wi-Fi opportunity.
Another signal the answer is in the affirmative comes from CableLabs, where marching orders on industry initiatives emanate from a board consisting of senior executives from the top eight North American MSOs as well as the National Cable Telecommunications Association and several smaller MSOs. After much debate and confusion over where wireless fits in the industry’s long-term agenda, the new perspective on cable architecture envisions a flexible hybrid fiber coax network with expanding capacity to feed a contiguously deployed array of wireless small cells across each service area.
Appearing at an Amdocs customer event in mid-November, Tom Lookabaugh, executive vice president of CableLabs, articulated this new perspective in no uncertain terms. “Nobody would use wire [to connect to services] unless they need to, and it feels like there’s less need to than ever,” Lookabaugh said. Noting this principle applies to the cable industry, notwithstanding its legacy appellation, he added, “Connectivity wants to be as wireless as it can be.”
Amplifying on the point in an interview with ScreenPlays, Lookabaugh said, “When we think about a network, we’re thinking the predominant mode of connection at the end is wireless. It’s a move from our origination to really think wirelessly, but that’s what we have to do.”
CableLabs folks don’t talk about business models or companies’ launch plans, but it’s clear the type of architecture the industry is pursuing with small cells connected across the HFC footprint lends itself to several possibilities beyond providing backhaul support for mobile carriers and selling hotspot access to non-subscribers. Or, as Charter Communications CEO Tom Rutledge put it in an investor conference call in August, “[T]he opportunity that the cable infrastructure lends itself to is small cell wireless services.”
As Lookabaugh noted, cable’s advantage as a wireless player lies in the fact that the existing network provides a ready means of interconnecting small cells with miniscule wireless footprints, thereby minimizing the number of end users contending for wireless spectrum and maximizing the amount of bandwidth that can be delivered to each user. While the FCC is pursuing ways to expand the amount of spectrum available, “the way you’re going to get capacity wirelessly, the only real way to do that ultimately, is through geographic re-use, which means small cells of one type or another,” he said.
“When you do those architectures where you have relatively small cells, you’re implying a dense wired network, a high-capacity network that has to underlie that,” he added. “This is where we feel pretty good, because we actually have one of those and the ability to expand it gracefully.”
Much of the opportunity now open to cable in wireless stems from how far Wi-Fi technology has advanced over the two years since the industry got off the cellular bandwagon. This includes the commercialization of the next generation of Wi-Fi, known as 802.11ac.
As Nagel noted, 802.11ac “will allow dramatically faster broadband speeds, potentially up to or in excess of one gigabit per second. In contrast to networks using prior standards, Wi-Fi networks operating on the 802.11ac standard will support multiple data-intensive uses, such as several users simultaneously streaming HD videos, without any appreciable degradation in quality.”
Perhaps the biggest advantage over the preceding generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11n, is the fact that 802.11ac operates exclusively in the 5 GHz band with the ability to bond multiple 20 MHz frequency channels across up to 495 MHz of relatively unused unlicensed spectrum, compared to the 83.5 MHz of unlicensed spectrum available to 802.11n in the crowded 2.4 GHz tier. While 802.11n access points by definition are designed to operate in the unlicensed regions of 2.4 and 5 GHz, the vast majority of 802.11n-equipped end user devices only have 2.4 GHz antennas.
802.11ac also introduces enhancements to Multiple-Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) technology, an optional component for both 802.11n and ac that uses multiple antenna arrays in transmitters and receivers to support more robust transmissions through spatial separation of bit segments. While it hasn’t been a big factor with 802.11n, MIMO is widely in play on ac chipsets, including, in some cases, a variation unique to 802.11ac known as Multiple-User MIMO (MU-MIMO), which uses precoding to identify multiple receiving devices for a transmission. This enables a kind of broadcast mode that uses spatial division multiplexing to transmit content delivered over a given frequency channel to more than one device.
Lookabaugh, too, underscored the importance of 802.11ac. “We’re actually testing current ac implementations,” he said. “ac is a denser MIMO architecture that gives us some advantage. It has wider bands and other reasons why it is, in fact, higher capacity.”
But there’s one huge problem. “To realize its potential…this standard requires 160 megahertz-wide channels – far wider than channels currently available with reasonable operating rules in any of the spectrum bands used for unlicensed use,” Nagel said. “Unfortunately, the rules that currently govern the 5 GHz band significantly undermine investment today and prevent providers from realizing the wide-band channels we will need to support 802.11ac.”
He cited issues such as “prohibitively low” power levels in some parts of the band and “unnecessary” rules that prevent outdoor use of portions of the band where there are no government incumbent users and technologies exist to protect interference with private interests. Actions underway at the FCC as outlined in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued in February promise to resolve many of these issues, if protests raised by some entities entitled to share the 5 GHz U-NII (Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure) bands 1 and 4 do not derail the proposed rules.
Nagel noted the FCC now has a complete record on the 100 MHz of U-NII-1 spectrum at 5.150-5.250 GHz to validate allowing outdoor operations and higher power levels. “These two improvements would convert U-NII-1 from a band that Comcast and other providers simply cannot use today because of FCC regulations into a powerful tool to meet consumer broadband needs,” he said.
Nagel also extolled the FCC’s proposals for the U-NII-4 band at 5.850-5.925 GHz, noting “the record is clear that unlicensed services like Wi-Fi can co-exist with incumbent satellite operations without causing harmful interference.” He added that ways can be found to allow for sharing of the spectrum with Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a vehicle-to-vehicle/infrastructure service for which this band was licensed over a decade ago but which has yet to enter into commercial operations.
Along with the strong likelihood that FCC actions will free the industry to make full use of 802.11ac, another major development playing to cable’s strengths is the emergence of the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Hotpot 2.0 standard, now a part of the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s Next-Generation Hotspot (NGH) initiative, along with the automatic certification known as Passpoint and the communication protocol enabling device interaction with Hotspot 2.0 technology known as 802.11u.
Hotspot 2.0 has established the foundation for interoperability where small cell technology with multi-protocol antennas can be used to create an integrated network offering. Users with mobile devices equipped to support the standards, which now include the latest Samsung and Apple devices and likely will soon include most other brands, no longer have to worry about passwords, authentication processes and SSIDs (service set identifiers). If they are authorized to access a given hotspot, they are automatically connected.
But coordination of such multi-protocol access points as a managed network across entire metro regions requires sophisticated operations systems that can optimize performance on behalf of all participants. While individual vendors are offering such capabilities with end-to-end small-cell infrastructures, there’s no standard as yet to enable coordination of operations across multiple vendor end points.
It remains to be seen how such issues will be addressed. CableLabs’ goal is to contribute to ongoing standards-building efforts in bodies like the Wireless Broadband Alliance and the mobile industry’s 3GPP to ensure the cable industry’s needs are taken into account while working internally to create specifications for cable industry requirements that aren’t necessarily part of those pan-industry efforts. “We have a set of projects, looking both in the home and outside the home, where we’re trying to look at the roadblocks and knock them down for our industry for these kinds of dense small-cell environments,” Lookabaugh said.
Given that’s now the agenda on the technology front, cable strategists can begin to shape business models that will exploit the power of an integrated, pervasively deployed small-cell Wi-Fi network in ways that go beyond simply selling backhaul capacity to carriers. One line of attack for cable is the idea of implementing nomadic data support with local Wi-Fi coverage, which would allow cable MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) subscribers to stay on the cable Wi-Fi network for data usage locally while moving to the MVNO partner’s cellular network when they travel outside the footprint.
This idea is starting to take hold, leading some Wall St. analysts to flag such capabilities as a new element in assessing cable value. For example, in June Jefferies & Co. analyst Thomas Seitz commented in a report, “We believe the inexorable current below the surface is that cable will enter the wireless market in a disruptive, Wi-Fi/MVNO manner in the foreseeable future.” As previously reported, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Craig Moffett lent his support to this notion a year ago, calling it “potentially a highly disruptive wireless offering.”
Seitz pointed out that even if the cable Wi-Fi infrastructure does not support full mobility – and it could if operators opted to implement new mobile functionalities that are incorporated into some suppliers’ platforms – the lion’s share of data consumption on mobile devices occurs in stationary locations. “Cisco estimates that only 17-18 percent of wireless data is consumed while uhin transit,” Seitz observed. “Cable, with its dense, population-centric networks is ideally suited to provision Wi-Fi where the wireless data is consumed.”
Moreover, he suggested, the data usage on Wi-Fi will eventually include voice as mobile carriers implementing LTE networks move to IP VoLTE (voice over LTE). Tests underway in various cable networks could lead to public trials of new service and pricing models in the second half of 2014, he added.
Such capabilities will require millions more points of Wi-Fi connectivity in cable networks beyond the few hundred thousand hotspots now in operation. This is where the dual-use concept associated with allowing indoor Wi-Fi infrastructure to support outdoor connectivity comes into play.
In June Comcast announced it was operating about 100,000 such home gateway hotspots in its Philadelphia and New Jersey markets as a prelude to possible expansion to millions more. Already, service providers in other countries, including BT in the U.K., Oi in Brazil and Ziggo in The Netherlands, have been taking advantage of new Wi-Fi chipsets developed by Broadcom, Intel and others to support such capabilities.
In the Comcast iteration, household residents are configured into the home network in the usual way while use of a separate configuration SSID – “xfinitiwifi” – allows any authenticated Xfinity customer passing in reach of that indoor hotspot to be automatically connected. While, at this point, this effort is not linked to the hotspot roaming CableWiFi Alliance created two years ago by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Cablevision Systems and Bright House Networks, it could be as other MSOs implement the home gateway hotspot strategy. Seamless handoffs from one such hotspot to the next as well as encrypted protection of all communications through the Hotspot 2.0 encrypted airlink are part of this emerging advanced Wi-Fi infrastructure.
There’s another aspect to the cable opportunity that’s not been discussed publicly, which has to do with the commercial availability of Hotspot 2.0-enabled mobile devices equipped to connect automatically to any Wi-Fi hotspot for which the user is authenticated. Such devices together with special provisioning software provide a means by which Apple or Samsung, for example, could negotiate deals with cable operators and other Wi-Fi providers that would allow direct sale of the devices into the market for wireless connectivity without requiring an affiliation with a cellular carrier.
The power of Hotspot 2.0 and automated authentication processes built into the latest handsets to enable such a cellular bypass strategy is much on the minds of mobile carriers, noted Matt Roberts, product marketing director for digital services at Amdocs. The provider of BSS/OSS and other IT systems has just announced a platform, Smart Net, meant to help mobile carriers move subscribers back and forth seamlessly and automatically between their own cellular and Wi-Fi assets. “They see that with these new devices and the ability to authenticate with Hotspot 2.0, somebody like Apple could partner with Wi-Fi network providers and use 2.0 to own the customer,” Roberts said.
Smart Net answers carriers’ growing awareness that, as they build out ever more Wi-Fi hotspots, they need to maintain a managed engagement with customers that starts with seamless handoffs across their mobile and Wi-Fi infrastructures but goes much farther. Interfacing with carriers’ BSS/OSS, the Smart Net system intelligence is designed to use data gleaned from those resources to allow several enhanced capabilities beyond authenticating and triggering handoffs between cellular and Wi-Fi access points.
These include data mining for advertising and e-commerce applications based on subscribers’ profiles and locations when they’re in hotspot zones as well as intelligent handoff management, where, for example, the carrier can determine whether keeping the subscriber on cell or transferring to Wi-Fi is the best option based on the monthly state of data usage on the cell plan. “There can be revenue leakage if a consumer not using all his or her data plan is transferred to Wi-Fi all the time,” Roberts noted. “Or maybe if the consumer gets off loaded to Wi-Fi and the service provider knows where that person is within a few meters in a shopping mall, the operator can generate ads and information relevant to that location.”
While Amdocs is delivering enhancements to give carriers a leg up in conjunction with exploiting Hotspot 2.0 and 802.11u capabilities, other players are leveraging the standards to create a foundation for advanced capabilities of their own. A case in point was Apple’s release of iOS 7 earlier this year, which enabled Hotspot 2.0 connectivity in new devices and many older devices going back to iPhone4.
Apple is not only seeding the market with tens of millions of Hotspot 2.0-ready devices. It’s laying the groundwork for new business models with the Apple Configurator Utility (ACU), which is designed to generate configuration profiles for its devices independently of cellular carriers. This makes it possible for Wi-Fi network owners affiliating with Apple to generate and digitally sign Hotspot 2.0 profiles that automatically associate the user’s device with those entities’ hotspots whenever the user is in reach of such access points. Anticipated enhancements to Hotspot 2.0 will expand the business possibilities by supporting provisioning of usage policies with those credentials.
Clearly, the technological advances are creating a lot of options for cable operators to consider. But there’s much work to be done to get to where cable operators will be able to engineer the use of all these new technologies with the predictability essential to delivering a managed subscription service.
“The tricky thing with wireless that we and anybody else in wireless struggles with is the channel is so variable,” Lookabaugh said. “You can create very high-peak capacities and still have a lot of variation in throughput. So mitigating that, or at least understanding and measuring that so you know what you’re getting into, whether it’s n or g or ac, is pretty critical.”
Ensuring that handoffs from one hotspot to the next are seamless, orchestrating how everything works from central controllers and tying it all into the DOCSIS and back-office infrastructures are also part of the work that lies ahead. “We don’t have any CableLabs-specific wireless standard that we’re promoting or planning to promote today,” Lookabaugh said. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be. I suspect there will be.”