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CableWiFi Alliance survives US consolidation

Three of the five Alliance members have been acquired but this should make the hotspot roaming platform, now 500,000-strong, more powerful

The CableWiFi Alliance has the potential to disrupt the wireless landscape in the US by creating a massive national network of quality-assured WiFi access, which could be a low cost alternative to cellular for many applications. So the recent round of M&A among US cablecos raised concerns that the project would fall between the cracks, since three of the five partners in the Alliance have been acquired by companies outside it.

But the Alliance survives, and could benefit from the inclusion of the acquiring firms, insists its largest member, Comcast. The cable leader told FierceCable: “The CableWiFi consortium remains in place following the recent M&A activity.”

That activity saw another cableco, Charter, a non-Alliance member, buying up Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, while French group Altice acquired Cablevision. The founding members of the CableWiFi consortium were Comcast, TWC, Bright House, Cablevision and Cox Communications.

According to Comcast, the shared network has growth from 250,000 hotspots in 2014 to about 500,000 now. It said: “Subscribers of each MSO that were previously entitled to use the CableWiFi hotspots continue to enjoy access. Access points that were made available by each MSO continue to provide CableWiFi service.”

With Comcast poised to activate its MVNO agreement with Verizon, several cablecos are expected to launch WiFi-first services which would give them a multiplay offering, to enhance their competitiveness with the telcos; as well as a mobile service, which could be run low cost by ensuring that users were on WiFi most of the time, only moving to cellular when no acceptable WiFi signal was in range.

With 500,000 hotspots and growing, CableWiFi will be able to support good quality data and WiFi Calling experiences in many urban and suburban areas, and in most of the locations which account for heaviest wireless usage, such as transport hubs, cafes or business parks. And of course, the cablecos have many home WiFi connections sewn up (and are including them in the public network via homespot arrangements); and they are increasingly targeting business broadband growth too.

The CableWiFi Alliance, then, was too shiny a jewel to lose amid the political posturings of the cablecos. Comcast has a particularly high interest in WiFi-first, and the potential to reap significant revenues from roaming onto its huge WiFi network. The company says it has 14m hotspots (the “overwhelming majority”, it says, are homespots and clearly most of its locations are not included in the Alliance’s footprint of 500,000. Comcast says its e Xfinity Wi-Fi network handled 445.8 petabytes of traffic last year.

The total number of US hotspots owned by the cable industry is 17m according to LightReading estimates. MNOs will increasingly eye these networks for offload purposes, reversing the usual balance of power and forcing a rethink of MVNO pricing for cablecos.

Cablevision’s next moves will also be interesting. It has closed down its WiFi-only service, Freewheel, which is likely to denote a shift from its traditional avoidance of MNO relationships in favor of its own WLANs. Its new owner, Altice, has strong experience of competing in a market disrupted by cable WiFi-first – it owns SFR and Numericable in France, which together are creating a competitive response to the rise of fellow cable group Iliad/Free.

Meanwhile, the enlarged Charter is a bidder in the upcoming 600 MHz reverse spectrum auction, and says its acquisitions have given it access to the CableWiFi Alliance and a Verizon MVNO, both of which it plans to exploit for service growth.

Other cablecos may seek to join the Alliance now. Smaller MSOs are starting to build out public WiFi hotspots and homespots – for instance, Mediacom has said it will invest $1bn in public WiFi in cities in its coverage area focused on Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Georgia. It has also said it wants to negotiate roaming deals with Charter and Comcast.

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