Cisco Systems’ two big moves—OK, one was much bigger—have both short- and long-term implications for the cable industry. The new age company’s decision to buy old age, stalwart Scientific-Atlanta because, among other things, S-A couldn’t dent the telephone business is a signal to some smaller cable telco equipment vendors to start looking for a sugar daddy. Can you say ‘Hello, Moto’? Cisco’s move into the wireless market has more immediate impact. Mesh Wi-Fi pioneers Tropos Networks and BelAir Networks currently occupy that market, but all three vendors believe cable is still a viable wireless customer, even though the industry has climbed into bed with Sprint Nextel in a joint venture that looks like a modified mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) arrangement. Fixing the quadruple play “Cable operators are increasingly talking about the quadruple play, where that fourth play is mobility. What a lot of them really want to do is rely less on the MVNO and more on their own infrastructure to keep as much of the mobile traffic off the MVNO as possible,” said Bert Williams, Tropos’ senior marketing director. “Metro-scale Wi-Fi gives them a way to do that.” Tropos takes pride in its leadership position in muni Wi-Fi. “We created this metro-scale Wi-Fi market. It’s happening now because mesh works, and we created the combination of mesh that works and a process of working with the municipality,” said Ellen Kirk, vice president of marketing at Tropos. Municipalities focus on delivering broadband data to fill gaps where such service is missing or as a lower priced alternative to existing wireline providers; they generally don’t do much about voice-over-Wi-Fi. Cable operators are looking in that direction, and that’s where Tropos runs into a problem. The players Tropos is a cable outsider. Its entrée into the sacred brotherhood was supposed to come via a relationship with Scientific-Atlanta, but that’s going to evaporate quicker than dry ice on a hot day. BelAir has Comcast’s money and a Comcast exec on its board of directors; Motorola can adjust its wireless gear for cable’s needs; and Cisco is a rising star in the cable wireline space. “Until Cisco entered this market, there has not been a player with global reach that can meet international requirements, but also the global sales force and channels and systems-integrator partners to take this global,” said Ben Gibson, wireless and mobility marketing director at Cisco, perhaps putting a touch too much emphasis on the global implications. Cisco also has cleaner hands than Tropos, which got down and dirty working with the enemy. In particular, Tropos is associated with Philadelphia, Comcast’s hometown where a muni wireless network has risen by disparaging the cable company and its telco doppelganger Verizon. Muni vs. cable Tropos is, through no fault of its own, caught between a rock and a hard place. The muni wireless market grew up in opposition to cable, and Tropos can’t turn its back on that business. “We’re the leader in unwiring cities. We can challenge a wireline service provider with a more robust high-speed wireless offering that has a mobility component,” said Kirk. On the other hand, the vendor can’t ignore cable’s potential. “Imagine a cable provider overbuilding so that they could offer their subscribers a wireless component which would directly challenge their DSL competitors. Their DSL competitor is probably a Cisco customer,” said Kirk. Cable overbuilding anything is about as likely as a sports team winning in Philadelphia. It could happen; it’s just difficult to imagine. What’s not difficult to imagine is Cisco’s strength in wireless. Salivating operators “Cisco is well-positioned for enterprise extension, covering the (business) campus,” admitted Williams. “We (Tropos) aspire to much bigger things, covering entire cities.” Go for it, suggested Gibson, who said Cisco’s “solution is based on the same common architecture that includes a centralized controller, which manages all the access points in a network. We’re seeking and working with many customers that have large campus environments that have Wi-Fi deployed indoors, and they want to do it outdoors.” It’s a market that has, for years, had cable operators salivating. As for competing with cable in the muni space? Not likely, said Gibson. “The notion of mesh Wi-Fi being the third pipe into the home is not very realistic,” he said. “Mesh Wi-Fi can cover zones … but for major cities, you have a horizontal and a vertical challenge to provide mesh to all these different users. That’s where a lot of incumbent carrier technology and service does a better job.” In other words, you’re in clean hands with Cisco. Jim Barthold

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