Wireless was prominent at the Cable Show in Los Angeles last month, with a panel of top executives discussing how cable will play in this space. Cathy Avgiris, who in March was promoted to senior vice president and general manager of communications and data services for Comcast Cable, said, "I think it’s cool you have an entire panel here talking about wireless."

Avgiris, who is credited with growing Comcast’s residential phone business, now is responsible for all aspects of Comcast’s Xfinity Internet and voice services as well as the operator’s "High-Speed 2go" 3G/4G wireless data service. The fact that Comcast has consolidated its Internet, voice and wireless services under one leader is a good example of how the traditional silos of services are going away. Comcast is "making our products more synergistic," Avgiris explained.

Comcast has several partnership arrangements for delivery of its wireless products. For its High-Speed 2go mobile broadband service, Comcast has a 3G team deal with Sprint and a WiMAX (4G) agreement with Clearwire. In addition, the MSO has struck deals with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision to share Wi-Fi coverage in the New York City metropolitan area, making it easier for subscribers from each of the companies to keep their Wi-Fi devices connected.

As a result, Cablevision has made Wi-Fi the centerpiece of its wireless strategy.

"We’re about 18 months into deployment of ‘Optimum WiFi’ that extends our high-speed data service outside the home where people are likely to be," said John Bickham, president/cable and communications for Cablevision Systems, during the Cable Show panel. Optimum WiFi is a symmetrical 1.5 Mbps service, but Bickham said the speeds will be raised "in the not too distant future."

Optimum WiFi was launched in September 2008; since then, Cablevision has continued building the network, deploying tens of thousands of access points within its footprint. "We’ve created a mesh network in an outdoor environment," continued Bickham.

Cablevision also is using Wi-Fi as a complement to its high-speed data offering. "Over half of our data customers have Wi-Fi in the home," he said, "and, obviously, there is a proliferation of Wi-Fi devices today."

Everything Everywhere

At last year’s Cable Show, the hot topic was “TV Everywhere,” and one of the new buzzwords was "authentication" as it related to video being made available online. But in 2010, authentication also has become important as it relates to mobile services. Consumers want access to all of their services on all of their devices, and operators are scrambling to authenticate them.

For Optimum WiFi, Cablevision allows its subscribers to register their devices online and then, when they’re in an Optimum WiFi coverage area, the device automatically is registered and authenticated. According to Bickham, in the fiscal quarter when auto-authentication went live, the number of Wi-Fi sessions spiked to 5 million from 3 million.

"The number of devices being registered goes up each month," he said. "Where Optimum WiFi has existed for the longest time, about 17 percent of high-speed data customers use it in any given month."

The third partner in the New York City Wi-Fi collaboration, Time Warner Cable, also is pursuing 3G and 4G wireless.

"Our primary method of getting into wireless is with Clearwire and Sprint, rolling out both 3G and 4G," said Mike Roudi, group vice president/mobile services for TWC. Service is "up and running in the Carolinas, Texas and Hawaii," he pointed out.

In May, TWC, Clearwire and Sprint announced plans to launch their respective 4G mobile Internet services this summer in the following cities: Kansas City, Kan.; and Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y. TWC’s service is branded “Road Runner Mobile.”

"We think about wireless a little differently than wireless carriers – as a feature to our core bundle,” Roudi said. “The challenge for cable operators is that f our relationships stop at the front door. The point of getting into wireless is to maintain the relationship with our customers."

Roudi indicated that mobile TV was top of mind at TWC: "For the first time ever, you’ll be able to stream high-def channels. The first cuts of mobile video were a novelty; the experience wasn’t great. Now we’re seeing where you can pull those experiences in and start to use the service."

Cox’s wireless play is different than the other major operators. Although it’s not a partner with Clearwire, it works with Sprint for its 3G network. The MSO is launching CDMA wireless voice and mobile high speed Internet services in three test markets where it already has cable subscribers: Hampton Roads, Va.; Omaha, Neb.; and Orange County, Calif.

Additionally, Cox has chosen Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology for its 4G plan rather than Clearwire’s WiMAX technology. It’s tested LTE in Phoenix and San Diego.

Cox, which has its roots in traditional telephony, is looking at wireless from a voice perspective. "For us, we look at voice as a $100 billion market in the United States," said Stephen Bye, vice president/wireless strategy and development at Cox. "We want a share of that."

Also, Cox sees wireless as a competitive necessity to hold its ground against AT&T and Verizon. "You’ve got to be able to go head to head in the market," said Bye. "We have a brand. We can add wireless to that brand." As far as building some of its own network in addition to partnering with Sprint, Bye added, "In a competitive market like wireless, you have to have assets."

Dallas Clement, Cox’s executive vice president and chief strategy and product officer, offered more insight to Cox’s wireless strategy. At a BigBand Networks-sponsored Communications Technology breakfast at this year’s Cable Show, Clement said, "In our markets, our customers like us. We’ve done research in wireless and see it as an offensive play. We can take market share."

He continued, "As we approach wireless now, video is not front of mind. Front of mind is: Can I call mom and dad, and does it work?"

With its focus on wireless voice, Cox also is planning to create a handset portfolio. Clement said Google’s Android platform "offered a compelling alternative to the iPhone." Whatever devices end up comprising its handset portfolio, he said Cox could share some features of the company’s new Trio interactive program guide, which NDS created for Cox’s tru2way customers.

"We’re moving from a premise-based business model to a personal-device business model," said Bye. "Devices are a challenge. Very few players have a lot of pull when it comes to device vendors. We’re part of a buying co-op. That’s how we get some scale."

Mobile Offloading

Clearwire supplier Bridgewater Systems says it can help other cable operators leverage their Wi-Fi assets by onloading subscribers from congested 3G networks. Bridgewater’s products allow subscribers to log into their Internet accounts just once and then seamlessly switch to other services, whether that’s from their cable operator’s Internet network to its Wi-Fi hot spots or among different providers’ networks based on service level agreements.

In New York City, there’s a lot of congestion on 3G cellular networks. By offering Wi-Fi services to their Internet subscribers, cable operators are insinuating themselves into the wireless business where such competitors as Verizon and AT&T already are entrenched.

"I wouldn’t be surprised to see some agreements between cable operators and mobile operators," said Joanne Steinberg, director of marketing communications at Bridgewater Systems.

From the mobile operator’s perspective, offloading to Wi-Fi could help with congestion. And, at least until next-generation wireless networks are in place, congestion will get worse as more mobile devices go online. Also, more Wi-Fi-enabled devices are being shipped – think iPad.

"We’re going to have to find ways to better balance traffic," said Steinberg. "The mobile networks are not designed for very heavy video apps. I think we’re going to see a lot of re-balancing of traffic. Our source software does that."

Different Lingo

With the exception of Cox and its focus on voice, most operators seem to be looking to wireless for its mobile data and video. And in the wireless world, there aren’t separate silos for voice, video and data. It’s all data.

"With 4G, you have IP across the entire infrastructure," said Shane Guthrie, vice president/business development and multimedia solutions at Alcatel Lucent. "There’s no dedicated circuitry for voice."

Guthrie said earlier generations of wireless were more mixed architectures — some RF and some circuit-switched. "IP is a new convergence for the existing wireless industry as well," he said.

"The amount of data people want to consume is tough on a voice network," added Cablevision’s Bickham. "We’re building a wireless data network, and we believe it can do pretty much anything. We can certainly do voice. We look at it as an application on the wireless data network."

As far as the business motivation for cable’s entry into wireless, Guthrie said it’s more about extending brands. Cable operators need to offer mobility for their core services.

TWC’s Roudi also sees voice as an application on the wireless data network. "People will tolerate continuity on data that’s far worse than what’s tolerated on voice," he said. "We think of voice as an IP application. We’re starting with mobile data to learn and understand to offer mobility."

Comcast’s Avgiris acknowledges that the existing cellular providers have pretty much locked up today’s wireless voice market, but technological changes offer new opportunities.

"In the same way we entered into the home-phone business, it would have been cost-prohibitive to go into circuit-switched technology," she said. "As an industry, we leveraged IP and stood the model on its head a little bit."

According to Matt Carter, Sprint’s president/4G, "Cable companies are trying to understand how they need to play within wireless. I don’t want to speculate on what options they may choose. They recognize that smart phones are becoming the one device that is converging Internet access, content, voice. They want to be in place where they could potentially take advantage of a growing trend."

Alcatel Lucent’s Guthrie also noted the most important thing is cable’s primary asset — the full channel lineup — explaining, “Operators are always trying to drive stickiness in their core video service.”

TV On The Go

Broadcasters also are concerned about evolving their video offerings, and they have a few options as they advance their mobile TV strategies.

Thierry Fautier, senior director/convergence solutions at Harmonic, said one camp is working with Qualcomm’s FLO TV product. The other camp is pursuing Advanced Television Systems Committee Mobile/Handheld (ATSC M/H), which is the mobile broadcast extension of ATSC.

"There is good reason to believe that this (ATSC M/H) might fly," said Fautier. In a Harmonic white paper, Fautier wrote, "Many believe that this initiative will be successful as it is a free ad-based model, can be upgraded to ATSC M/H at reduced cost and has already secured content."

For cable, mobile TV likely will be delivered over the top (OTT) via 4G wireless networks. However, the blueprint around convergence isn’t completely defined yet, said Sprint’s Carter, who added, "I think what’s going to happen is cable companies are going to morph into something else, looking different than what they grew up as."

Summing up, Avgiris said, "I can’t tell you we’ve finalized the strategy on how we deploy wireless. Think about leading with your strategic assets."

Linda Hardesty is associate editor of Communications Technology. Contact her at lhardesty@accessintel.com.

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