The wireless component in a cable operator’s service package is gaining momentum as not only a competitive must-have service, but also as an extension of the customer’s home network.

That was one takeaway from an MSO-heavy panel discussion at the NCTA Cable Show in April titled "AirPlay: Cable’s Wide-Open Wireless Future."

Cablevision

"We are halfway through our wireless network deployment, including Wi-Fi at a train station, and we’re working with the MTA and Long Island Railroad to put wireless in the trains themselves. It’s an extension of home service," said John Bickham, president of cable communications for Cablevision Systems.

The company had just announced more than 1 million mobile Internet connections through the company’s Optimum Online Wi-Fi service, including most of the high traffic transit platforms and station parking lots in northern New Jersey. Cablevision is also working in tandem with Comcast to wire railroad stations that would allow Optimum customers access to Comcast’s Wi-Fi service and has activated radios at "hundreds" of rail stations, the company said.

Cablevision, Bickham noted, is spending $300 million, or $120 per customer, for its data/wireless network, which is capable of providing both voice and video services. The buildout is expected to be completed by the end of 2010 and will include network equipment from BelAir and Cisco.

Clearwire

Time Warner Cable is focusing its wireless attention on the company’s Clearwire partnership, which is building a national broadband wireless network using WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) technology. The company plans to launch its wireless broadband product in one market in 4Q of ’09, albeit with that date predicated on just how Clearwire’s build-out progresses. (Editor’s note: Clearwire announced a USB Modem in early May that links Wi-Fi products to the company’s mobile WiMAX service.)

Along with TWC, Comcast and Bright House Networks have invested in the Clearwire joint venture. Comcast COO Stephen Burke told the Portland Oregonian in May that it would like to resell Clearwire’s service in Portland, one of the first markets to launch.

At the NCTA session, Mike Roudi, group vice president of wireless services for TWC, said that from his perspective, the wireless network is expected to launch in the previously mentioned fourth quarter timeframe.

"We’re starting with data and VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) applications," he said. "What charges us up is the ability to do true broadband high-speed. It’s the ‘inside-out’ strategy. We don’t think of wireless as the fourth leg of the quad-play, rather the triple-play in the home and outside," he said.

Clearwire, he added, has total responsibility for the RF and wireless network buildout, with TWC doing everything else such as billing, marketing and sales, customer care, and provisioning.

"We’re focusing on our Clearwire partnership for a national wireless broadband network using Wi-Fi technology," Roudi said. The network will have its own branded products, not the Clear brand.

In the meantime, Clearwire is pushing ahead with its WiMAX expansion plan, which includes coverage of up to 120 million Americans across 80 markets by the end of 2010, said Clearwire spokeswoman Susan Johnston.

Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Seattle are the key cities "going Clear" in 2009. Boston, Houston, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C., are planned for 2010 launches.

Clearwire’s first mobile WiMAX market, Portland, has doubled the sales of any of its prior 47 markets, and its initial launch into the Baltimore market by Sprint/XOHM will be re-branded with the Clear brand by year’s end, with device offerings the same in all Clear markets, Johnston said.

She added that Clearwire and Sprint, which were working on two different system platforms that don’t talk to each other today, are transitioning to a single platform later this year.

Cox

Adding a wireless play was a near no-brainer for Cox Communications, which according to Stephen Bye, Cox’s VP of wireless strategy development, is "well down the road" toward building its own network, with Sprint’s assistance. "We’re leveraging fiber assets, backbone and towers and building 3G that’s compatible with Sprint, and doing trials in the 700 MHz spectrum," he said. "We’re clearly getting into the wireless space."

And it’s clear why. Explained Bye: "We looked at wireless and decided we needed to be in it because of customer demand and (because) our competitors are doing it. We had a false start with Pivot, but learned a lot. A third of our market is spending on wireless, and there is lots of opportunity in the voice market. Clearly, our customers wanted wireless from us."

But for the wireless business to grow, some key strategies must be in place. "You must have leveraged assets, infrastructure, people and spectrum," said Bye. "And you need a brand, good customer relations and a product that customers understand."

Cox, he added, is paying particular attention to the retail market, which he believes is a key component to the wireless business model. "Wireless depends on retail, so we’re building out a stronger retail presence. You can’t tell customers how a product works over the phone. It must be experienced at retail."

Comcast

The wireless experience for Comcast and the entire cable industry, explained company Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts during a general session at the NCTA Show, is in its initial stages.

"Wireless is a conundrum for our industry on how to take that first step," Roberts said. "AT&T and Verizon are the super elephants, so it’s a tough road. We’re figuring out how to partner with companies like Google and Clearwire, but that space can change quickly, and we’re focused on making Clearwire successful. There are also opportunities with companies like Sprint. It’s an interesting road for us to take."

The future

The result is a wide-open wireless future, for both residential and business. "There are lots of businesses that are ideal for inside Wi-Fi hot spots," Cablevision’s Bickham said. "We’ve begun in earnest building out a wireless data service where people shop, dine and commute, and where people are on the move.

Bickham said the network side of the deployment has gone "smoothly." Indeed, Cablevision recently doubled its Wi-Fi downstream speed to 3 Mbps. "Now the critical step is to make it easy to use and accessible," he said.

Craig Kuhl is a contributor to Communications Technology.

Sidebar: WiMAX vs. LTE

What’s the difference between WiMAX and LTE? Philip Solis of ABI Research explains:

WiMAX

WiMAX was created within the IEEE initially as a fixed wireless technology. After a few earlier iterations, the result was 802.16d (IEEE 802.16-2004), or "fixed WiMAX." This is not expected to be a large market. WiMAX was adapted to be used as a mobile wireless technology with 802.16e (IEEE 802.16-2005), which is also known as "mobile WiMAX." Mobile WiMAX can be set up as a fixed, portable, and fully mobile network. Given that mobile WiMAX will be a larger market than fixed WiMAX, mobile WiMAX is supplanting fixed WiMAX in most cases. Most of the WiMAX activity in the world is based in developing countries, but there are many developed countries that have WiMAX networks being built out. Only a handful of major mobile operators are involved with WiMAX. WiMAX is a 4G technology that has a roadmap that includes 802.16m, which is planned to be IMT-Advanced compliant.

LTE

Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) Long Term Evolution (LTE) was created by the 3GPP group, which is made up of mobile operators, vendors, chipset manufacturers, and other companies. Like WiMAX, LTE’s downlink uses orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA). However, LTE’s uplink uses single carrier frequency division multiple access (SC-FDMA). LTE was designed to meet the needs of mobile operators and their desires to work LTE into their existing 2G and 3G networks. Most mobile operators around the world have chosen to support LTE, which is a fully mobile wireless technology. This wide support means the LTE market will be larger than the WiMAX market. LTE specifications were written much later than mobile WiMAX specifications were, but the development of LTE equipment is taking place at a rapid pace. Some base station vendors are leveraging the R&D they did for WiMAX base stations to develop LTE base stations faster. LTE is a 4G technology, and its roadmap includes LTE-Advanced, which is planned to be IMT-Advanced compliant.

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