December 24, 2014
The news: Both cable operators and wireless carriers embraced Wi-Fi hotspots and Wi-Fi calling in 2014 as enthusiastically as they ever have. Although cable MSOs continue to see Wi-Fi as a complement to their existing networks, they clearly recognize its importance in attracting and retaining customers. And wireless carriers and their MVNOs are turning to Wi-Fi calling as a way to extend coverage.
In April, Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) confirmed its rollout out of “TWCWiFi-Passpoint,” a national Wi-Fi network that includes Hotspot 2.0 technology on most of TWC’s public access points. The company thinks of Hotspot 2.0 Wi-Fi access points as “complementary” to a cellular contract, but not likely as a replacement. That message about Wi-Fi being a complement was echoed by representatives from Bright House Networks, Cablevision (NYSE: CVC), Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) and others at The Cable Show in late April.
Indeed, Cablevision sees its expanding Wi-Fi network as a lever to disrupt the current mobile data market, and the carrier will be aggressive in developing new products that emphasize that strategy. In July Cablevision hit its goal of expanding to 1 million Wi-Fi hotspots, five months early.
Meanwhile, Comcast pledged to expand its Wi-Fi hotspot network to 8 million hotspots by year’s end, with the cable MSO promising to operate hotspots in 19 of the country’s 30 largest cities. Comcast and Liberty Global forged an agreement in September that will let their subscribers access each other’s Wi-Fi networks, expanding their global reach.
And perhaps most importantly, in May Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Cox Communications and Bright House Networks announced that shared Wi-Fi access will be enabled and simplified under a new network name, “CableWiFi,” that subscribers can use when accessing the Wi-Fi hotspots outside their home markets.
Meanwhile, wireless carriers embraced Wi-Fi calling with vigor. Sprint (NYSE:S) MVNO Scratch Wireless launched a Wi-Fi-based service letting customers get wireless service for free, with no catch. Customers can choose whether or not they want to buy passes to get access to cellular voice and data services.
Sprint itself launched a Wi-Fi calling service in February based on technology from vendor Taqua and Kineto Wireless (Taqua acquired Kineto in September).
Shortly thereafter, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) unveiled the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus with support for Wi-Fi calling, though T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) was the only U.S. carrier to support it out of the gate.
And T-Mobile made a big push for Wi-Fi calling by offering postpaid customers a free (with a $25 deposit) proprietary “Cellspot” Wi-Fi router that supports Wi-Fi calling, which customers can use to enhance their in-home coverage.
Why was it significant? For cable operators, a widespread public Wi-Fi network gives them a lever against Americans’ increasing embrace of smartphones and tablets. Time Warner Cable’s Rob Cerbone, who runs all of the company’s wireless activities, declared that “For us, Wi-Fi is our network” when it comes to wireless.
For wireless carriers though, the move toward Wi-Fi signals several emerging strategies. T-Mobile has been an enthusiastic proponent of Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi calling for years, but its Cellspot offering is a bid to enhance inbuilding coverage, which has been a sore spot for the company even as it has accelerated its LTE deployment.
T-Mobile’s push for Wi-Fi calling, as well as Sprint’s launch, likely spurred AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) to announced plans to introduce Wi-Fi calling in 2015.
Sprint is also going to make Wi-Fi a key component of its network, which could help improve its own network shortcomings in coverage. “As a company we’ve always like ignored Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi, it’s growing. It’s everywhere. You can’t ignore it,” Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure said at an investor conference in September. “So you’re going to see us an accelerated, I’ll say adoption. I want Wi-Fi to be an important part of our network going forward.”
That must be music to the ears of vendors like Ruckus Wireless and Devicescape, which see Wi-Fi calling as the wave of the future.