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How cable companies have quietly dominated public Wi-Fi

Paul Kapustka | Oct. 14, 2013
Big U.S. cable providers are the runaway leaders in providing public Wi-Fi, already eclipsing traditional providers such as big cellular carriers and coffee shop chains.

Next time you pack your beach bag, make sure you pack your laptop and tablet along with your sunblock and trashy novel. Cable Wi-Fi service might soon be available at a seashore near you.

Surfing the Web while watching the waves? Sounds funny, but it's already possible in many places along the Jersey Shore, and at Santa Monica Beach and Manhattan Beach in Southern California.

Even more surprising than the availability of Wi-Fi at the beach is the provider: More likely than not, it's a cable company, pursuing an aggressive policy among U.S. cable providers of bringing Wi-Fi services to just about every place their coax cables run. With more than 200,000 Wi-Fi hotspots launched in the past few years, big U.S. cable providers are the runaway leaders in providing public Wi-Fi, already eclipsing traditional providers such as big cellular carriers and  coffee shop chains.

Though the explosion in cable Wi-Fi hotspots is unlikely to challenge the cellular networks' overall mobile supremacy anytime soon, the growing availability of fast, sometimes free Internet access will likely have some positive benefits for many consumers. In particular, it may enable them to save money by jumping off the cellular network and onto free Wi-Fi more often, resulting in lower data bills. Or they could skip buying a data plan for devices like tablets altogether, and instead rely solely on Wi-Fi.

The locations of cable Wi-Fi hotspots have been something of a secret, but when people discovered them, they happily start using them--a reaction that may push the cable providers deeper into the wireless waters than they originally planned to go.

"Our Wi-Fi usage along the Jersey Shore is off the charts," says Tom Nagel, senior vice president of business development for Comcast Cable, who admits the company hasn't spent much time or money marketing the service. But Nagel says that once customers find the Wi-Fi signal, they tend to get hooked. "When they find it, the usage goes up like wildfire," Nagel says.

Though cable companies have long been among the leaders in bringing TV and Internet service to American homes, wireless hasn't been a major part of the cable playbook until recently. But as people spend more time using tablets and smartphones, cable companies are turning to Wi-Fi to help keep them connected to the content they get from their existing cable plans.

"What we want is to enable our customers to take any of their services from their in-home broadband experience with them," says Rob Cerbone, vice president of mobile products for Time-Warner Cable.

From a market standpoint, what's most interesting is the way the biggest cable companies--which don't compete against each other, owing to their regional distribution--have banded together to make their Wi-Fi deployments even more appealing to customers who might otherwise turn to cellular for mobile data needs. In 2012 Time-Warner Cable, Comcast's Xfinity, Bright House Networks, Cox Communications, and Optimum launched the Cable WiFi effort, which allows customers of any participating cable provider to freely access the Wi-Fi hotspots of all the other providers.


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