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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.

The Wi-Fi offering relates directly to the cable companies' TV Everywhere initiative, which aims to let cable customers watch cable content on many different screens--mainly mobile ones. If cable companies can provide Web services (like Comcast's Xfinity) that send cable content over broadband, and then send it further to mobile devices via Wi-Fi, they may gain a competitive advantage over streaming video services like those from Netflix and Amazon.

"The model [for wireless] that we believe in is to add value to an existing Xfinity customer," Comcast's Nagel says.

Though they may have the greatest number of hotspots available, cable companies are far from the only providers betting big on Wi-Fi. Even as it continues to build out its cellular empire, AT&T plans to add more Wi-Fi hotspots. Google is getting into the Wi-Fi game too, having recently signed a deal to take over the operation of the well-known free Wi-Fi service offered at Starbucks Coffee stores. And privately owned hotspots may someday outnumber those from the big providers, since anyone with an Internet connection can become a Wi-Fi provider simply by adding an access point.

Even though AT&T, like cable, doesn't trumpet its Wi-Fi services too loudly, customers are finding the hotspots. AT&T reports that it saw 3.4 million Wi-Fi connections on its networks in the first quarter of 2008. By the fourth quarter of 2012, that total had climbed to 705.5 million Wi-Fi connections.

It's likely that the cable companies will soon start talking more about their Wi-Fi presence. Comcast's Nagel says that the company is moving past its test phases of deployment, and will begin to integrate its Wi-Fi offerings into its overall Xfinity marketing message over the next six months.

The cable guys intend to keep adding Wi-Fi options over the next year or two. "We're pretty bullish [on Wi-Fi]," Nagel says.

Though she doesn't think cable Wi-Fi will ever replace cellular, analyst Lopez sees the widening spread of cable wireless as a viable mobile-data option for many consumers: "I don't think people will downgrade [current cellular plans], but I think the cable Wi-Fi could help prevent the need to upgrade. For example, you could use Xfinity Wi-Fi around the neighborhood instead of paying $15 a month for the privilege of reading your online paper at the café."

If an arms race between the cable and telephone companies heats up over Wi-Fi, the service may become widely and consistently available over the country's densely populated areas.


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