MSOs, Telcos will conquer mobility via WiFi

Until 2010, cable operators were locked out of mobile platforms by cellular operators that exercised an iron grip through control of the SIM card and ecosystem.

The same applied to telcos unless they also owned mobile operators, and otherwise the only route to mobility was through deals with a cellular service provider. Then the arrival of advanced smart phones and tablets based on the Apple iOS or Android operating systems changed all that, opening up access to mobile services for operators via apps.

Yet, this was only the first of two critical steps on the road to viable mobile video services. We all recall the litany of mobile TV services such as Qualcomm’s Media Flo that all failed through lack of suitable content, device platforms and available bandwidth. But now, the other step being taken is the ability to offload data via WiFi onto the fixed broadband infrastructure away from congested and less flexible cellular backhaul networks. Lacking, so far, has been so-called “carrier WiFi”, meaning support for telco grade services over WiFi networks, including roaming and handoff comparable with mobile services.

At first sight, the patchwork coverage of WiFi at present would seem to rule out carrier grade services for now, unless they are fully integrated with 3G or 4G services. This may be true for voice services, but cable operators do not see it that way for TV. Most video on mobile devices is consumed in places where WiFi is available or could readily be made so, such as homes, public places like airports, or trains, or other places people congregate, such as parks, shopping malls, sports stadiums and arenas. MSOs believe they can address these requirements without having to bother allying with cellular operators, or at least not yet. LTE access can wait and with a bit of luck may never be needed if WiFi coverage becomes as ubiquitous as some of its advocates hope and claim it will be.

The charge towards carrier WiFi is occurring in most markets, including the U.S., but with particularly strong momentum in parts of Europe. This is where the idea of recruiting spare capacity on the multitude of home WiFi networks was conceived by Spain-based Fon Wireless in 2007, now with more than 8 million Wi-Fi hotspots and 9 million subscribers largely based in Europe (but with a sizeable community in Brazil). Fon subscribers or members, known as “Foneros," share a portion of their Wi-Fi bandwidth with other members in return for free access to the rest of the Fon network.

Despite its growth, Fon’s success has been limited so far by the lack of control over subscribers’ WiFi bandwidth, which has made some telcos and other service providers wary because of the impact it could have on QoS for their customers. But now, telcos are building on the Fon concept, either by doing their own thing, or through collaboration with Fon itself. In the latter category, the biggest deal so far emerged in March 2013 when Deutsche Telekom (DT) announced a partnership with Fon to recruit existing home WiFi networks for a nationwide service branded WLan To Go.

This will include DT’s 12,000 Wi-Fi hotspots at its own German customers, but will be extended later this year through subsidiary operations in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary. DT had in fact been linked with a possible takeover of Fon, but nothing has yet materialized.

Cable Europe Labs, the European sibling of CableLabs in the U.S., has been talking up WiFi as the route to mobility for MSOs, advocating a four stage strategy starting with WiFi in the home, which most have now deployed. Then, the second stage would be to connect these home hot spots to create WiFi communities spanning their footprint, within which subscribers give up some of their bandwidth in managed Fon-like arrangements, much like DT is now doing. But, especially for smaller operators confined to local footprints, this would not provide customers with national “TV Everywhere” coverage, so the third phase advocated by Cable Europe Labs is to extend reach in various ways by deploying hot spots through whatever means possible. This can be by collaborating with other MSOs in different coverage areas, as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Cablevision and Bright House Networks are doing in the U.S., having agreed to enable seamless roaming across their respective WiFi networks.

Cable Europe Labs wants to go further by enabling each operator to deliver their full TV service across the infrastructure, and some European operators are doing so by planting WiFi around street cabinets, lamp posts and wherever they can get space, in some cases through agreements with local administrations. In the UK, Virgin Media has deployed WiFi in 120 London Underground stations and plans to extend this into the tunnels between them to provide a joined up service. Another promising avenue being pursued by cable operator Telenet in Belgium is to install separate access points outside the premises of their business customers, for public use. This approach avoids conflict with the customer’s own WiFi and the complications of balancing that against external use.

According to Cable Europe Labs, 4G/LTE would only come in for the fourth and final phase of mobility for cable operators, to fill in gaps left over in more remote areas beyond WiFi. This reflects its view that LTE is far from ready for prime time TV with WiFi only just getting there. This is not so much a question of bandwidth but measures such as multi-antenna and beam forming that protect quality of service against intermittent and inconsistent transmission, particular in the case of reception by moving devices in cars or trains.

The ground for this step has been prepared in some countries, such as the UK, where Three, owned by Hutchison, will sell 4G spectrum on a wholesale basis to service providers such as cable operators that would not want or be able to compete directly for spectrum. But, there is a distinct feeling that many MSOs would like to postpone that fourth phase indefinitely as WiFi coverage becomes ubiquitous. It could be that if home hot spots really do take off, then carrier WiFi could become the most disruptive development in telecommunications since the arrival of cellular services themselves in the 1980s.