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Cablevision's Wi-Fi Service: A Wireless Appetizer

Here’s a back-handed compliment: My experience using Cablevision’s Wi-Fi service the past few weeks has been so good that it’s made me think I need a wireless-data service that’s truly mobile today.

Cablevision has been rolling out Wi-Fi access in “high-traffic” areas of its New York, New Jersey and Connecticut footprint, free to its Optimum Online broadband customers. My local Wi-Fi hotspot is the train station in South Orange, N.J.

I’ve accounted for maybe two dozen or so of the 1 million log-ins Cablevision has registered to date. And the service has been genuinely useful: I can scan the morning news while I’m waiting for the 7:34 to roll in. (Once I even finished posting a blog item from the station.)

The problem is, after I get on the train and we roll away — poof, I’ve lost the signal.

No Wi-Fi access in Manhattan, either, as the service is limited to Cablevision-land. And while Cablevision is expecting to expand the Wi-Fi coverage across neighborhoods in its service area, I can’t connect to the network today from the Starbucks downstairs in the South Orange train station.

So what do I expect for “free,” right? But the Wi-Fi strategy has whet my appetite for something better.

True, as the MSO pointed out last May when it announced the strategy, Wi-Fi is built into most laptops (and other devices like the iPhone) so Cablevision doesn’t have to worry about selling or leasing WiMax cards or other new 4G wireless-access equipment. Picking the existing Wi-Fi technology also has let the company get to market quickly for a relatively modest price tag of $330 million.

That means Cablevision customers like me are able to connect — today — to a pretty good wireless service. For no extra cost. Not bad.

But I’d be willing to pay more to get more. Like being able to access wireless Internet service on the train down to D.C. last week for the Cable Show. The danger is that Cablevision is providing a tempting taste of mobility — without being able to deliver a full competitive menu of services.