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Verizon Dismisses Cable's WiFi Voice Agenda

It was hardly surprising that a top Verizon executive brushed off cable operators' plans to develop urban WiFi networks for competitive local voice and data services.

"The cable companies will probably execute on some type of an MVNO [mobile virtual network operator] for WiFi, but we don't believe that it's going to be a replacement for LTE," said Verizon Communications' CFO Fran Shammo at Monday's Deutsche Bank Media, Internet and Telecom Conference.

"We will see how this plays out, but it's not something that we are overly concerned about," Shammo said during remarks about the competitive mobile landscape and the applications of technology. "It is not a seamless flow of going between WiFi and LTE," he added.

Yet, the intensity of Shammo's dismissal of such competition - and the timing amidst a flurry of new wireless initiatives - sounded as defensive as it was feisty.

" Yes, technologically it can be done ...but it is not ...the quality of service that most of our wireless customers would like," Shammo told the Deutsche Bank investor conference.  

Shammo's assessment came on the heels of Cablevision's announcement that it will launch Freewheel WiFi calling, plus indications that Comcast and others are developing similar mobile ventures.

Moreover, Verizon's wireless bravura suggested a possible smackdown with other competitive WiFi services, such as one described by Google at last week's World Mobile Congress in Barcelona.  At that massive event, Google's Product Chief Sundar Pichai telescoped his company's agenda to develop limited wireless operations, "working with carrier partners." Pichai said that Google will develop its service on "a smaller scale ... so people will see what we're doing."

The competitive urge for cable operators to enter the mobile/wireless arena is far from universal.  At last week's American Cable Association policy summit in Washington, I asked the group's leaders about adding wireless to the cable communications package.

"Our pretty aggressive plan starts with commercial customers,"  said ACA Chairman Robert Gessner of MCTV in Massillon, Ohio.He said he considered wireless mobile service "a great opportunity to cement relationships with business customers."

"Once we've exhausted that, we'll look for public places," Gessner added.

ACA president/CEO Matt Polka contended that most small/independent operators are "trying to maximize wired broadband plans," downplaying near-term wireless/mobile activities among small operators.

Nonetheless, voice services via WiFi are likely to loom large in many urban areas - with cable's role still uncertain. And the big incumbent wireless carriers won't easily hand over service to new arrivals, as Verizon's Shammo demonstrated when he continued to question WiFi's ability for voice services.

WiFi is inadequate to handle such services, he said, noting that on unmanaged WiFi networks "the quality of service is pretty quickly degraded" when too many customers use it.

"If you add voice to that, it degrades even faster," Shammo explained, insisting that WiFi is not a replacement for LTE but  "has always been a complementary type technology to LTE."

"There's more opportunity ... around unlicensed LTE to be an offload of LTE than it is for WiFi to be an offload of LTE," Shammo said.

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Gary Arlen tracks telecom and media evolution atArlen Communications <http://www.arlencom.com/> in Bethesda, MD.