Cable’s Wi-Fi Dreams Need a Push: NCTA

Washington — Advocates for unlicensed wireless
spectrum have stepped up their push for the Federal
Communications Commission to free up more reclaimed
broadcast bandwidth for unlicensed use.

That effort would come in handy for cable operators
expanding their Wi-Fi footprints as a value-added feature
for broadband customers.

The push comes at an opportune time: Congress is wrestling
with a Republican-backed House version of incentive
auction legislation in a payroll tax extension package, or
absent that as a standalone bill, that would limit the ability
of the FCC to free up more of that unlicensed spectrum.

Among those putting
in a plug for more
unlicensed wireless
spectrum has been
National Cable & Telecommunications
ion execut ive
vice president James
Assey, who appeared
at two forums over the
past three weeks to
talk up the technology.

The NCTA has not
taken a stand on other
portions of the bill,
but it is clearly with
those who are arguing
that the FCC needs the
flexibility to open up
more unlicensed spectrum
to meet growing

“We believe the language
in the House bill
should be changed so
that [the FCC has] the
flexibility it needs to
meet growing consumer
demand for
both licensed and unlicensed
uses,” said
NCTA vice president
of communications
Brian Dietz.

Some House Republicans
have argued
that setting aside
more unlicensed wireless
spectrum would
reduce the take to the
Treasury — some of
the proceeds from the
spectrum bill would
offset the payroll tax
break — and that if
some of the big-pocketed
backers of unlicensed
spectrum, like
Google, believe that
to be the best use for
the bandwidth, they
should bid for it at auction.

To the extent that
cable wants to be in
the wireless broadband
business without
having to build out a network — a desire
signaled by the decision last December
by Comcast, Time Warner
Cable and Bright House Networks to
sell their Advanced Wireless Spectrum
allotment to Verizon Wireless
— hot spots are at least a partial solution
to building out full-blown consumer
wireless data networks.

And with some Wi-Fi hotspots experiencing
congestion, being able to
use a Cablevision or Comcast connection
— rather than, say free Wi-Fi at
McDonald’s or Starbucks — could add
value for customers, and
be a way for some subscribers
to keep from
exceeding their cellular
carriers’ mobile-data
caps. That could reduce
churn or serve as a marketing
tool to attract new customers. Cablevision
Systems, for one, is aggressively pushing
the product.

Cablevision concedes hot spots are a huge
part of its wireless strategy. In 2008, the company
launched a $300 million effort to build
out Wi-Fi across its footprint. It started off
with outdoor areas, train stations, parks and
parking lots, and has expanded from there.
The idea was to make the Optimum Online
high-speed Internet service more valuable to
customers by offering them free, unlimited
use of hot spots.

struck a Wi-
Fi roaming
deal with the
New York area’s
two other
main cable
Comcast and
Time Warner
Cable, in
2010, giving
them access
to Cablevision’s
The move
also helped Cablevision fill in gaps along
Northern New Jersey train lines in towns
served by Comcast; and gave it access to
some large New York City public spaces in
areas served by Time Warner Cable, such as
Manhattan’s Bryant Park.

Cablevision has tens of thousands of hot
spots, and customers are apparently flocking
to them. Cablevision is also
touting the deal to small business customers,
offering enterprise subscribers a
chance to turn their business into the latest
Cablevision hot spot if they buy phone
and data service.

“We’re big believers in Wi-Fi as a way to
make our wired broadband product even
more valuable and useful for customers, especially
as Wi-Fi-enabled devices like smart
phones, iPads and notebook computers continue to proliferate,”
said Cablevision vice president of media relations
Jim Maiella. “We’ve built the nation’s largest Wi-Fi
network — made even larger through interconnection
agreements with other cable providers — and our customers
are using the network and taking advantage of
this fast and free wireless Internet access — a data fast
lane, available at a time when demand for connectivity
is exploding.”


Comcast, the NCTA’s largest member, is also high on
Wi-Fi as part of its wireless strategy. Combining thousands
of its own hot spots with over 20,000 more through the
roaming pact, the company
is testing the spots
as a way to reduce churn
or draw new customers.

From “surf and surf”
hot spots along the Jersey
Shore to train platforms
on the commuter corridor between
Comcast’s Philadelphia
backyard and New York City,
the MSO is looking to reach
consumers where they are
likely to be moving throughout
the day, allowing them one
last chance to check email before
boarding the train to work.

The point is to provide the
sense of mobile access to Comcast
services outside the home.

“The cable industry has in interest in the continuing
success of Wi-Fi as a way to provide another facet to a
home broadband account,” Dan Brenner, former head of
regulatory affairs at NCTA and currently a partner at Hogan
Lovells, said.

That means the FCC also has an ally in the cable industry
in pushing for the flexibility to free up more wireless


Approximate number of
Cablevision subs using
Wi-Fi every day

Number of customers who
used Wi-Fi in January

1 million-plus:
Average number of daily
Internet accesses

50 million:
Number of customer
Internet sessions per year
in 2010

187 million:
Number of customer
Internet sessions in 2011

5 billion:
Customer online WiFi
minutes last year

SOURCE: Cablevision Systems

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.