Cable WiFi Starts Its Global March

Showcasing cable’s potential to create and power a global wireless-broadband network, Comcast and Liberty Global last week became the first operators to carve out a roaming agreement that covers hot spot s deployed in the U.S. and several parts of Europe.

Early on the deal is poised to give the MSOs’ broadband customers free access to more than 10 million hotspots. Comcast plans to have 8 million “Xfinity WiFi” hotspots up by year’s end, while Liberty Global expects to have 2.5 million of their own nailed up by that time in several European countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Poland and Switzerland.

Comcast and Liberty Global, which uses a client-based WiFi authentication and security system, expect to trial the shared WiFi service later this year and to offer it broadly in 2015.

The roaming deal between Comcast and Liberty Global currently uses a settlement-free model, meaning no money changes hands regardless of how much WiFi data cable subscribers consume while they are roaming, according to Tom Nagel, Comcast’s senior vice president of strategic initiatives.

“Our expectation is that it [traffic] will be fairly balanced,” Nagel said, noting that the MSOs will give the arrangement time to operate on a settlement-free basis before visiting whether a compensation- based model should be applied.

Hotspots tied into the roaming agreement include those deployed in outdoor venues, in select business locations and, increasingly, in wireless gateways deployed in customer homes that emit a separate signal accessible to those credentialed broadband customers who encounter them. That latter setup, sometimes referred to as a “community hotspot,” has been popular in Europe for years. It is now starting to make inroads in the U.S. with operators such as Comcast and Cablevision Systems, which has already deployed more than 1 million “Optimum WiFi ” hotspots.

Cable operators have historically used their WiFi networks as a free perk for their broadband customers, billing them as an alternative to cellular services that are usually encumbered with small data caps. Some believe the industry has the potential to create a “WiFi-first” voice service that uses cellular connectivity as a fallback.

Last week’s agreement spotlights a region that is popular among U.S. citizens. According to the U.S. International Trade Administration’s Office of Travel & Tourism Industries, 11.4 million Americans traveled to Europe in 2013.

Balan Nair, Liberty Global’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, said in a statement that the MSO hoped the Comcast deal would “create interest from other cable operators to join us.”

So far, none of the other MSOs that are part of the “Cable WiFi” roaming alliance in the U.S. — Cablevision, Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks — have hopped on board. That group, which includes Comcast, has deployed more than 250,000 quasi-public hotspots that are part of the roaming pact.

While the agreement with Liberty Global provides free access to Comcast’s WiFi network, Comcast has also been testing a paid model with two Asian carriers — Japan’s KDDI and Taiwan Mobile. In those trials, customers of those providers pay a negotiated per-minute rate when they tap into Comcast’s U.S. WiFi network.