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Charter Jumps Into WiFi Game With Hotspot Network

Charter Communications is getting ready to up its wireless game.

The operator has quietly begun to roll out a quasi-public WiFi network in partnership with select business services clients in the St. Louis area ahead of an anticipated wider rollout that will also factor into the industry’s larger WiFi roaming initiative.

A Charter official confirmed the operator has begun to offer WiFi in some small-business locations in the area, using hotspots that are accessible to the businesses’ patrons and to the operator’s credentialed highs-peed customers.

Charter wouldn’t say how many access points have been deployed, but said the rollout is in its early stages. Website Legit Reviews, which first reported the WiFi trial, said it discovered a Spectrum WiFi network at a retail office in St. Louis suburb O’Fallon, Mo.

Charter has also booted up a website about its emerging wireless initiative, which is being branded “Spectrum WiFi,” matching the moniker the MSO is using for other new services.

Consumers who encounter a Spectrum WiFi access point can try it out for 30 minutes free of charge. (Charter will send those users an access code.) Charter subscribers can tap in by pointing their device to the Spectrum WiFi SSID (service set identifier) and entering their username and password.

Charter is starting to rev up its WiFi activity as the technology becomes a key wireless conduit for MSOs. Tom Rutledge, Charter’s president and CEO, championed WiFi as chief operating officer of Cablevision Systems, which has gone on to deploy more than 1 million hotspots (via a mix of residential gateways and access points deployed at businesses and other public venues) and to launch Freewheel, a WiFi-only phone service.

Charter, an official said, also intends to join the “Cable WiFi” roaming consortium, possibly sometime later this year. That group is currently composed of Comcast, Cablevision Systems, Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable.

Charter is in the process of acquiring two of those card-carrying members — TWC and Bright House — in transactions expected to close by the end of 2015, so Charter was already poised to become part of the WiFi roaming initiative almost by default.

TWC and Bright House also have an option to participate in a wireless MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) cellular service from Verizon Wireless as part of a multifaceted 2011 deal that included the sale of wireless spectrum to the mobile carrier.

Liberty Media chairman John Malone, who stands to hold a 25% stake in the new, larger version of Charter, has indicated that, with the proposed deals, Charter could pave the way toward creating a major wireless carrier to compete with Verizon and AT&T.