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Comcast: WiFi Becoming Table Stakes For Small Biz Owners

Access to WiFi has become so important that it's now viewed as an amenity for small business owners that has surpassed old mainstays such as magazines and candy, a new survey from Comcast Business found.

The MSO-commissioned Small Business WiFi Survey, which was conducted by Bredin Research and polled 602 principals and IT decision-makers at U.S. companies with 1 to 100 employees late last year, found that “Main Street” business owners (coffee shops, bars, restaurants, dentist offices, et al) view WiFi as equally or more effective at making patrons feel welcome than amenities such as magazines (94%), community bulletin boards (91%), candy (90%), and even water (86%).

Among other findings, 79% of business owners said offering WiFi keps customers happy, while 65% reported that it encouraged repeat business, and 55% said it has helped to drive new customers.

The report also shed light on what’s stopping some biz owners from opening a WiFi spigot -- fears of tech support, employee distraction (both 33%), and costs (32%). Still, most businesses surveyed (61%) that do not currently offer WiFi plan to offer it soon, or are at least considering it.

Given those trends, it’s probably no surprise that WiFi has become a key piece of the services puzzle for Comcast and its rapidly growing business services unit.

Comcast Business currently offers customers private WiFi connectivity with secure SSIDs and, in some instances, also enables access points in business locations to broadcast SSIDs that are accessible by Comcast cable modem subscribers and consumers that get broadband from other members of the “Cable WiFi” roaming alliance (other members include Cablevision Systems, Bright House, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications).

Small commercial customers are also asking Comcast for ways to use WiFi to help them win incremental business, as WiFi access shifts from a differentiator to a “table stakes” component, said Mike Tighe, executive director of data services for Comcast Business.

In response, Comcast Business, he said, is developing an "amenity" WiFi product for small business customers that, for example, could provide access to a company-branded SSID alongside tailored usage rules, security mechanisms, and other terms of service.

Comcast Business, he explained, hasn’t set a specific launch date for a new public-facing amenity WiFi platform, but the plan is to carve out separate bandwidth for it so it does not affect or otherwise intermingle with the data that a customer is using to conduct its day-to-day business operations.

As for terms of service, the amenity WiFi offering will offer enough smarts to set content filters and other security and control mechanism to keep the business owner protected while still providing a “robust experience” to its patrons, Tighe said.

This coming amenity offering represents another step in Comcast’s WiFi evolution. The MSO has deployed more than 1 million quasi-public access points via a mix deployments in outdoor locations, at business venues and in home-side cable modem gateways, and recently claimed that it will breach the 8 million mark by the end of the year.