The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend
Quick question: who does your local cable company fear more than their arch-rival digital cable provider? The answer may just be the local wireless carriers that are starting to gain more notice from consumers on the go. This is why leading cable companies are starting to feel the pressure that wireless carriers and their 4G technologies are bringing to bear and banding together to fight fire with fire.
Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Comcast, Bright House, and Optimum Online are all banding together to allow their respective users to share WiFi access points that the providers already have in place as well as future WiFi locations. Can a plethora of WiFi spots really turn the tide against the deluge of 4G devices and a rolling wave of 4G deployments by the first tier carriers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint? It really depends on a few key factors: usage patterns, bandwidth caps, and future technologies.
It’s About the User…And Their Device(s)
Ultimately the argument about whether or not cable-powered WiFi can challenge mobile broadband will come down to the devices and how they are used by a wide variety of consumers. There are already a number of people that have 4G smartphones that rarely use them outside of bars, restaurants, home, or the office due to a number of factors. Others walk around constantly staring at their device often nearly oblivious to the outside world, while yet others use their devices in sort of a response to data-driven events mode.
While people that use their device heavily during their work or leisure seem to be power users, the fact that they seem to use their devices when they are not moving implies that cable may have a real chance at rallying against 4G by banding together. A simple broadband over WiFi solution everywhere that a consumer might be would be a great offering for this type of user, especially for large devices such as netbooks and laptops. There is also an argument that the constant user and the data-driven event responder could both benefit from a WiFi offering such as what the cable companies are plotting, but only to augment their existing mobile broadband plan. After all, the responder needs to have that data in the form of an email or tweet to respond to no matter where they are, and the person with their focus set to tunnel vision mode on their mobile device is not likely to tolerate a long period without a solid connection.
One area that severely limits mobile broadband for all types of users is that of bandwidth limitations. Whether the data stops flowing at some point, slows down, or starts costing on a per-unit basis, the bottom line limits are just too low for some. Power users on mobile devices will always gravitate towards hotspots or be selling plasma to pay their extreme mobile broadband bills. While many cable providers also have bandwidth limits, they are not necessarily the same as consumer-grade agreements when looking at the plans that power WiFi hotspots. In fact, many of the major venues in most cities are powered by ISPs on their own dime. This means that a local football stadium or museum may offer WiFi for free to those on a supported cable network while everyone else either goes without or pays a premium price.
Ultimately the WiFi hotspots are likely to have a major advantage in terms of bandwidth and performance for the foreseeable future. With 4G still rolling out, a solid response to cable-backed WiFi speed and bandwidth is beyond the distant horizon at this stage in the game.
New Wifi Standard to the Rescue
Another factor that may weigh heavily in favor of the future of WiFi hotspots is the impending 802.11ac wireless standard that is more commonly known as Gigabit WiFi. While the standard is still suffering delays stemming from typical 802.11 standardization squabbles amongst vendors with competing visions, there are still two major benefits that they all agree on to varying degree: more range and speed well above and beyond what current WiFi has to offer.
Range is easily the biggest advantage that next-generation WiFi will bring to cable-powered hotspots. Current practical WiFi ranges are decent but they are limited to a relatively small radius. While the jury is out on exactly how much additional useful range 802.11ac will bring to the table, early specs and vendor promises tend to range from 3-4x theoretical range with signal forming to eliminate deadspots. Even if only half of that theoretical range manifests itself in practice, WiFi range would enable a vendor at each intersection to essentially blanket an entire area or even a city.
Future of Cable and WiFi
Given that current WiFi is already vastly superior to even the fastest 4G networks, WiFi hotspots fueled by next-gen cable services will have the opportunity to really flex their bandwidth advantage. Many cable markets already have access to comparably affordable 100Mbps services and higher speeds are continually coming down the pipe and driving prices down further. As faster speeds become the norm, there is easily an argument that WiFi spots might actually supplant mobile services until at least the 5G era.
Who Will Win?
Ultimately the winner of this agreement between cable providers is clear: consumers, even those that do not have cable. The fact that rivals can work together to challenge dominant new mobile broadband technology is a good sign for broadband in general, and it even throws down the gauntlet for the next wave of 4G and beyond to respond. At the end of the day, consumers of all kinds are going to benefit greatly from the competition that the cable companies are going to have on tap.