Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) is extending its Wi-Fi influence globally under trial roaming partnerships reportedly signed earlier this year with Japan's KDDI and Taiwan Mobile.
The pacts, reported by Reuters, will allow customers of KDDI and Taiwan Mobile to use Comcast's Wi-Fi hotspots at discounted rates when visiting the United States. Both Asian carriers operate cellular and Wi-Fi networks in their home countries.
The Comcast Wi-Fi network only encompasses 1 million U.S. hotspots right now, but that number will skyrocket to a whopping 8 million by year's end, with the cable MSO promising to operate hotspots in 19 of the country's 30 largest cities. The company also has offered $45.2 billion to acquire Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), which had close to 33,000 hotspots at the end of March, having deployed more than 3,000 in the first quarter.
The CableWiFi Alliance, which includes Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision (NYSE: CVC), Bright House Networks and Cox Communications, recently announced its footprint has grown to 250,000 U.S. hotspots. Alliance members allow their customers to roam onto one another's public Wi-Fi access points. U.S. cable operators largely insist that their rapidly expanding Wi-Fi footprints are intended to provide value-added nomadic Internet access to their fixed broadband customers and that Wi-Fi is complementary to cellular service.
But Comcast's pacts with the two Asian cellular operators encourage cellular-to-Wi-Fi offloading and could position the MSO as a lower-cost data roaming partner than a comparable U.S. cellular operator. Taiwan Mobile is currently promoting its Comcast relationship to subscribers. A Taiwan Mobile webpage cited by Reuters says travelers would normally pay about $0.13 per minute to use Comcast Wi-Fi but will be charged only $0.07 per minute under a promotion that is slated to last until the end of June.
Comcast Chairman-CEO Brian Roberts indicated big plans for Wi-Fi during a first-quarter earnings call with analysts. "Short-term, (Wi-Fi is) a big adder to broadband. And longer term, including our MVNO potential and other wireless assets we have in the company, we're in a position to think about where wireless is going and how we can participate in a way to build value," he said in response to an analyst's question.
He later said, however, that any discussions of a nationwide wireless network built on Wi-Fi were "premature."
Yet analysts continue to speculate that the cable MSOs have an ulterior motive predicated upon providing competition against cellular operators for wireless broadband customers.
New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin, quoted by Reuters, believes such a scenario "could be truly disruptive. He said cable operators are "well positioned to enter the wireless voice and data market with costs that are lower than those of existing wireless carriers."
- see this Reuters article
Cablevision will use Wi-Fi to disrupt wireless data market
Verizon's Shammo sees Wi-Fi, LTE as complementary; FCC's Rosenworcel says Wi-Fi deserves spectrum
Cable's Wi-Fi ambitions are about much more than customer retention
Comcast planning 8 million Wi-Fi hotspots in 19 major cities by year-end
Cable execs say Wi-Fi is complementary to cellular ... for now
Comcast execs create, deflate Wi-Fi mobile network speculation