Is Comcast's move toward WiMAX femtocells reactive?

Comcast's moves in the wireless broadband market keep getting more interesting. The cable company last week made a seed-round investment in startup Cartiza Network, which is developing an IP-based content management and delivery system for mobile broadband networks. The move comes after Dave Williams, Comcast's senior vice president of wireless and technology, revealed that part of the cable company's deal with Clearwire calls for 5 megahertz of spectrum across the U.S. to be set aside solely for WiMAX femtocells.

The femtocell spectrum will be available for any of the new Clearwire partners to use, but Williams said that the cable companies will have the most incentive to use it because it allows them to cost-effectively deliver wireless to the home. Cable companies Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks are part of the consortium (which includes Google and Intel) that invested $3.2 billion in the new Clearwire. The cable companies plan to wholesale WiMAX services via Clearwire to their customers.

While we continue to hear about the benefits of femtocells for the operator community, namely expanding coverage and offloading high-traffic, they will be just as important to cable operators as the technology proliferates among the mobile operator community. That's because residential mini base stations will require the mobile traffic to backhaul through a wireline broadband connection. Once consumers begin using their cable connections for such a purpose with mobile operators behind the initiative, cable operators risk losing their VoIP customers while giving up their bandwidth to the competition.

As such, Comcast is smart to push WiMAX femtocells and content that will run over them before the proliferation of femtocells from the mobile operator community. Moreover, it has the power to guarantee quality of service for an adequate in-residence experience. QoS could actually become a sticky situation for mobile operators, which may need some regulatory help, especially if they aren't affiliated with a landline company, such as AT&T and Verizon, for DSL. Comcast has already begun to test new approaches to protecting its network from certain bandwidth hogs. According to a recent article in The New York Times, Comcast will test new devices that can ID which customers are heavy users of bandwidth at any given time and slow down their connections.

Perhaps operators need to rethink this whole idea that they'll be saving bundles of money by having their traffic backhauled over the wired network instead of carrying the traffic from the femtocell back to their networks. T-Mobile's new T-Mobile @ Home for $10 per month could be an interesting test for wireless piggybacking on broadband connections. The operator last week launched the service, which requires T-Mobile customers to buy a router complete with a GSM SIM chip for $50, plug the box into an existing broadband connection and then plug in any landline phone to begin making calls using their existing landline number. --Lynnette