Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) is planning to add Hotspot 2.0 technology to its growing, Xfinity-branded public Wi-Fi network, further evidence that the cable operator plans to leverage Wi-Fi as a way to sell service to smartphone and tablet customers--and thereby potentially cutting into a business currently dominated by wireless carriers like AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ).
A Comcast representative confirmed to FierceWirelessTech that Hotspot 2.0 technology is on the MSO's roadmap and its devices would be capable of using the technology, though the representative declined to provide any other details, including a timeline for when Comcast's Xfinity Wi-Fi network would be able to support Hotspot 2.0 connections.
The news comes as little surprise; Comcast and other cable companies have made no secret of their interest in Wi-Fi. Earlier this week, Comcast announced it now counts more than 1 million Wi-Fi hotspots around the country, which Comcast said represents the nation's largest public Wi-Fi network. Comcast's Xfinity-branded public Wi-Fi network is available in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and elsewhere, as well as participating businesses and residential locations.
Comcast is also a member of the CableWiFi consortium, which includes Bright House Networks, Cox Communications, Optimum and Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC). The consortium's members allow their respective customers to roam onto the public Wi-Fi networks of other members; the group said it currently counts 200,000 hotspots.
Finally, Comcast hinted at a broader Wi-Fi future in its recent FCC application to merge with Time Warner Cable. "A ubiquitous Wi-Fi network built by Comcast could make a 'Wi-Fi-first' service, which combines commercial mobile radio service with Wi-Fi, a more viable alternative. One prominent commenter has suggested this could be 'a highly disruptive wireless offering,' and 'a game changer,'" Comcast and TWC wrote.
Wi-Fi users currently must actively sign on to a new Wi-Fi network, but Hotspot 2.0 technology would change that. Hotspot 2.0 is an interoperable Wi-Fi authentication and handoff technology that enables automatic, seamless data roaming between Wi-Fi hotspots and cellular networks. The Wi-Fi Alliance offers a certification program for Hotspot 2.0 devices under its Passpoint brand. Devices that pass this certification testing can be referred to as "Passpoint devices." Because Passpoint certification is based on the Wi-Fi Alliance Hotspot 2.0 specification, one tends to see the terms "Passpoint" and "Hotspot 2.0" used interchangeably, though that is not technically accurate. Hotspot 2.0 has an access point technology counterpart called Next Generation Hotspot (NGH).
Thus, the incorporation of Hotspot 2.0 into Comcast's Wi-Fi network would essentially allow Comcast to offer Wi-Fi roaming and offload services to smartphone and tablet users. Such a scenario could play out in a number of ways, including a Hotspot 2.0 roaming relationship between Comcast and a smartphone user's wireless carrier, or a smartphone vendor could directly support Hotspot 2.0 in its devices' settings.
So far, no major wireless carrier has voiced complete support for the Hotspot 2.0 standard, though many have said they are evaluating it. Boingo Wireless is one of the few major companies that has already installed Hotspot 2.0 technology into its public Wi-Fi network. Boingo offers Hotspot 2.0 technology at 23 U.S. airports.
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