Wi-Fi: The operator must-have for spring and every other season

editor's corner

There is one primary lesson from this week's landmark Wi-Fi developments: If you don't have Wi-Fi, you risk becoming irrelevant.

The importance of Wi-Fi to the overall communications market was spotlighted by announcements coming not from mobile operators but cable TV MSOs. Their plans show that as Wi-Fi technology reaches its teenage years, Wi-Fi service is suddenly blossoming into a crucial tool for the business plans of varied service providers.

Just this week, cable behemoths Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Cox Communications and Bright House Networks announced CableWiFi, a program through which they will share free access to their 50,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots among all of the participating companies' subscribers. Subsequently, Comcast unleashed Voice 2go, a Wi-Fi calling service for its 9.5 million Xfinity Voice home phone customers. Voice2go relies upon Comcast's Xfinity Connect Mobile app for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS and Google's  (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android.

These cable and Wi-Fi developments point to a sea change in the wireless communications industry, because experienced telecom and entertainment service providers are beginning to use unlicensed frequencies on a vast scale to compete against other service providers, including mobile operators.

Earlier this month, the Wi-Fi Alliance released a survey in which it said 70 percent of smartphone and tablet users would swap service providers to get streamlined Wi-Fi access, while 72 percent said they would be willing to pay for easier Wi-Fi access. Such results have not been lost on the cable TV providers, nor should they be lost on the nation's mobile operators.

Comcast's Voice2go, which enables subscribers to make calls and send texts via Wi-Fi networks, is especially intriguing in that it threatens to undercut wireless operators' voice revenues, though the carriers might also welcome it as a method to ease traffic on their macro networks. Voice2go provides a "co-opetition" opportunity, in which a service that competes against mobile networks could also aid them under the right circumstances.

One fascinating aspect to ponder is how all of these deals will or will not benefit Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), which has initiated a series of reseller agreements with Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Bright House as part of its plan to buy their AWS spectrum. Is Verizon potentially positioned to become a major Wi-Fi player via those relationships? The company might have an inside track when it comes to negotiating Wi-Fi offloading access for its subscribers to the CableWiFi network of hotspots.

And what does all of this mean for Dish Network and its rival satellite TV provider DirecTV? Neither of those companies offers broadband services and, thus, neither has a real avenue to market Wi-Fi service. Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen has said that without a broadband wireless network, such as the one he envisions for Dish's 2 GHz S-Band spectrum, the company is essentially "a one-trick pony." Now that its cable competitors are going whole hog into Wi-Fi, Dish and DirecTV both need to dig much deeper into their bags of tricks to maintain their competitive positioning.

Of course, mobile operators have been dabbling in Wi-Fi for quite awhile, mainly as an offload strategy, or, in T-Mobile's case, primarily as an at-home indoor coverage play via its Wi-Fi app for Android devices. But Wi-Fi is set to become a much more integrated part of mobile operators' offerings.

One key to this integration is the Wi-Fi Alliance's Passpoint, which will allow devices to automatically identify and join Wi-Fi networks. The Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint program for devices and infrastructure equipment is slated to launch next month. Other game-changers are Hotspot 2.0 and the efforts of the GSMA and Wireless Broadband Alliance to create a framework that will make roaming between mobile networks and Wi-Fi hotspots more seamless by next year.

All of these developments point to the fact that Wi-Fi service is no longer just an option. Wi-Fi has become a must-have for any service provider that aims to control its own future in the emerging IP world.--Tammy

P.S.--FierceBroadbandWireless won't be publishing Monday, in observance of the Memorial Day Holiday. Look for us in your inbox Tuesday, May 29.