Is WiFi the answer for cable companies?

The cable industry should push wireless home networks outside the residence and into the metro cloud, leveraging its content and available infrastructure to cover local service areas with a blanket of WiFi.

That was the opinion--admittedly a lonely one--voiced by Dave Park, vice president of wireless equipment vendor BelAir Networks during a panel session, "The Invisible Network: Wireless Broadband in the Home and Out of It," at The Cable Show in Washington, D.C. earlier this month.

"What's your angle? What's your edge to deliver wireless to your customers?" asked Park. "Most devices connect to WiFi."

According to Park, wireless changes the way cable sees and services customers. Long accustomed to serving households with single stream video content, cable is entering a stage the ability to leverage an Internet connection wirelessly creates a household of individual users so "every household that you deliver service into has more than the householder."

Cable should, Park urged, migrate that wireless connection and content into a metro WiFi cloud where it can serve those same devices and users on a wider scale with services that could include VoIP. It could also pave the way for cable operators to become wireless operators in a migration to a 4G mobile platform, he said.

 "Wireless has really evolved ... to something that connects to almost any device," he said, urging the industry to find a way to feed its content to those devices. "The cellular provider lock ... has been broken by the availability of applications."

 Park's concept uses a microcell technology "deployed down at street level where you're closer to the user" and leveraging existing cable infrastructure. This microcell network could then feed multiple WiFi-enabled devices within a cable serving area and then use "the other key ingredient, backhaul, whether it's fiber or DOCSIS," he said.

 The concept is being pursued by Cablevision Systems in the New York City metro area but is not wildly popular throughout the rest of the cable universe where the more common wireless approach is to use 3G or 4G licensed spectrum that the industry bought at FCC auctions.

 "Dave and I definitely part ways," said Timothy Burke, vice president of strategic technology for Liberty Global. "I am a spectrum bigot."

 That seems to echo much of the cable industry's perception. WiFi, while good and getting better with 802.11n, is unlicensed and therefore open to interference and other limiting issues.

 "The landscape is littered with muni-WiFi operations. You need to control and own the spectrum," Burke continued, concluding that Park's vision of a wireless metro play is "not going to happen in the uncontrolled WiFi macro world, outdoor world."

 If you want licensed spectrum, there's always WiMAX, Park rebutted, pointing out that BelAir's technology is complementary with that evolving 4G technology being used most notably by cable operators such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks via a partnership with Clearwire.

 The two technologies, WiFi and WiMAX "have different roles to play," he said. Licensed provides more control but unlicensed has more potential for more devices that already are connecting to WiFi.

 Another set of spectrum, white space, the clusters of high powered air being vacated by broadcasters moving to digital, also got some short, albeit limited, attention from the panelists.

 "People aren't talking about replacing their existing WiFi" with new devices based on white space spectrum, said Tom du Breuil, director of systems engineering at Motorola.

 On the other hand, white space can deliver services more potently across a bigger swath and "there's nothing in white space to say you can only use one 6 MHz slot at a time," he continued. That, in turn, opens up an opportunity within the home networking space because the spectrum is powerful enough to deliver video-cable's mainstay-to multiple devices within a residential network.

 "It certainly presents an opportunity because it is another networking technology" but the operator would need in-home shielding to prevent interference with and from other devices, he said.

 Cable's first priority should be transporting its content around the residence, said Burke. Once that's accomplished, the cable industry should start to worry about how to move that content wirelessly to outside devices. And when it comes to inside devices, he concluded, "no one wireless solution seems suitable for all applications."

 WiFi and 802.11n in particular have potential, he said, but "I really wouldn't categorize it as being easy to use" in either 2.4 or 5 GHz spectrum. "Video transport is certainly a challenge with its requirements" and 802.11n "might be just a tool to bring content in the home and move it around."

 Inside the home, he emphasized, is where it's happening for WiFi, not outside it. "You really have to seize control of that networking," he advised.

 That, though, is the old challenge, said Park; moving the content outside the home network, or expanding that home network to the wider area network, is the new challenge. "MSOs are not used to being the laggard," he said, urging cable companies to deploy WiFi today and use its content assets to migrate to 4G  technology, probably WiMAX tomorrow.