Comcast hints at Wi-Fi-based mobile service following Cablevision's Freewheel entrance

Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) is hinting that it might join rival Cablevision (NYSE: CVC) in offering some kind of Wi-Fi-based mobile service or product, but has not committed to any specific plans and is wary of cannibalizing its existing Wi-Fi business.

Speaking to investors during Comcast's fourth-quarter earnings conference call, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts was noncommittal when asked about whether the MSO will develop "mobile-first" products and services that would use the company's 8.3 million Wi-Fi hotspots. According to FierceCable, Roberts said the company is "still assessing the possibilities… We don't think this is the time where we chew open what our Wi-Fi plans are."

However, he added, "We do believe in the asset, and we're looking for ways to bring it to market over the next several months."

In the past, Comcast executives have referred to the company's public Wi-Fi network and other MSOs' public Wi-Fi networks as complementary to cellular networks. For example, last April at The Cable Show, Tom Nagel, senior vice president and general manager of wireless services at Comcast, said that while the cable companies have built a compelling network of public Wi-Fi hotspots and can do a great deal with those networks, they are not cellular networks. "Wi-Fi is not a licensed technology and it will never be. It's about nomadic sessions," he said. "They are very different."

Earlier this month Cablevision launched sales of its Freewheel Wi-Fi calling and data service. The service costs $9.95 per month for Cablevision's Optimum Online customers and $29.95 per month for non-customers, and right now works with only one smartphone, Motorola's Moto G, which will sell at a heavily discounted price of $99.95.

"Cellular was built for voice and Wi-Fi was built for data, which is why Wi-Fi is the preferred choice for data usage today," Cablevision COO Kristin Dolan said in a statement earlier this month. "Freewheel integrates a high quality device backed by the strength of our professionally maintained carrier-grade Wi-Fi network. As the thirst for data continues to grow, Freewheel provides consumers with a better, faster data experience, all at a fraction of the cost of cellular."

Unlike other Wi-Fi-first calling services like Republic Wireless or Scratch Wireless, Freewheel does not have a cellular backup option if Wi-Fi service is unavailable.

The challenge for Cablevision, Comcast and any other company with a large Wi-Fi hotspot network is whether and how they can partner with a wireless carrier to augment Wi-Fi coverage when users travel outside of Wi-Fi hotspot zones.

For more:
- see this FierceCable article

Related Articles:
Cablevision launches Freewheel Wi-Fi service, highlights data capabilities instead of voice
Cablevision's Wi-Fi-only Freewheel service won't have AT&T, Verizon shaking with fear
Cablevision to launch Wi-Fi-only mobile service Freewheel, starting at $10/month
Cable execs say Wi-Fi is complementary to cellular ... for now