Comcast takes Wi-Fi mobile: Cable operator to outfit trucks with portable hotspots, microwave backhaul

BOSTON -- Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) announced today with Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) that it will deploy cargo vans outfitted with Wi-Fi access points in order to provide Xfinity-branded Wi-Fi services at community activities, sporting events and emergency response initiatives.

"Comcast manages the world's largest WiFi network and we continue to look for innovative ways to provide consumers with access to Xfinity WiFi in even more places," Eric Schaefer, Comcast's SVP and GM for communications, data and mobility, said in a release.

Comcast and Ericsson made the announcement here on the sidelines of the cable industry's INTX trade show.

Ericsson explained that Comcast helped design the vans, and is the vendor's first customer for what it is calling "Wi-Fi On Wheels." The customized Ford Transit 350 cargo vans are outfitted with six Wi-Fi access points, which Ericsson said can support up to 2,500 people at a range of 500 feet. The vans sport multiple network access connections, non-line-of-sight (NLOS) microwave backhaul, onboard backup power and modular deployment elements "that enable Comcast to launch operations in minutes," Ericsson said.

"Wi-Fi coverage has been primarily limited to locations where there are network facilities and it is economically viable to develop the Wi-Fi capability at that location," Ericsson explained. "The Wi-Fi on Wheels solution is able to provide Wi-Fi service without the constraint of site construction, as the van itself supports an optional wireless link for backhaul connectivity."

It's unclear exactly how Comcast might use the new service, and how many vans the company could put into operation. But at the very least the cable company's "Wi-Fi on Wheels" could allow Comcast to promote its Xfinity brand by providing Wi-Fi services at events and other gatherings.

Of course, the wireless industry has long provided mobile cellular coverage options, primarily through COWs (cells on wheels). Such trucks essentially offer a portable cellular base station that can create a bubble of cellular connectivity, oftentimes with satellite backhaul. Wireless carriers including Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and T-Mobile (NYSE:TMUS) routinely deploy COWs to concerts, festivals and other events that occasionally draw the kind of massive crowds that can overwhelm existing cellular networks.

But Comcast's interest in portable Wi-Fi options underscores the cable company's continued interest in mobile and wireless services in general. Already the company operates half a million public Wi-Fi hotspots, and is a member of the Cable WiFi Alliance along with Bright House Networks, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable that was created in 2012 to foster roaming among the public hotspots of participating cable providers.

Perhaps more importantly, Comcast late last year announced it would activate an MVNO agreement with Verizon with an eye toward testing some kind of wireless service this year. Comcast is also one of the 99 entities registered to bid in the FCC's upcoming incentive auction of TV broadcasters' unwanted 600 MHz spectrum, though company officials have said the operator likely won't be a big spender at the event.

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