Five of the country's largest cable providers have teamed up in an effort that will make a collective of 50,000 wireless hotspots available to their subscribers. Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision Systems, Cox Communications, and Bright House Networks agreed to let each others' Internet customers roam freely among the hotspots. The move counters similar services being offered by network operators such as AT&T and Verizon Communications.
Essentially, anyone who subscribes to the Internet services provided by any one of these five cable operators will be able to access any of the 50,000 Wi-Fi hotspots run by the other cable corps.
The bulk of the hotspots are located in New York City and the surrounding tri-state area. A handful of other markets, including Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Tampa are also included from the onset. The cable companies expect to add more coverage and availability over time.
How does it work? Subscribers will use their log-in credentials for their service provider on the provider’s website or subscribers can find their provider on a new website called "CableWiFi.com." The credentials will allow them to gain access to the Wi-Fi hotspots run by their own provider, as well as those operated by the other four providers.
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Why offer this service? Nearly all smartphones and tablets include Wi-Fi radios. Wi-Fi may be limited in distance, but has excellent capacity properties and still offers speeds that are leagues faster than today's 3G and 4G networking technologies. Smartphone, tablet, and laptop users that switch from cellular networks to Wi-Fi are removing pressure from the wireless networks while gaining better performance at the same time.
"We believe that Wi-Fi is a superior approach to mobile data, and that cable providers are best positioned to build the highest-capacity national network offering customers fast and reliable Internet connections when away from their home or business broadband service," said Kristin Dolan, Cablevision's senior executive VP of product management and marketing. "We've built an extensive Wi-Fi network in our own service area, and see real value and potential in other leading providers joining with us to extend that connectivity to major markets across the country."
AT&T and Verizon Wireless already offer something similar. AT&T has for years given its smartphone customers free access to AT&T-run Wi-Fi hotspots. AT&T owns more than 20,000 of them in the United States, many of which are located in Starbucks coffee shops and the like. AT&T also has a huge number of hotspots operating in the Times Square and theater district of Manhattan. It put this Wi-Fi network up years ago in part to help reduce the capacity crunch on its cellular network in that area. AT&T has made it seamless for smartphone subscribers to connect to Wi-Fi. As long as they are using an AT&T device, it automatically authenticates with the available AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot.
The move by the cable companies beats the Wi-Fi Alliance, which is developing a similar, non-competing service, to the punch. The Wi-Fi Alliance is working to bring PassPoint to market later this year. PassPoint lets mobile and Internet subscribers access Wi-Fi on a global scale. The Wi-Fi Alliance has worked with the wireless network operators and Wi-Fi hotspot operators to create a credentialing service that will let almost any Wi-Fi device access Wi-Fi securely. As long as someone is subscribed to one Wi-Fi network, they'll gain access to all other Wi-Fi networks.
With the new CableWiFi service in place and services such as PassPoint on the way, it will soon be far less painful to gain access to Wi-Fi networks. While all involved pitch the idea as great for consumers, enterprise workers will benefit just as much. Mobile professionals will soon have a wide range of ways to access the network for free.
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