Which Cable Companies Share WiFi Hotspots?

Cable Free WiFi Hotspot Consortium 

A group of major U.S. cable companies has joined forces to offer a new Wi-Fi network that will allow each other's high-speed Internet customers to use their Wi-Fi networks across the country.  A group of 5 cable providers announced plans to partner on the deployment of 50,000 “metro Wi-Fi” hot spots under the “CableWiFi” brand. The service will allow customers of Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox Communications, and Time Warner Cable to access the Wi-Fi networks when roaming outside of their home cable provider’s footprint.

The cable providers' partnership is similar to how cell phone carriers allow their customers to roam on other networks when traveling. That's intentional: The cable companies say they are looking to compete with mobile carriers' new 4G networks that make broadband-like speeds available everywhere.

"We believe that Wi-Fi is a superior approach to mobile data, and that cable provider is 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 executive vice president of product management and marketing

For years a number of cities throughout the U.S. have floated the idea of vast Wi-Fi zones offering free Internet access, but the results have been spotty at best, often hindered by complicated business issues and even political considerations.  The roaming partnership comes as the cable industry is seeking to differentiate its offerings from rival phone and satellite companies—and when the entire pay-TV industry is trying to keep up with consumers watching greater amounts of video on mobile devices.

A similar roaming agreement was announced in 2010 by Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner Cable but it has had limited impact. The hot spots appeared on customer's devices under the separate brands of Cablevision's Optimum, Time Warner Cable's Road Runner, and Comcast's Xfinity. The service wasn't fully built out in some of the denser areas—like Manhattan—and some customers reported difficulty signing on and getting decent Internet speeds. Cablevision's hot spots have been around since 2008, but only 30% of its broadband customers have used them. Cablevision said that about 250,000 customers use its Wi-Fi every day.

The bulk of the hotspots are currently 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.  Cable operators say they will continue to increase the number of available hotspots, particularly in high-traffic locations such as parks, beaches, shopping areas, malls, cafes, restaurants, and sporting and concert arenas.

Wireless carriers are increasingly relying on Wi-Fi technology to help offload traffic from their oversubscribed networks, particularly in crowded areas. But new "femtocell" technology may give carriers an edge over their rivals. Though many carriers are aggressively deploying Wi-Fi hotspots on their own, cable companies would like a piece of the action.

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.

A new standard called "Passpoint" coming this summer from the Wi-Fi Alliance governing body will allow carriers to automatically switch customers to their Wi-Fi hotspots in crowded areas, without requiring any authentication from the user. That kind of seamless transition will make Wi-Fi a much more appealing option than it is currently for cellular customers.

How will it work? Subscribers will use their log-in credentials for their service provider through 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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