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Will Wi-Fi Finally Put Cable Into the Mobility Business?

June 23, 2015

Cable has had an on-again, off-again relationship with mobility over the past decade or so.  At first, cable providers were teaming up with cellular companies, with Sprint an early favorite because of its big plans with WiMax.   But WiMax died, leaving cable with frenemy partnerships with larger cellular carriers for bundling deals that lasted for five seconds after the press release had been published.  Wi-Fi is cable's latest mobility play and might be the best bet to date to get the industry into mobile services.

Cablevision, arguably at the leading/bleeding edge of U.S. cable industry, announced its Wi-Fi only phone service back in February. The Freewheel service starts with Cablevision's Optimum Wi-Fi footprint of around a million devices across the Tri-State area, plus whatever other free Wi-Fi access users can glom onto when they are moving about in the course of the day. Costs start at $29.95 per month for a stand-alone plan, but Cablevision subscribers can get a plan for $9.95 per month.

There's also a one-time $99.95 charge for a dedicated device -- the Motorola Moto G - with a dedicated phone number plus native talking and texting services.  The Moto G is a fully functionally Android phone, so you can drop a third-party SIM card to make calls outside of Freewheel, such as if you were traveling.  Conversely, you can't BYOD with Freewheel; Cablevision says the Freewheel app is optimized to work on the Freewheel Moto G only -- a bit backwards and retro, if you ask me.

via Shutterstock

Cablevision probably wants to cut down on support costs by streamlining the implementation to a single device, but I suspect a next-generation product will be more generic. "Traditional" over-the-top (OTT) providers have long mastered the ability of downloading a client to Android and iOS devices along with being able to seamlessly route voice and text messages from PSTN into IP.

At $29.95 plus $99.95 for a phone, Cablevision is stretching to pick up customers from traditional pre-paid services, such as Cricket Wireless.  For $10 more per month, a prepay cellular user can get 4G service with a basic data plan without having to worry about where the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot is.  Prepaid customers also have more and lower-cost options than having to shell out $100 for a phone.

Freewheel's biggest flaw is that it is targeted to household subscribers.  There's no play here for business customers, where the real money is at when it comes to recurring revenue.  In some business environments, an all-Wi-Fi device makes sense, but businesses will want to keep and manage their own phone numbers. Most will prefer a service that supports full call routing between business numbers with BYOD support, so employees can use their existing phones to receive and make calls using the company's assigned phone number.

Comcast will likely the one to provide a business mobility solution in the cable space, with BYOD and aliasing phone number support.  How it gets there is an interesting question. Rumors briefly suggested that Comcast would buy T-Mobile, but the Federal Communications Commission is taking a dim view of large service providers amassing larger portfolios.  At one point, the cable industry could have made a play for a distressed Sprint to add wireless into its portfolio, but Softbank effectively shut that option down.

Regardless of how it happens, the cable industry will need a mobility option for businesses in the future.  Existing cable business cloud services will need to borrow a page from the OTT world to provide BYOD and business phone number routing to and from BYOD devices.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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