500,000 WiFi Sites on Cable’s Agenda


Cable operators collectively could run at least 500,000 WiFi hotspots nationwide in the very near future, according to David Don, Comcast’s executive director-regulatory and public affairs.  Although he did not specify a timetable, Don said at a Washington think-tank seminar this week that the current 200,000 cable-run hotspots indicate the industry’s commitment to making wireless access available to its customers nationwide.

He cited the value of leveraging “the broadband platform we’ve built.”  Don also singled out the potential for “off-loading cellular congestion” via expanded capabilities of WiFi bandwidth.  

Comcast is determined “to improve the robustness of WiFi,” Don said, emphasizing the need for “a balanced spectrum policy that includes unlicensed spectrum.”  Don spoke on a panel about “The Home of Tomorrow Today” at the fifth annual Institute for Policy Innovation Communications (IPI) Summit  in Washington.  

Cable’s WiFi expansion should be part of a “balanced spectrum policy,” Don said, which may include more shared spectrum implementations.  He cited the potential for use of the 500 MHz band, and also focused on the emerging 802.11ac WiFi standard. He pointed out the FCC’s work to accelerate use of the 802.11ac technology, which is described as a faster and more scalable version of 802.11n.

The IPI Summit, sponsored by Comcast/NBC Universal, Time Warner Cable and others, covered an array of timely telecom topics, aimed at Congressional staff members and other policy-makers.  

A “Spectrum Auctions” session delivered a familiar smackdown between broadcast and telephone lobbyists about the FCC’s agenda for reallocating airwaves.   Broadcast attorney John Hane of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP law firm said that TV stations’ “biggest fear is that the FCC will over-reach” and “squeeze them even more.”  He also fretted that the FCC wants to rush the auction into two years, although Congress set a 10-year timetable for the process.

Charla Rath, vice president-Wireless Policy Development at Verizon, countered that telcos are “worried it could take ten years,” insisting, “There’s a need to get spectrum out there now.”  She cited the growing demand for mobile broadband, and the goal of “making it as future proof as possible.”

Hane said the FCC has given “no thought whatsoever to the mobile future” and called it the “biggest single failure of the incentive auction process.”

The emerging “Internet of Things” (IoT) became a focus of a session on the Internet Tax Freedom Act. Panelists focused on the legislative outlook for the current tax moratorium, which expires on November 1, 2014, noting the “entrepreneurial” aggressiveness of state and local tax authorities who hunger for tax revenue from the growing Internet industry.  In particular, the fast-emerging Internet of Things, offering smart appliances and ultra-local wireless transmissions within connected homes, is becoming a target of some tax collectors.

The implications are significant for cable operators and other carriers, whose facilities provide such services, although the panelists did not cite specific looming hurdles. From a regulatory standpoint, the IoT tax issue could involve a faceoff between the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission, Jot Carpenter, VP-government affairs at CTIA: The Wireless Association, told me.

Earlier on the IPI agenda, attendees were fascinated by a presentation about digital health devices – primarily tying health monitoring products to wireless delivery systems.   Since “telehealth” has been a long-term promise of cable operators and other communications carriers, the session offered a glimpse of current developments such as electrocardiograms, blood pressure and hearing tests.  Given IPI’s policy focus, the discussion quickly turned to regulatory and legislative issues, including a pending Food and Drug Administration study about whether mobile apps should be regulated under the same rules as medical devices.

Coinciding with the IPI session, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced a bipartisan bill to provide guidance to the FDA about the regulation of mobile medical applications. The Sensible Oversight for Technology Which Advances Regulatory Efficiency (SOFTWARE) Act (H.R. 3303)  seeks to provide regulatory clarity regarding mobile medical applications, clinical decision support, electronic health records, and other health care-related software.