As consumers increasingly use mobile devices to access the Internet outside the home or office, cable operators are scrambling to keep their customers satisfied by building and managing WiFi hotspots throughout their footprints.
Indeed, remote access via WiFi is quickly becoming one of the industry’s most important customer-retention tools, according to executives from several MSOs.
“Accessing the Internet on the go is becoming more and more important to people as they rely on and expect instant access to information, no matter where they are,” Rob Cerbone, Time Warner Cable’s vice president of wireless products, said. “It’s a huge benefit for our broadband Internet customers to be able to do that at no added cost using free TWC WiFi in areas where they live, work and play. We want our customers to have the best Internet experience possible, and today that means being able to take their home Internet service with them.”
According to Cisco Systems, 88% of all U.S. data traffic on mobile and portable devices will travel over WiFi by 2018.
USERS PREFER WIFI
Similarly, nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers said they most often connect their smartphones to WiFi networks, as opposed to a macro cellular network, when using the Internet, according to a 2013 survey by Deloitte. The survey also found that 93% of U.S. tablet users prefer WiFi to cellular Internet connections.
Cable operators understand that if they want to keep the connection with their customers, they have to be where those customers are, and that means creating WiFi hotspots in as many places as possible.
Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision Systems, Bright House Networks and Cox Communications joined forces last year, giving each other’s customers access to their WiFi hotspots across the country.
To date, the MSO consortium has activated more than 250,000 hotspots in its service territories. Last month, Comcast said it will have 8 million hotspots around the country by the end of the year.
The co-operative enables cable subscribers to access other member operators’ hotspots at no extra charge. Operators have also worked to streamline the authentication process by creating a one-time access procedure, which has improved customer satisfaction, according to Craig Cowden, chief network officer with Bright House Networks.
“A customer’s phone will identify a hotspot and when that customer goes from one hotspot to another, the device is seamlessly and automatically authenticated,” he said. Back-end office work continues to make the process even more continuously unified, especially between co-op hotspots.
“Public WiFi is complicated on the back end, but it shouldn’t be on the front end,” Cowden said.
Cable is becoming an antiquated term that does not reflect the industry’s mission, executives said, and WiFi is developing into a good way for operators to remain connected to their increasingly mobile customer base.
“High-speed data is a fundamental service for us, and providing mobility is a real value for our customers,” Cowden said. “We see public WiFi as a retention tool by extending our Internet services to our customers outside the home. And it has become a huge benefit for [subscribers].
“They have access to the Internet without using up their cellphone data plan. We are in the best position to offer this service, because we are already their network provider and we have the infrastructure and teams in place to offer WiFi outside the home.”
Recently, BHN said it will make WiFi available to the public in downtown Tampa, Fla., as well as in the area’s riverfront public parks. It will be free to the public for up to two hours a day or 1 Gigabit per month. BHN subscribers will get unlimited access. Once a non-BHN customer surpasses the free allocation, there is an option to purchase additional service.
Hard data is a bit difficult to come by, but executives from Comcast, BHN and Time Warner Cable all said access to WiFi outside the home is — at least anecdotally — reducing churn and making customers more satisfied with their service.
“We’re still working on the exact mathematical model, but we believe there is a reduction in churn that correlates with our increase in WiFi access,” Cowden said.
Of course, there are ways to monetize WiFi services, according to Ken Roulier, chief technology officer for customercare vendor Amdocs’s Broadband, Cable & Satellite Division. Most operators offer non-customers and basic-only customers access to their WiFi service for a small fee.
Some operators, including BHN and Comcast, have commercial divisions that build and manage hot spots for businesses and venues in their service territories.
The primary focus for most operators, though, remains offering a sticky product that will keep customers loyal and within their fold — connected to their broadband service provider no matter where they might be.
The downside of offering any service is that technical glitches might prevent a customer from experiencing the promised product. One Time Warner Cable customer in New York City complained in a February review on the website Yelp.com that several of the MSO’s advertised hotspots did not work. Confusion about free hotspots vs. paid hotspots can also be a land mine, and operators continously monitor hotspots to make sure the capacity meets demand.
Like all new products, those glitches must be worked out. Jersey City, N.J.-based Amdocs offers some technical solutions that are designed to make rolling out those products easy for operators and consumers alike. The company’s network-rollout solution provides a complete end-toend, catalog-driven planning and design guide for operators wanting to light up WiFi hotspots in their service territories. The product is designed to reduce network design time by up to 30%, Roulier said, which can reduce deployment costs by up to 25%.
USAGE IS EXPLODING
Operators are constantly monitoring their networks to make sure volume is being adequately handled and handoffs between co-op hotspots are as seamless as possible. MSOs have also redoubled their eff orts to educate customers as to what WiFi is, where it’s available and how it works.
And it’s working. For one, Comcast has tallied 200 million out-of-home WiFi sessions this year alone, according to spokesman Charlie Douglas. That’s up 700% from the same period last year.
“We see WiFi as a huge opportunity to make our customers happy,” Douglas said.
It is estimated that between 12 million and 14 million WiFi-connected devices will be in deployed in the next few years, according to Douglas.
There is still work to be done to refine the WiFi experience. Speeds will need to be increased, Douglas said, and additional spectrum will be needed to meet demand.
“Consumers used to have to walk away from the Internet when they left their homes,” Douglas said. “They don’t have to do that anymore. Our customers don’t have to lose their service with us, even though there are no wires to connect them to our services. WiFi is tremendously important to our customers’ satisfaction.”
Why Cable WiFi is Key
A survey conducted in January 2014 by Real Wireless reveals untapped business opportunity for cable companies to support small-cell rollouts:
MSOs are already highly active in WiFi: 70% either plan to launch public WiFi or already have done so.
Mobile network operators (70%) are prepared to use small-cell networks rolled out by or owned by a third-party partner, such as a cable provider.
Automation tools will be critical: 85% believe that automation is critical or important for small cell deployment.