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Wi-Fi Now 2016: Wi-Fi enabling diverse business models

VIENNA, Va.–Wi-Fi is enabling new market entrants and business models, and a wide range of businesses are capitalizing on unlicensed spectrum. A few of those approaches were highlighted at the Wi-Fi Now event this week, with companies ranging from start-ups to Time Warner Cable talking about how they are approaching the Wi-Fi space.

The cable operator

Rob Cerbone, VP at Time Warner Cable, said that the company has been following a three-part strategy for WI-FI: build out where people live, work and play; get people on the network; and drive awareness of the service. When TWC upgrades its network in a geographic area, he said, the company follows up with deploying hot spots both in public spaces and by encouraging enterprises to add a public SSID to their locations. TWC has about 150,000 of its own hot spots and access to nearly 500,000 nationwide through cable company roaming partnerships and Boingo.

TWC, he said, is leveraging a number of its mobile apps to drive traffic to Wi-Fi. It not only offers a Wi-Fi finder app, but allows users to pre-register their devices in their TWC account management app (which gets around the fact that many cable customers don’t know their username and password to be able to log into the Wi-Fi network when they are outside their homes), and is working on integrating more messaging and tie-ins to its Wi-Fi in its content-focused app, which is its most popular. Once a customer gets authenticated, though, the fact that TWC uses PassPoint makes it easier for the customer’s device to return to the network whenever they are in range – which actually meant that until TWC added information to customers that indicated they were on TWC Wi-Fi, it was easy for them to believe that they were actually on their mobile network provider’s cellular network.

“We’re big fans of PassPoint both from the security standpoint, but much more from getting customers on the network and keeping them on the network,” Cerbone said. He went on to say that “it’s been somewhat of a challenge because we don’t own the devices, we’re not an MNO. Pushing a Wi-Fi app only does so much, but because we’ve got all these other apps, we’ve been able to leverage that to our advantage.”

Cerbone said that TWC has also done its best to avoid attachment fees when it puts up hot spots, often by bartering marketing services with businesses who will take on the service. TWCE provides signage for them and Cerbone said that the company sees three times as many new users discovering the Wi-Fi network at locations with signage vs. those without, and as much as 200% increase in usage. The company is also utilizing some basic Wi-Fi analytics to sweeten the deal for enterprises. He says TWC is putting up thousands of such hot spots per month as an add-on to commercial Internet services.

The start-up

On the other end of that type of scale is the start-up Starry, which offers an in-home Wi-Fi station and is about to start offering high-speed wireless service in Boston this summer based on 802.11ac technology combined with millimeter wave. CEO Chet Kanojia told the audience that Starry was built not just as a service provider or hardware, but centered around enabling an in-home Android “Internet of Things” application platform. Starry will provide a network based on utilizing millimeter wave, massive MIMO phased arrays and 802.11ac, with content filtering and access control for parents and an emphasis on customer service.

Starry’s sleek hardware is meant to ensure that it will be placed so that it can provide optimal Wi-Fi coverage at 5 GHz, and the company has focused on both user experience and customer service, Kanojia said. The device contains a spectrum analyzer and monitors RF and network conditions and reports a composite score linked to overall performance. Each device on the network is represented by a dynamic circle on the router that changes size and color based on data consumption and performance. A push of a button will call the user to providing troubleshooting support for not only its own device, but other tech issues in the home – based largely on watching YouTube troubleshooting tutorials, Kanojia said. Starry plans to roll out its network in 10 to 15 cities in the net two years, he added – not aiming for city-wide coverage, but in specific zip codes where its analysis has shown that it is most likely to be able to sign up customers.

The low-cost, Wi-Fi first SP

Conferencegoers also heard from Wi-Fi first provider Republic Wireless, which plans to offer more devices, more payment options, more plans and faster OS updates like Android Lollipop (the service does not support the iPhone).

Republic is also starting to offer channel bonding as a way to both decrease its cellular wholesale costs and improve customer experience, according to David Marken, CEO of Republic: instead of switching customers between Wi-Fi-only and cellular-only when the Wi-Fi signal degrades, channel bonding allows both technologies to be utilized so that the cellular network only is utilized as needed to maintain good voice call quality and drops off as soon as the Wi-Fi signal improves.

Republic also leverages its own customers for customer service, by providing peer-to-peer troubleshooting which means that questions and problems are answered faster and at a much lower cost than the traditional customer service call center, Marken said.

Asked about Republic’s data trategy, he responded, “This is what is counter-intuitive. Voice is the ante in the game. Try to sell a plan without SMS.” Both of those, he said, must be offered with good user experience before thinking about data.

The Uber of Wi-Fi

Attendees also finally heard from one of the “Uber-izers” of Wi-Fi and wireless infrastructure, as Gary Griffiths, CEO of iPass, took the stage to talk about the business model for the company which has access to the largest number of Wi-Fi access points in the world but doesn’t own a single one of them.

iPass, Griffiths said, is launching a new service called Veri-Fi that provides analytics based on Wi-Fi. The insights, he said benefit iPass – such as helping it identify which neighboring networks might be a good fit for new partnership agreements – and its customers, by assessing attachment failure rates and throughput so that the company can assess user experience across the APs it has access to and blacklist poorly performing Wi-Fi APs until they are fixed.

Griffiths also talked about the inherent value of data related to Wi-Fi usage, particularly Wi-Fi as a proxy for overall customer traffic. He gave the example of comparing traffic figures at Disney World, Cedar Fair locations and Universal, which would be of interest to financial analysts seeking to get insights on the competitive positions of each park, as well as to the parks themselves. The value of that data is such that iPass might even give Wi-Fi access away or sell it for very little, he added, because it can monetize the data instead of the connectivity itself.



Kelly Hill
Kelly reports on network test and measurement, as well as the use of big data and analytics. She first covered the wireless industry for RCR Wireless News in 2005, focusing on carriers and mobile virtual network operators, then took a few years’ hiatus and returned to RCR Wireless News to write about heterogeneous networks and network infrastructure. Kelly is an Ohio native with a masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on science writing and multimedia. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian and The Canton Repository. Follow her on Twitter: @khillrcr

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