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18 December 2019

Comcast tightens control of apartment blocks with WiFi Ready

US cable operator Comcast has unveiled WiFi Ready, under its Xfinity Communities banner, challenging moves by T-Mobile USA and others to push wireless as an alternative to fixed broadband in apartment blocks.

Comcast aims to eliminate the frustrating installation wait for fixed lines, for new residents of MDUs (multi-dwelling units). The new service is based around a pre-installed WiFi modem, which can be instantly activated by existing Xfinity Internet subscribers who have moved into a WiFi Ready home. Residents can connect their own modem to the existing coax connection if preferred. No vendor suppliers were named in the project.

Despite the downside of a single ISP having monopoly ownership of an entire MDU, this scenario can make life easier for specialist vendors in the WiFi space. Cloud-based analytics platforms, for example, can create a holistic picture of WiFi usage in a building to prioritize MDU channel selection based on usage predictions, something offered by several companies including AI-powered WiFi software start-up Lifemote.

Xfinity’s WiFi Ready product is targeted at building owners and developers rather than consumer retail channels, and should help strengthen the dominance which the cablecos already have over Internet and TV in US MDUs.

Even in duopoly areas, consumers will pay higher prices than in communities where there are three or more ISPs. The arrival of 5G as a replacement for in-home connectivity will therefore give these companies the competition they need in broadband, which could have a knock-on effect on multi-drop protocols like MoCA and G.hn.

Last week, a former US Department of Justice antitrust attorney and FCC general Counsel slammed the US broadband market for its lack of competition. In a blog post, Jonathan Sallet implored a maverick market entrant to challenge the big players. That could happen in various ways, he argued, either using pre-existing fiber as a starting point to reduce the cost of entering the broadband market, or making use of assets like electricity to provide broadband (remember AT&T’s AirGig?).

This new entrant could be a non-profit rural electric cooperative or a provider of fixed wireless, or a government-supported service like Australia’s national broadband network.

Making use of electricity assets for wireless is an intriguing idea that has so far failed to ignite competition, because of immature technology and problems getting utilities onboard. AirGig was proposed years ago and has been nearing commercial deployment following a bunch of trials. It uses a plastic antenna to drive a mmWave backhaul signal along powerlines, with the most recent trials delivering “hundreds of megabits per second” to residential locations in Georgia. The mmWave surface wave launchers can power themselves via inductive power devices without a direct electrical connection, from where the devices then create a high speed signal that travels along or near the wire – not through it. AT&T Labs has applied for over 500 patents related to AirGig to reach 100% of Americans.

Such solutions, if they can be fully commercialized, are much-needed. The FCC’s most recent figures show that about 11% of American households have no access to typical speeds of 100 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload, while about 35% of households are in a monopoly market with only one provider. An additional 37% are in a duopoly region – meaning that over 70% have either no choice or only one choice.

Sallet gives the example of the city of Alexandria, Virginia, which was so fed up with being limited to a single high speed fixed broadband provider, that the city applied to build its own municipal fiber network, with most of the infrastructure leased from Comcast. This hopes to replicate results from a similar municipal network project in Longmont, Colorado, where broadband prices from the incumbent ISP lowered prices from $120 a month for a 1Gbps service, to $70.

Circling back to Comcast, this is the second significant slab of Xfinity Internet news in as many months. In its Q3 results, Comcast said it planned to offload traffic from its Xfinity MVNO service (piggybacking on the Verizon network) via its prolific installed base of 19m Xfinity WiFi hotspots, automatically switching Xfinity Mobile subscribers onto the hotspots when in range.

Elsewhere, Xfinity Communities has fitted MDUs with smart devices including smart thermostats and smart lighting to broaden its monetization base and its control of the environment.

But of course, this all forms the sticky foundations of a business designed to sell video. Comcast recently began offering Xfinity Flex set-tops free to broadband subscribers in a bid to get the ‘cord-never’ generation to start buying into the new streaming service Peacock when it launches, plus other premium entertainment offerings.