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12 December 2019

WiFi Ready is really readying Xfinity for monopoly disruption

Faultline recently got stuck into what T-Mobile USA’s future strategy will look like under new leadership, where we highlighted how marketing 5G wireless hubs as a replacement for fixed broadband will become an increasingly attractive proposition for the MDU market. Less than a week later, Comcast barges in with a get-out-of-my-way WiFi offering to eliminate the frustrating installation wait for new residents.

The cable giant’s Xfinity Communities division has revealed WiFi Ready, which is basically a pre-installed WiFi modem, which can be instantly activated by existing Xfinity internet subscribers who have moved into a WiFi Ready residence. Residents can connect their own modem to the existing coax connection if preferred. No vendor suppliers were named in the project and none of the handful of suppliers we contacted responded to our queries.

Despite the downside of a single ISP having monopoly ownership of an entire MDU, this scenario can in fact 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, as we learned from a recent conversation with AI-powered WiFi software start-up Lifemote.

Xfinity’s WiFi Ready product is targeted at building owners and developers rather than going to consumer retail. Nevertheless, there is no getting away from WiFi Ready’s unfortunate reality of representing the monopolies that cablecos like Comcast have over MDUs in the US.

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.

That said, a former US DoJ antitrust attorney and FCC General Counsel member slammed the US broadband market this week – crying out for more emphasis on the lack of competition in the US fixed broadband market. In a blog post, Jonathan Sallet implored a maverick market entrant to challenge the big boys.

This could come in various forms, says Sallet, 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 maverick entrant could be a non-profit rural electric cooperative or a provider of fixed wireless, or a government-supported service like Australia’s calamitous national broadband network.

Making use of electricity assets is an intriguing idea that has so far failed to ignite competition, which as far as we can tell is primarily due to the immaturity of 5G networks as well as 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.

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 1 Gbps service, to $70.

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

Elsewhere, Xfinity Communities has fitted MDUs with smart devices including smart thermostats and smart lighting.

Really though, 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.