Wi-Fi and mobile networks grow, evolve and converge

One of the biggest announcements coming from The Cable Show held last week in Boston was an agreement by five cable companies to combine their resources and offer shared access to a Wi-Fi network with more than 50,000 hotspots. Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable customers will soon have shared access to these hotspots, with simplified access to the "CableWiFi" network outside their home market. Access is offered at no extra charge for the partner's broadband subscribers. The first implementation is already complete in the New York City area and central Florida, with more common-access hotspots coming online in the next six months.

BACKGROUND: Big cable companies pooling Wi-Fi hotspot resources

MORE: Top 10 reasons for integrating Wi-Fi radios in small cellular cells

Although the wireline broadband operators see public hotspot access as a way to offer value added services outside the home or office, mobile operators like AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile also benefit by using Wi-Fi access to offload mobile voice traffic, mobile broadband traffic or both. For example, AT&T boasts more than 32,000 public hotspots in the U.S. that provide free access to AT&T broadband customers. The same AT&T hotspots can be used by AT&T's mobile data customers for Internet access on their smartphones or tablets, and these hotspot sessions don't count against the users' mobile data thresholds that are common with most mobile plans.

T-Mobile offers several options for offload: Its mobile broadband (think mobile data modem) customers receive complimentary access to T-Mobile hotspots, while smartphone users pay $10 a month for access to the T-Mobile hotspot network. In both cases, broadband over Wi-Fi does not count against the user's data allocation. T-Mobile also offers complimentary voice over Wi-Fi by providing its subscribers a smartphone mobile app that will link the user's phone to an open hotspot. T-Mobile calling can also extend onto the user's own Wi-Fi hotspot network in the home or office.

The convergence of Wi-Fi and small cells continues to be an integral part of 3G and 4G network evolution, a topic we recently discussed with Kineto Wireless following its announcement earlier this month at CTIA. Kineto already provides a "smart Wi-Fi" solution for mobile operators that allows for voice and messaging offload, and Kineto announced that it is joining forces with Taqua to help mobile operators also include Wi-Fi as part of their voice over LTE (VoLTE) deployments. The combined solution is designed to help mobile operators rapidly introduce IMS-based voice and messaging services over Wi-Fi, turning any access point in the home or office into a virtual LTE small cell. (IMS, or IP Multimedia Subsystem, uses SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol -- the same control protocol used most current-generation enterprise and carrier VoIP networks.)

We will continue to monitor how wireless and wireline networks provide both complimentary and complementary voice and data services, and report back as these networks evolve.

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