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Shaw to fire up Wi-Fi tests in Calgary, Edmonton

Wed, 10/19/2011 - 4:21pm
Mike Robuck

After announcing it was abandoning the build-out of its LTE network early last month, it hasn't taken Shaw Communications long in getting down to the brass tacks of testing its new Wi-Fi network.

According to Dennis Steiger, Shaw's group vice president for engineering, Shaw plans on testing its Wi-Fi mesh networks in December in its hometown of Calgary and Edmonton.

"We'll start with those two for our test and then quickly roll that into production release, and then start working on all of the communities where we have fiber available, which covers about 98 percent of our customer footprint," Steiger said. "We started talking about Wi-Fi, in its modern context, as an offload strategy for the LTE network that we were building. It became quickly apparent to us that the LTE business model wasn't going to work for us, but the Wi-Fi strategy as a value-add for our customers was going to fit what do and who we are a lot better."

Among the factors that weighed in on Shaw's decision to go with Wi-Fi included increases in Wi-Fi's throughput (up to 1 Gbps in some iterations of 802.11), reliability and seamless handoff capability.

Steiger said Shaw's goal with Wi-Fi was to bring increased value to its data subscribers by providing them mobile Internet connectivity outside of their homes.

"Our intent is to reflect the home experience out into the public community spaces," Steiger said. "During the trial phases, [the speed of Wi-Fi] will be wide open. Wi-Fi can support a couple hundred megabits in practice shared amongst a group of users that would typically be pretty small relative to what we put on a bandwidth like that today.

"We want to evolve that to a point where we would replicate the service you have bought from us, for your wired service at home, onto the Wi-Fi service. If you had a 100-meg service, we would replicate that in Wi-Fi. If you have a 5- or 10-meg service, we would replicate that in Wi-Fi."

Steiger said Shaw wanted to leverage the work that Cablevision has already done in its outdoor Wi-Fi network build-out that blankets – thanks in part to Wi-Fi roaming agreements with Time Warner Cable and Comcast – a large section of the New York metropolitan area.

While Cablevision was able to focus on installing its access points in high-traffic areas of a major metropolitan area, Shaw's footprint extends across Western Canada.

"Certainly public Wi-Fi service in Canada, at least in our part, is pretty much vacant," Steiger said. "You'll find a few small operations with a few thousand access points spread across Western Canada, but we're talking about something of a much larger scale. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of access points one day, and creating a new experience of public Wi-Fi goes beyond just the coffee shops and restaurants."

Like Cablevision, Steiger said Shaw would initially target the locations that have a high probability of a Shaw residential customer pulling out a tablet or smartphone to connect to the mobile Internet.

"There's not a magic formula, but there are places that we think make sense," he said. "Every community is different, we believe, and we're going to have to learn as we go to make sure we're creating value. We're still at the point where we're talking to municipalities for the first time about this, trying to understand what their needs are."

"It's going to be a little bit of the live and learn. The beauty of the Wi-Fi network is it isn't something that we design at the corporate office in Calgary. It's something where we maybe standardize the technology and the design standards there, but to a large extent it will be planned and built in our regional offices and our branches. They'll know best where to build Wi-Fi networks in their communities."

Shaw picked Cisco as its vendor of choice for the Wi-Fi network build-outs. To date, the more notable Wi-Fi networks by cable operators in the United States have been built using BelAir Networks' equipment, including Comcast, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable, the latter of which recently announced it was building its largest Wi-Fi network in Los Angeles.

While Shaw's initial Wi-Fi networks will focus squarely on residential customers, Darcy Birkbeck, senior director of Shaw's engineering operations team, said Shaw was mulling over offering Wi-Fi hotspots for businesses.

"Of course residential services are our focus at the moment, but we do see businesses coming in, and absolutely businesses require a different kind of security," he said. "There are all kinds of regulations around different types of services, point of sales, etcetera. There will need to be the more advanced Wi-Fi security features in place when that time comes."

For now, Shaw's focus is on building the Wi-Fi networks and then seeing how its subscribers use them. With the flood of Wi-Fi devices, including smartphones and tablets, hitting consumer outlets, Steiger said Shaw would initially focus on what it considers to be the top-10 most popular devices.

"One of the many nice things about Wi-Fi is that the client base gives up its identity when you connect," Steiger said. "So we'll know the manufacturer of the device and probably the operating system, and maybe even the client that was used to make the secure connection. We'll be able to collect really good statistics from our customers on when they're using it and how they are using it.

"We have a strong belief that the value is going to be around tablets, around high-speed and portability in the community. It's a learning experience for the company and in the first few years we're going to be figuring out where the value is really being created."

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