Wi-Fi as a managed service blossoms for small and medium sized businesses 

To quote noted philosopher Homer Simpson: “Donuts! Is there anything they can’t do?” Which can be amended to “Wi-Fi! Is there anything it can’t do for cable operators?”

Wi-Fi has become the wireless play that cable operators have long yearned for, and it doesn’t require the costly build out of LTE networks or flaky partnerships that ultimately failed. From homes, to stadiums, to trains, to metro areas with heavy foot traffic, Wi-Fi has been a shining star.

Wi-Fi is also blossoming in the business services sector as small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are clamoring for Wi-Fi services to better serve all of those customer- owned BYOD (bring your own device) smartphones and tablets.

A recent survey by Time Warner Cable Business Class found that 80 percent of the small business respondents believed their customers expected free Wi-Fi. Among small businesses, Wi-Fi also topped the list as the best way to attract new customers, but only 43 percent of the businesses offered Wi-Fi.

“How we think about Wi-Fi is that we incorporate it into our business Internet service for about 90 percent of our customers, so we see Wi-Fi as table stakes to our business Internet experience,” said Mike Tighe, executive director, data product management, Comcast Business. “Let’s face it, it’s fairly easy for an SMB to run to Staples, Best Buy, or wherever to pick up a Wi-Fi router and connect it to their business Internet service, but we find that our customers really do want a managed service.

“For example, security is a key, key concern for them. They worry about the security of the service. They worry about the functionality of it and being able to manage it. We’re finding that the ability to offer a secure, private Wi-Fi hotspot is something they need as a table stake. By us managing it for them it’s one less worry for them and they can focus on running their business.”

Comcast Business, Time Warner Cable Business Class and Cox Business have all upped their game this year by deploying new, dual band Wi-Fi routers to their SMB customers. Here’s a look at those three deployments, plus a glimpse of where Wi-Fi is headed in the future.

Comcast’s Business Wireless Gateway

Comcast Business launched its dual-band Business Wireless Gateway (BWG) near the end of March. The gateway allows businesses to assign one private wireless signal for their own backoffice needs while also providing a separate signal for customers.

The Cisco DPC3939B gateway, which Comcast said was the nation’s first built specifically for a commercial environment with an integrated modem equipped to produce dual-band Wi-Fi signals, uses 802.11n and operates in both the 2.4 GHZ and 5.0 GHZ radio frequencies.

The download speeds are up to 150 Mbps, which should be more than enough speed for customers’ various smartphones, tablets and other devices. The gateway includes a DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem, MoCA support and a VoIP adapter. The gateway is included with most Comcast Business Internet tiers.

“Since March, we’ve doubled the number of SMB hotspots and we’re on track to have a very strong SMB hotspot presence by the end of this year,” said John Gasowski, director, product development, Comcast Business. “The business rules changed because our customers, roughly 90 percent of them, will receive a public and private Wi-Fi solution as part of their business Internet service. Before it was closer to an opt-in approach so obviously the percentage was much lower.”

Tighe said the public and private SSIDs for the BWG gateway were provisioned separately over two different service loads so that if a large number of a business’ end customers were using the public Wi-Fi they wouldn’t impact the backend Wi-Fi that is used by the business and its employees.

Gasowski said that Comcast Business looked at specific business needs when it designed the BWG service offering.

“Probably one that was fairly straightforward was that business customers have the need for static IP. We found that maybe about 30 to 35 percent of our customers utilized static IP for business and hosting different types of servers and security cameras, so building that type of functionality into the BWG was important,” he said.

Tighe said a secure managed Wi-Fi service was vital to the customer experience because businesses were judged on the quality of the service that they provided, and Wi-Fi also improved customers’ purchasing experience.

“At Home Depot and other retail places they’re offering Wi-Fi in the stores because as people are shopping for fairly big ticket items they want to do comparison shopping,” Tighe said. “They want to know about feature functionality and what they’re doing is using the store’s Wi-Fi to actually accelerate the shopping experience. They can learn more; they can see videos of how something operates. It gets them from being interested to the item is in their cart and they’re purchasing it. More and more we’re seeing that in retail.”

Cox Business Internet Gateway and Guest WiFi service

 In a similar vein to Comcast, Cox Business has launched an integrated Wi-Fi gateway from Cisco that allows its business data customers to set up separate SSIDs. Cox Business Internet Gateway and Guest WiFi service uses Cisco’s dual-band 3829 gateway/router, which combines a DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem with a Wi-Fi-enabled 802.11ac router.

“What that does is it provides, at a dramatically lower cost, the opportunity for an all-in-one device from Cox as your provider,” said Jeff Adelmann, vice president of product for Cox Business. “We can offer you wireline connectivity and backhaul as well as a Wi-Fi service that you can use for your employees, and then on top of that the ability to provide a guest Wi-Fi service. So if you have customers that are in a waiting area, for example, through that same device they can have Wi-Fi service that’s provided to them on a different SSID and different backhaul bandwidth.”

Businesses can create up to 16 SSID and password options with the gateway and guest Wi-Fi service.

Roger Crisman, director of product marketing, Cox Business, said the new gateway was generally available across Cox’s footprint by the end of June. Cox Business launched a trial in its first set of markets in March before offering it across all of those markets last May. Also in May, Cox Business kicked off trials in the remaining markets.

Also in June, Cox Business data customers were able to tap into the more than 250,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across the nation from other members of the CableWiFi Alliance at no additional charge.

In addition to Cox, the CableWiFi roaming agreement also includes access points from Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Cox Business Internet customers can provide up to 10 employees access to the hotspots with each able to connect up to three devices at the same time.

TWCBC serves up free Wi-Fi to business data customers

Also in June, Time Warner Cable Business Class started offering business data customers its TWC WiFi Hotspot solution for no additional charge. The service, which is now available across Time Warner Cable’s footprint, includes a free Wi-Fi access point installed and managed by Time Warner Cable Business Class (TWCBC.) The Wi-Fi access point comes equipped with its own Internet connection to keep businesses’ private traffic separate and secure from the public Wi-Fi Internet traffic that is generated by customers.

“Wi-Fi as a service for small businesses is something we’ve been looking at for a while,” said Time Warner Cable’s Parimi Satyanarayana , group vice president, product management. “For the last six or seven years we’ve offered Wi-Fi services to hotels, or guests in hotels, and about two years ago we started looking at Wi-Fi services for small business customers to offer Wi-Fi to their end consumers, particularly in the retail space where there’s a lot of interest to keep customers or guests who are waiting occupied. Around the same time we started offering community Wi-Fi service as one of our residential initiatives.

“We’ve basically taken this asset that we have that we were using to offer community Wi-Fi and made it available to small businesses. It’s been launching in various markets starting roughly two years ago and the announcement in June was that we had expanded from the initial markets we had available to all markets where we offer service.”

TWCBC’s Wi-Fi offering includes a “self-service management portal” that allows business owners to configure the service to require a password for free access to business end customers or set daily time allotments for the free access, ranging from 15-60 minutes.

The portal also provides a branding opportunity for businesses to add their names and logos, and marketing messages on the Wi-Fi welcome pages.

“We introduced the management portal in October 2012 in its initial phase,” said Doug Britt, senior director, corporate development, Time Warner Cable. “We’re really the first and only MSO to offer that service to our SMB host partners and we certainly think it’s a big part of the experience that we’re able to offer by co-branding on those APs to our SMB hosts.”

The business Wi-Fi service is also available to qualified Time Warner Cable Standard residential and business Internet customers, as well as qualified subscribers from the four other cable operators participating in the CableWiFi network alliance.

The popularity of Wi-Fi sometimes means that there are multiple SSIDs in play in congested areas, but Britt said Time Warner Cable works with businesses to make sure their Wi-Fi services come through loud and clear.

“We keep a laserlike eye on the customer experience and quite frankly a lot of those first generation deployments with Wi-Fi provide less than a great experience from a customer standpoint,” he said. “The amount of SSIDs on a network has a material impact on overall RF performance. We make sure we’re thinking about it from an essential services standpoint and we do things such as turning off 802.11b because we see where that has a material negative impact if it's turned on.

“There’s an absolute science and art that comes with it and we spend a lot of time making sure the customer experience, as well as the enterprise, employee and commercial experience, is optimized.”

Providing a managed service is the value proposition that cable operators bring to the Wi-Fi business services sector, according to Britt.

“From our SMB product, through the venue Wi-Fi and high-speed Internet element it’s a managed service,” Britt said. “We’re monitoring the network. We’re providing the CALEA support behind the network; we’re doing a truck roll on an AP. We’re managing the customer experience component. We handle payments.

“It’s really the idea that we can make Wi-Fi easy for our customers. Those things that they had to worry about, like going out and buying their own routers and all of that kind of stuff, is sort of the difficult self management aspect we’ve tried to make simple for them.”

The future of Wi-Fi business services

Cable operators are already offering Wi-Fi services across the public spaces, hospitality, education, retail and enterprise sectors, with more advanced services in the offing. Here’s a look at a few of the services that are in the works: • Time Warner Cable’s Satyanarayana said his company would be out with a distributed Wi-Fi access offering in the very near term.

Distributed Wi-Fi would provide coverage in areas outside of a hotel or hospital to complement the indoor wireless and wired services.

• Location-based services appeal to businesses of all sizes, according to Time Warner Cable’s Britt. A real estate company could track which areas of a mall were more heavily trafficked and adjust rents accordingly. A business in the mall could keep track of how many times a customer came into its premise, and offer loyalty coupons as a reward for frequent shoppers. Cox’s Adelemann said that indoor location-based services could provide coverage where GPS satellite can’t always reach.

“I think the use of location based services probably starts more in the mid-market, especially around hospitality or higher end retail because they’re more knowledgeable and can understand the value of getting this information about their customers,” Satyanarayana said “They would be able to use this to engage their customers. We’re still trying to figure out the best way to package and bring this to market.

Is it free, is it revenue sharing, or is it a charge?”

• Tighe said the industry was at the beginning point of linking analytics with social networking en route to coming up with new mechanism to grow businesses.

• Cox Business plans on having an indoor small cell service available this year with the initial elements of an outdoor offering in place later this year and into the first half of 2015.

• Cable operators are looking at dynamically adding bandwidth for high usage events such as online school registrations and testing as well as large conferences at hotels.

“I just think Wi-Fi is such a huge opportunity for SMBs and the other verticals, and for service providers such as ourselves,” Comcast’s Gasowski said. “I’m very excited about what the next 12 to 24 months will bring.” ■     


Passpoint/Hotspot 2.0: Wi-Fi’s next big wave

One area that cable operators in particular, and the Wi-Fi industry in general, are migrating towards is Hotspot 2.0.

Hotspot 2.0 allows mobile devices to automatically join a Wi-Fi network based upon preferences and network optimization whenever the user enters a Hotspot 2.0-enabled area.

Hotspot is the technical specification that the WiFi Alliance uses for hardware while Passpoint is the certification process to that is needed to make sure the hardware is Hotspot 2.0 compliant.

Hotspot 2.0 brings cellular like capabilities to Wi-Fi users by enabling them to log in one time instead of entering their passwords at every access point when they come in range.

Earlier this year, Time Warner Cable added Hotspot 2.0 capabilities to most of its 33,000 access points across the nation. TWCWiFi Passpoint is accessible to all of Time Warner Cable Business Class customers that have data plans.

TWCWiFi-Passpoint uses enterprise- grade WPA2 security, which works on most Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, tablets, and smartphones including iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy 4, and HTC One. With the new encryption technology, the new service mimics the home Wi-Fi user experience.

“We certainly think there’s a great benefit for our enterprise customers today,” said Doug Britt, senior director, corporate development, Time Warner Cable. “We know it’s the largest Hotspot 2.0 enabled network in the country and we certainly think it’s one of the largest around the world. We think that the longterm benefit is a simplified user experience that we can come forward with due to Hotspot 2.0 and our 802.11u broadcast capabilities on Passpoint.”

“The first and immediate benefit is that in the short term those customers have access to an enhanced WPA2 encrypted, secure network. Certainly an enterprise has business sensitive information when their employees are out and around the country. Now they have a more secure option to pretty much all of our access points around the country.”

In June, Time Warner Cable announced a bilateral roaming agreement with Hotspot pioneer Boingo Wireless.

Time Warner Cable’s broadband subscribers can now access more than 100 Boingo access locations across the nation, including 23 of the highest trafficked airports in the U.S. Boingo also has hotspots in 36 New York City subway station platforms and in high-traffic areas such as Soldier Field in Chicago.

The two companies, which are both members of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, plan completing a Passpointenabled integration later this year to allow users to connect seamlessly and securely with their Passpoint-certified devices and account credentials.

“The biggest part on that Passpoint roaming integration is getting a backend radius authentication integration in place,” said Boingo Wireless' Christian Gunning, vice president, corporate communications.

“So our radius servers see their radius servers, and when one of their customers puts in their user name and password, we can identify them as Time Warner Cable customer. We pass those credentials off to Time Warner and Time Warner validates them or declines them. Then we take the appropriate action based on what they say.

“I think 2014 will be a big year for the momentum to start to pick up on the Passpoint front, and 2015 should be a big year as well. The reality is that it’s such a fragmented market that the more people get into play the greater the experience it is for customers across more companies.”