The U.S. cable industry appears to have decided what its wireless strategy is: It is going to create a vast public Wi-Fi network that requisitions bandwidth from all the home routers it has installed and allocate it to public access.

Broadcom, whose chips are the heart of so much cable customer premises equipment (CPE), is ready with software to enable the approach, and it expects that most major cable operators will have vast networks of public Wi-Fi hotspots activated in their respective subscribers’ homes in 12 to 18 months, according to Jay Kirchoff, Broadcom’s vice president of marketing for cable broadband.

Let’s not say the cable industry has been flailing to find a wireless strategy; a kinder description of its efforts might be “scattershot.”

Years ago, cable considered the idea of partitioning the bandwidth of home routers for dual private/public use but then moved on to other approaches, including buying wireless spectrum and building cellular networks, to an investment in Clearwire and its WiMAX network, to partnering with Verizon, to building public Wi-Fi hotspot networks.

Those last two options are still being pursued, but the percentage of any MSO’s subscribers taking a bundle with Verizon simply cannot become very large, and it is too costly and inefficient to create Wi-Fi coverage that blankets the country in the same way that cellular networks have covered most of the U.S.

So cable by necessity has circled back to the private/public partitioned home router approach.

Broadcom has integrated what it’s calling Community Wi-Fi software on all DOCSIS 3.0 (D3) cable modem and gateway platforms. Kirchoff explained that D3 supports a logical partitioning of bandwidth in each router and gateway using SSIDs. The software will come with all new D3 products and can be easily downloaded to installed CPE, Kirchoff said.

Every MSO has a slightly different approach to how it wants to implement the approach, but he said a hypothetical example would be to create a partition that would reserve 80 percent of a Wi-Fi gateway’s bandwidth for private use of the subscriber, with the remaining 20 percent of capacity allocated for public use.

Subscribers would be authenticated to use any router they are in range of, provided the bandwidth is not already being used by some other roaming subscriber. Some MSOs with public Wi-Fi networks (e.g., Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable) already have roaming agreements with each other, and these agreements would be honored with the Community Wi-Fi approach, as well.

A typical use case, Kirchoff said, might be subscribers away from home tying in automatically – no separate password required – to the Wi-Fi available from the hotel or bed and breakfast where they’re staying.

But as more and more home gateways get partitioned, access to Wi-Fi would of course grow more accessible, with the geographic blanketing becoming more complete in areas that are more densely populated. Cities would likely have better coverage than suburbs, which would naturally have better spot coverage than rural areas.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, by the way, is working to establish a set of standards for automatic certification of Wi-Fi network users so that they can be automatically authenticated and logged on to any Wi-Fi network. The program is called Passpoint.

Kirchoff said a number of North American MSOs are trialing the approach right now, and he said Broadcom is working with Ziggo in The Netherlands.

Ziggo CTO Paul Hendriks said, “Broadcom’s technology provided us with an essential building block in our approach to supply customers with Wi-Fi beyond their homes. We are currently running a pilot to gain experience with larger groups of customers in a realistic urban setting."

Here are some of the key features of Broadcom’s Community Wi-Fi:

  • Supports multi-mode connect to operator hotspot infrastructure
  • Enhanced authorization and accounting messaging
  • Complete session creation, termination, redundancy and keep alive
  • Enhanced MIB and DOCSIS/EuroDOCSIS configuration file control.

Community Wi-Fi software is available on all DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem/gateway platforms and can be upgraded on existing DOCSIS 3.0 devices.