Shaw Communications’ Wi-Fi trial is still ongoing with its customers in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, and the lessons learned from the trial are creating the framework for broader rollouts of the service later this year.

Shaw has previously said that it planned on making the Wi-Fi service available to its residential subscribers in the spring of this year, but so far it’s available to customers with Shaw email addresses in the three trial cities.

“We’re still chugging along in trial mode here and learning as we go,” said Darcy Birkbeck, senior director of Shaw's engineering operations team. “There’s no real rule of thumb in this space. It’s unlicensed spectrum, which makes things more interesting sometimes. It’s really a new world for a lot of people, and an exciting one.”

With the backdrop of a highly competitive market for cellular services in Canada, Shaw announced in September that it was scrapping its plan to build its own LTE cellular network in favor of deploying Wi-Fi across its Western Canada footprint.

Shaw’s residential Wi-Fi service is also part of the company’s recent Exo branding effort, which included infrastructure work to support fiber-to-the-premises, 100 Gbps backbone and metro networks, upgrades to 1 GHz HFC plant, aggressive node splitting to 250 homes in a service group, the move to all-digital delivery, and the use of advanced compression techniques (such as MPEG-4) and in-home gateway systems.

While Shaw’s Wi-Fi mesh networks for residential subscribers are finding their footing, Shaw Business has been offering Wi-Fi to its customers for some time. Last month, Shaw Business announced it had signed an agreement to provide Wi-Fi service to BC Biomedical Laboratories’ patient medial centers that are located throughout the lower mainland of British Columbia.

The BC Biomedical deal also opened the door for Shaw Communications to offer its Wi-Fi service in the same locations, as well.

“What’s interesting about this particular one (BC Biomedical) is we’re also putting in the Exo stuff for the residential customers who might visit there,” said Birkbeck. “So it’s the first time we’ve really done the two at the same time. It’s all still part of the rollout of our regular Exo program, it’s just convenient for us to do it at the same time that Shaw Business is putting its Wi-Fi in.”

Shaw customers who are in BC Biomedical Laboratories’ waiting rooms in the 45 locations that Shaw Business is provisioning can log on to the Exo residential Wi-Fi service.

Shaw’s stated goal with its Exo Wi-Fi service is to have it duplicate customers’ data speeds at their home locations, whether it’s 100 Mbps or 10 Mbps. Having fiber in 98 percent of its footprint allows Shaw the flexibility to match, for the most part, those home speeds.

“There’s a lot of ongoing discussions on what the speed levels will be, but I think the current plant is to try to mirror what you have in your home,” Birkbeck said. “Of course, with anything there’s a certain point, especially with Wi-Fi, where you can guarantee speed, and then above that there are so many other factors involved. For example, a lot of tablets can’t do 300 Mbps; they can only do 20 Mbps. So there are some factors the higher you go up in the tier, but the intent is to put a system in that can do that.”

Lessons learned to date
Birkbeck said the learning curve in the trial has included device support and encryption. As for encryptions, Shaw initially had two SSID models but ended up dropping one of them.

“We initially launched the trial with two kinds of SSIDs,” Birkbeck said. “One was ShawOpen, which I think most of the MSOs in North America are doing, and then we also launched an encrypted service that we called the SSID ShawSecure. The way we launched that was we used something called WPA2-Personal, and that’s the same stuff that you would find in a router in your home, a common access point.

“We quickly learned that that wasn’t good enough for a public Wi-Fi type of security, so we’ve pulled that back now. The ShawSecure SSID is no longer broadcast, and we’re reevaluating what our options are for security for our customers. Now that’s not to say that ShawOpen is insecure, because pretty much everyone else in the world is using it. Our intent is still to try to get that secure SSID out, but there are some hurdles to overcome before we can do that.”