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Cable companies expand free Wi-Fi

Five of the nation's largest cable companies are partnering to allow their subscribers free access to each others' Wi-Fi hot spots in cities across the U.S.

BOSTON--The nation's biggest cable operators are banding together to offer free Wi-Fi access to their broadband customers in more than 50,000 hotspots around the country.

On Monday, Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox Communications, and Time Warner Cable announced on the first day of the Cable Show here that they'd enable each other's broadband customers to access their metro Wi-Fi hot spots. The companies are calling the new network "CableWiFi," so that subscribers will be able to find the hot spots when they're roaming outside their own cable territory.

In early 2010, Cablevision, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable began allowing their subscribers to roam onto each other's Wi-Fi networks in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Connecticut. And Bright House Networks and Cablevision have already launched CableWiFi alongside their branded WiFi networks around New York City and in central Florida earlier this month.

The CableWiFi network will be added to each of the participating cable companies' services in the coming months. This means that Cablevision customers from Long Island will be able to access Time Warner's Wi-Fi networks in Los Angeles, and vice versa.

The way it will work is that customers of any of these cable companies can look for the CableWiFi network and through a simple sign-on process connect using the same credentials as when accessing their own providers' Wi-Fi networks. Once subscribers have signed on once to any of the "CableWiFi" networks, they will be able to automatically authenticate onto any other CableWiFi network, the companies said in a press release.

In total, the cable operators have deployed more than 50,000 Wi-Fi hot spots located in the New York City metro area, Los Angeles, Tampa, Orlando, and Philadelphia. All of the participating cable operators say they plan to continue deploying Wi-Fi hotspots into more cities. The networks are deployed both indoors and outdoors where people congregate. This includes train stations, cafes, malls, arenas, restaurants, parks and beaches.

Cable's troubled history with wireless
Cable operators have been making a big push to deploy Wi-Fi over the past couple of years. They say the service, which is offered for free to its broadband subscribers, is a nice value-added service.

But Wi-Fi isn't the only wireless strategy that these companies have tried. These companies formed a joint venture several years ago to bid on wireless spectrum in the Federal Communications Commission's Advanced Wireless Spectrum auction in 2006. The joint venture known as Spectrum Co. ended up buying more than 20MHz of wireless spectrum. Cox Communications was the only company that ever tried to do something with the wireless spectrum.

Using spectrum it bought in the AWS spectrum auction, as well as additional spectrum it had from the 700MHz auction in 2008, Cox tried to build a regional cellular network of its own. The plan was that the company would bundle wireless service along with its broadband service. But the network barely got off the ground before Cox realized it was too expensive and too difficult to compete in the wireless market against bigger players, such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

In November 2011, Cox finally pulled the plug on building its own cellular network.

Cox is now trying to sell its AWS wireless spectrum to Verizon Wireless. And it's also looking for buyers of its 700MHz spectrum.

The rest of the cable companies in Spectrum Co. also plan to sell their AWS spectrum to Verizon Wireless. The deal valued at around $3.6 billion would be one of the largest transfers of wireless licenses without the outright purchase of a company. The FCC is taking a close look at the deal. And several companies, particularly smaller wireless carriers, oppose the sale. These smaller wireless providers believe that Verizon already has plenty of wireless spectrum they are not using.

Some experts had hoped the cable companies would hold onto their spectrum and deploy a network, introducing another major wireless competitor in the market. But instead, the companies don't want to own and operate their own networks. Instead, as part of the deal with Verizon, they will get to the option to resell Verizon's cellular and wireless broadband service to their customers. So if the deal goes through, they will get their branded "quadruple play."