Comcast’s new mobile service, due to launch later this year, is not a standard MNO or MVNO. While it will make use of Verizon’s network, it will only do so as a fallback – most data and calls will use Comcast’s vast network of WiFi hotspots.
Comcast is the biggest home internet service provider in the United States, but it’s not clear if this means it can become the mobile provider of choice, too. Comcast is essentially regarded as a utility provider, just like an electricity or water company. Providers of basic services can struggle to maintain a great reputation with their customers – they tend to be invisible when providing a flawless service, and are only noticed when things go wrong.
This means that Comcast will have some work to do in convincing its customers that they should ditch their current mobile provider and bundle their mobile bill with their internet and cable television bill – an interesting proposition when an increasing number of consumers are choosing streaming services over cable. But this change means that cable providers must diversify and can no longer rely on packages of channels for revenue. Comcast’s new mobile service can be seen as part of this shift, as a way to be the delivery mechanism wherever its customers consume content, and long-term as a service that can be offered beyond its regulator-defined fixed footprint.
Why the “WiFi-first” model matters
Comcast’s approach to its mobile service is particularly noteworthy. Calls and data connections will be “WiFi-first”, routed through its vast network of WiFi hotspots and homespots for connections. A mobile network that is WiFi first in this way isn’t a completely new idea, but it will be the first of this scale – previous providers taking such an approach have been smaller providers such as Republic Wireless, or more like a proof of concept, such as Google’s Project Fi. WiFi-first mobile is generally seen as a frugal choice for consumers who don’t need much data and only rely on such a connection in an emergency or simply when they discover it. Comcast’s new service has the potential to change this, creating a WiFi-first mobile service that’s suitable for regular users.
Comcast has 15 million WiFi hotspots across the US. But in order to win market share, simply having good WiFi coverage isn’t enough – these connections need to be as good as a mobile connection. If quality is poor and good connections are not maintained, WiFi first will continue to be seen as a budget option, inferior to cellular service. Comcast may in this case win over customers looking for a budget deal, but will continue to use dedicated mobile operators. The shift in mindset by customers needs a shift of mindset from the provider, regarding WiFi as a managed network asset rather than an unmanaged plug-and-forget piece of infrastructure.
Almost all WiFi hotspots are deployed and then simply left alone following initial installation, or beyond necessary maintenance if they outright fail. But in dense urban areas, the use of unlicensed WiFi spectrum is constantly changing. People move around, devices come and go, demands change, and routers are adjusted, replaced and rebooted to try and get the best signal possible. The settings on a WiFi hotspot that achieved the best result at the point of installation are unlikely to get the same result a month later, a day later, or perhaps even a few hours later.
Unlike its move into Smart Home Hubs, where the market is still new, Comcast’s move into mobile means it is starting way behind its rivals in a mature, entrenched market. It does have the advantage of offering a new service that is close to being unique, on a scale that far outstrips its rivals. And since it operates in unlicensed spectrum and uses some infrastructure that is part of its in-home service, Comcast’s WiFi-first mobile service has the potential to offer better value that its rivals. It can also offer just as good as any other mobile service – but only if the WiFi hotspots are properly managed and react as circumstances change. If not, the new mobile service will run the risk of being just a budget option with a reputation to match – and damaging Comcast’s moves to diversify.
Todd Mersch is Co-Founder and EVP of Sales and Marketing at XCellAir, a comapny that provides a system that self-optimizes WiFi and cellular radios.