Comcast and Liberty Global have reached a deal to enable their internet customers to access each other’s Wi-Fi networks in Europe and the USA.
Comcast operates some three million Xfinity WiFi hotspots in the USA and Liberty Global operates some 2.5 million Wi-Fi home spots, under the Wi-Free and WifiSpots brands, across several European markets including Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland.
Comcast’s deal with Liberty Global follows its May 2014 announcement of Wi-Fi roaming deals with Japan’s KDDI and Taiwan Mobile, whose customers can access the internet via Comcast’s Xfinity WiFi hotspots in the States.
While the Wi-Fi coverage of Comcast and Liberty Global is by no means ubiquitous, both cable operators are expanding their footprints rapidly. In March 2014 Comcast hit 1 million Wi-Fi hotspots and plans to reach 8 million by the end of the year, with coverage in 19 of the country’s 30 largest cities. The service can be used by its 21.3 million broadband customers (as of 30 June 2014) to get internet access outside of the home and office.
Its Wi-Fi offering is based on three platforms: access through outdoor hotspots in areas such as shopping centres and commuter stations, business hotspots (accessible to most Comcast Business Internet customers), and neighbourhood hotspots. These neighbourhood hotspots allow Comcast to have a second "xfinitywifi" signal (or SSID) in their home that is separate from their private home Wi-Fi signal. The operator has stated that 54% of Xfinity’s Neighbourhood Wi-Fi usage travels over the second SSID, representing a strong demand among its customers for nomadic access.
For Liberty Global: the rationale for Wi-Fi expansion is two-fold: to provide nomadic access to its 13.7 million broadband customers and to drive its retail mobile business, an area Comcast has eschewed, having entered into a deal with Verizon Wireless in 2012 to sell its mobile spectrum and market the latter’s wireless service to its customers. Outside of the United Kingdom, Liberty Global’s most developed mobile market is Belgium, where its unit Telenet had 820,000 subscriptions at the end of June, generating ARPU of €50.83 ($65.15) per month in Q2 2014. Telenet broadband and mobile customers can enjoy Wi-Fi access three ways: through its 1,500 public hotspots, 1.1 million homespots and domestic roaming arrangements with VOO, a cable operator which has homespots in Wallonia and Brussels. Homespots are akin to Comcast’s neighbourhood hotspots, turning home Wi-Fi hotspots into connections for visiting Telenet broadband and mobile customers. Telenet has witnessed similar trends to its American counterpart: in 2013, around 40% of Telenet mobile customers’ out-of-home data usage was through fellow Telenet customers’ Homespots.
Comcast’s deals with Liberty Global, KDDI and Taiwan Mobile will enable entitled customers to reduce their spending on traditional mobile voice and data roaming using a combination of Wi-Fi and over-the-top voice and messaging solutions, such as LINE or Skype, to contact colleagues, friends or family at home. Given that Wi-Fi coverage is not as extensive as mobile, travellers and tourists may not be able to entirely eliminate their mobile roaming bills. But both companies will be able to understand more about how international visitors use Wi-Fi during a trial this year and enhance their Wi-Fi access apps for smartphones and tablets ahead of a full-scale launch in 2015. Should the Wi-Fi roaming deals prove successful, IHS expects both Comcast and Liberty Global to seek arrangements with other international cable and telco partners.
In recent days, Vodafone, which has acquired the cable TV operators Kabel Deutschland (Germany) and Ono (Spain) has expressed potential interest in Liberty Global, which has itself been expanding its European reacj with acquisitions in the Netherlands (Ziggo) and the U.K. (Virgin Media)