Comcast Quietly Puts Wi-Fi Beta on Track

Comcast is quietly running a Wi-Fi network trial at 100 New Jersey railroad station locations. Perhaps a little too quietly. The pilot program went live this past weekend but the giant cable provider hasn’t even alerted customers about it.

Success with the trial may lead to a free Wi-Fi service for high-speed Internet subscribers, according to spokesperson Mary Nell Westbrook, but that would be way down the road, she said, stressing the effort is very beta at this point.

“We have no specific timeline or details except our goal is to extend our customer experience,” Westbrook told

Comcast declined to provide pilot cost figures and network technical requirements except that it includes using its current broadband network as well as new and shared network resources.

The nation’s top cable provider has deployed free Wi-Fi networks in Texas and Florida. It currently has 14.7 million high-speed Internet customers nationwide.

“This [Wi-Fi] isn’t new for us. We’re just in the very early trial stage of exploring it in this area,” said Westbrook.

Offering up free additional services could go a long way toward Comcast regaining respect from customers and the federal government after being slapped by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year for traffic management practices.

That regulatory action stemmed from subscriber complaints in the summer of 2007 after users noticed a degradation in using the peer-to-peer BitTorrent service. In January, 2008 the FCC initiated an investigation that concluded in August. The FCC did not fine Comcast but required the carrier to file a compliance plan on future traffic management practices. Comcast filed that plan and in September it appealed the FCC ruling.

Consumers want their Wi-Fi

Comcast’s New Jersey beta Wi-Fi effort also comes as wireless providers hope to expand robust revenue streams tied to data services plans. A free Wi-Fi offering could be a market differentiator in attaining new subscribers from competitive players. Growing use of smartphone and other Wi-Fi enabled devices is also a market catalyst.

A study in early January from industry group Wi-Fi Alliance reported Wi-Fi chipset sales grew 26 percent in 2008 and 56 million Wi-Fi-enabled cellular phones shipped in 2008, an increase of 52 percent from 2007.

The next biggest growth was within consumer electronics, such as gaming boxes and printers, with 48 million shipped, a jump of 51 percent. Sales of Wi-Fi-equipped notebook PCs and mobile Internet devices were up 23 percent in 2008 over 2007.

A recent study from Decipher reported that 82 percent of data services subscribers want wireless vendors to provide an overall 3G/Wi-Fi data package.

The study released last week, polled 2,700 Wi-Fi users on expectations and technology likes and dislikes. Nearly every respondent, 91 percent, expect Wi-Fi while on the road and most, 84 percent, want citywide Wi-Fi network access. Just about half, 56 percent, are willing to pay for such access, according to the study.

Comcast’s New Jersey rail station pilot includes the Bergen County line, Booton line, Morris and Essex lines, North Jersey Coast line, Northeast Corridor, Pascack Valley line, and the Raritan Valley line. Comcast declined to state how many potential subscribers could be provided Wi-Fi once formally deployed.

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