Commentary

Coming To WiFi (Perhaps) Near You: Cheap Mobile Phone Service

Cablevision will offer a WiFi-only mobile-phone service called Freewheel to customers in the New York metro area starting next month with unlimited data, talk and text that will cost $9.95 for its broadband Internet subscribers and $29.95 for anyone else. 

“Goodbye data limits. Hello Generation WiFi,” the headline reads on Freewheel.com. “Welcome to life without cell phone contracts.”

For now, at least, customers will have to use a special $99.95 Motorola Moto G smartphone but an app that would allow users of any phone to access Freewheel is likely, Cablevision COO Kristin Dolan tells James T. Madore of Newsday

“We're not going out and asking people to replace their cellphones … but I think a significant number of people may determine over time that this is a better, more cost-effective way,” Dolan said. She envisions Freewheel’s initial customers as “people who spend a lot of time at home, college, in the office and other places where WiFi is readily available; to parents wanting to provide a smartphone to their children; and to cost-conscious individuals.”

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“There has been a dramatic shift in how consumers use their mobile devices; today, it’s all about data, and WiFi is now preferred and clearly superior to cellular,” Dolan said in a statement announcing service released yesterday by the Bethpage, N.Y.-based company

Google, meanwhile, is planning a potentially even more immediately disruptive service that would “would hunt through cellular connections provided by Sprint and T-Mobile US Sprint and WiFi “hot spots,” picking whichever offers the best signal to route calls, texts and data,” Ryan Knutson and Alistair Barr report in the Wall Street Journal.

“The offering could be rolled out in the first half of this year and would likely be available nationwide, although previously scheduled launches — including one in October 2014 — have been delayed,” Knutson and Barr write. They also warn that “the effort faces substantial challenges, including handling burdensome new customer relations issues, and there is no guarantee it will catch on with subscribers. Still,” they point out, “Google’s entry into the wireless market would bring unwelcome uncertainty to carriers already dealing with an intensifying price war.”

MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett “said in a recent report that he did not expect the start of a WiFi-first wireless offering until 2017 because of the coverage gaps, and that the ripple effects of when such service became widespread would be substantial,” writes Emily Steel in the New York Times.

“The time is coming when WiFi will shift from being a ‘secondary’ network to being a primary one; instead of thinking of WiFi as an alternative to cellular where WiFi is available, we will instead begin to think of cellular as a backup network only when WiFi is not,” Moffit wrote. “That shift may sound subtle, but it will usher in a period of profound disruption.”

“Cablevision started building out its own Optimum WiFi network in 2007, and now has more than 1.1 million hotspots in the New York tri-state area. The company adopted Fon-like WiFi sharing last year, essentially turning its customers’ WiFi routers into public hotspots,” writes Gigaom’s Janko Roettgers. “In addition to that, Freewheel customers have access to some 300,000 hotspots across the country, courtesy of the CableWiFi initiative ….”

Freewheel is also offering up to $50 a month in international calling at rates “as low as 2¢ per minute,” according to its website. Besides attracting people with friends and family overseas, it “will appeal to travelers who now pay expensive roaming fees to make calls or send texts overseas,” writes Shalini Ramachandran in the Wall Street Journal.

But “Freewheel has some drawbacks,” Ramachandran points out. “Customers might face hiccups or spotty WiFi service outside of Cablevision’s footprint, for example, and they may have to pay to access some non-Cablevision WiFi networks. Cablevision’s unlimited plan is also more expensive than similar plans offered by smaller carriers such as Republic Wireless.”

But it’s far cheaper than any of the packages offered by the Big Four carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — even with a “price war” purportedly driving down prices for consumers. Stay on the network for developments …

1 comment about "Coming To WiFi (Perhaps) Near You: Cheap Mobile Phone Service".
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  1. Dan Euritt from Ocean Street Video, January 29, 2015 at 2:43 p.m.

    WiFi calling has been around for years, you can do it for free using Google Voice and the Hangouts Dialer App for Android phones. People are porting their home landline phone numbers to GV, and using cell phones on home WiFi exclusively, without ever signing up for any monthly cell plan. Couple that with, say, TWC giving you free access to over 300,000 WiFi locations. And Cablevision wants to charge $29.95 for WiFi calling? You probably already have that capability!

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