Comcast, Plume, and the next step for ISP Wi-Fi
Industry giant wants to add pods to networks customers already have.
By JIM SALTER
May 7 2017
Broadband ISPs have been painted into a corner for a long time when it comes to Wi-Fi. If you’re a broadband ISP and you don’t offer Wi-Fi, hordes of your customer base will leave you for a competitor who does. But if you’re a broadband ISP and you do offer Wi-Fi, you’ve just given your customer a good reason to hate you that has nothing to do with your core business model—they have dead spots in their house that your gateway device’s radios don’t reach, and it’s your problem, because you told the customer that you’d handle their Wi-Fi.
As a technical enthusiast, it’s easy to think “well, yeah, ISP Wi-Fi always sucks” and not even bother your ISP about it—you just go to the store, look for something better, and take the burden onto your own shoulders as though the ISP never offered Wi-Fi in the first place. But that’s not how most consumers think—which, for many years now, has left ISPs footing the bill for support calls and truck rolls for a problem that isn’t actually their core business and that they’re not particularly well-equipped to solve.
This makes Comcast’s recent decision to invest heavily in Plume, hop onto its board of directors, and offer it directly to their own customers via inside sales channel a potential game-changer. Comcast’s pre-existing, already-deployed X-Fi gateway devices got a remote firmware push that turned them into Plume head units, giving Comcast access to Plume’s excellent remote telemetry suite. It also means that, later this year, Comcast customers who have been using the company-provided equipment will be able to purchase Plume pods directly from Comcast, presumably at a reduced rate, and just plug them in throughout the house. The important bit here is that customers won’t need to replace their existing (Comcast) router or change their network settings—they can just add pods.
This new approach of being able to simply add pods to the network you already have should have incredibly strong appeal for typical consumers. Whether Plume is the absolute best Wi-Fi product out there or not, it’s very good, easy for a non-technical person to deploy, and the telemetry makes it easy to troubleshoot remotely when things go wrong. This makes Plume’s approach perfect for an ISP looking for massive scale in-home deployment with little or zero boots-on-the-ground expertise needed.
On the surface, this (and the wealth of other pretty cool X-Fi consumer features Comcast is pushing in its press release) is obvious good news for consumers. But the really interesting aspect of Comcast’s move isn’t the tech aspect so much as the business aspect—what the follow-on impact looks like for the entire Wi-Fi industry. When roughly a third of the entire broadband-using consumer base in the US is covered by default with cheap, easy good mesh, what happens to the motivation to go to a box store and buy a competing Wi-Fi device? Are the hardcore enthusiasts who are willing and eager to fiddle with something even if it works going to be enough of a consumer presence to keep routers and mesh kits stocked in local brick-and-mortar stores in Comcast markets? What happens if all this works out really well, and Spectrum or Verizon want the same deal?