Managed Wi-Fi: The Tier 2-3 MSO story

Originally appearing in LightReading.com, November 30, 2020,
By DAVID STRAUSS, Principal Broadband Success Partners

“Wi-Fi is the Internet. The Internet is Wi-Fi.” So said one of the cable executives we recently interviewed. This sentiment captures how consumers view their in-home experience. It’s this perception that shapes the consumer-operator relationship: inbound call frequency, customer satisfaction levels, churn rates, etc. Given this reality, operators must strive to deliver the best possible Wi-Fi experience for their customers.

To gain a deeper understanding of the managed Wi-Fi actions and attitudes of Tier 2-3 MSOs, we interviewed 11 cable executives during Q4 2020. This research captured diverse perspectives both in terms of operator size and footprint. Those with population coverage of 1 million+, classified as “large mid-sized operators,” accounted for 27% of the executives we interviewed. “Small mid-sized operators,” each covering populations of 200,000 to 999,999, represented 37% of those interviewed. The remaining 36% were classified as “small operators.” These MSOs provide service in the Midwest (40%), Southeast (27%), Northeast (13%), South (13%) and Northwest (7%).

Solution launch

Ten of the 11 service providers have already launched residential managed Wi-Fi and the eleventh will do so by year-end. Two operators introduced their solution five years ago while five operators did so last year or this year. Dissatisfied with their initial vendor partner, three operators replaced their original solution or will do shortly. Two of these three operators are amongst the smallest we interviewed.

Service provider benefits

When asked about the benefits they’ve realized by offering a residential managed Wi-Fi solution, the executives cited increased revenue, improved customer experience and reduced churn as the three most important. Small mid-sized operators particularly valued reduced churn, with 75% of that group choosing it.

Service provider challenges

As you can see here, a variety of challenges have stood in the way of most of the operators fully realizing these benefits, although two indicated that they haven’t experienced any challenges.

The monitoring challenge was described in several ways. For example, the Wi-Fi vendor with its own systems is not integrated with the operator’s HSD monitoring system. One executive from a small mid-sized operator said he would like to receive a quality-of-service score to proactively help customers. This would be helpful in situations where the quality of a customer’s service degrades due to a neighbor getting service, for example.

Installation issues differ depending upon the use of a self-install or technician-enabled approach. For the former, there are coverage risks if the customers places pods incorrectly. One executive views self-install as a “big waste of resources.” That same executive now takes a “concierge approach” by having technicians fully walk each home to place pods properly and explain the portal. But reliance on technicians isn’t without installation challenges – particularly during a pandemic.

Customer benefits

Next we asked “Which of these features are most important to your customers?” Not surprisingly, every executive said “Wi-Fi coverage throughout the house” is important. Almost half noted that their customers value having the “ability to prioritize and control access for specific applications, devices and users.” One small operator who serves the Bible Belt noted that their customers especially value having parental controls.

Customer satisfaction levels

Over 80% of those interviewed view their customers’ satisfaction with their solution as either high (55%) or very high (27%). The two executives who gave it a moderate grade say they will be re-launching their solution with another vendor soon.

The reasons given for very high/high ratings are:

  • In-home coverage is high. We generously place beacons when walking the entire house.
  • Our managed Wi-Fi solution (over a separate device) provides a better customer experience
  • It’s a plug & play solution
  • Customer application is evolved
  • Customers are reporting satisfaction. Yet, we can do a better job of explaining app features.

Even though customers are generally very satisfied, there’s still room for improvement. Here are the steps cited by some of the executives we interviewed:

  • Design and implement smarter self-healing networks; currently researching advanced options.
  • Integrate monitoring, which would drive quicker resolution (e.g. single screen for CSRs).
  • Improve the installation experience (in conjunction with CableLabs).
  • Introduce a customer application (coming from the vendor).

One-box vs. two-box

Several executives opined about a one-box versus a two-box solution. According to an executive at a small mid-sized operator, his experience with one vendor “revealed the flaw of a single-box solution. Wi-Fi specs change rapidly while those for a basic modem do not.” The preference for a two-box solution, particularly in the PON world, was voiced by others. For example, another executive did not like embedded Wi-Fi on PON tech -– requiring reliance on an element managing system. “There’s a risk of the modem getting hot and interfering with the Wi-Fi chip set,” the exec said.

Looking ahead to Wi-Fi 6

Another vendor-related issue which surfaced is the view that several suppliers offer excellent hardware while others have the best software. As such, some service providers have lobbied for vendor partnerships to deliver optimized solutions. This trend is expected to evolve further with Wi-Fi 6.

As one executive at a large mid-sized operator stated, “the hardware purchased and used could be independent of the software. By decoupling, you can put better software in boxes and not rely on the less desirable all-in-one offerings.” Another executive also touted the expected advantages: “With Wi-Fi 6 next year, we can improve the customer experience even more.”

David Strauss, Principal, Broadband Success Partners

Shamima Paurobally