Comcast sidesteps mobile data plans with Wi-Fi phone service

The new Comcast service "Voice 2go" lets users text and make free calls over Wi-Fi. It also highlights a new potential flash point with wireless carriers.

Want to avoid going over your mobile minutes allowance or your text message limit? Comcast has a solution for people willing to buy its Xfinity Voice service. With the new Voice 2go feature introduced last week, subscribers will be able to make calls and text friends over Wi-Fi. Users will access Voice 2go through a new Xfinity Connect Mobile app, which also includes call forwarding, up to four personal phone numbers, and a dashboard that presents text messages, voicemails and email all in one place.

Depending on how you look at it, Comcast’s new service is either a shot across the bow at American wireless carriers – who make a lot of money off text messaging in particular – or a welcome new broadband channel for carriers who need to offload traffic from congested mobile networks.

Indeed, American cable operators are both competing and partnering with carriers on several fronts. On the partner side, in December of last year, several cable companies made a deal with Verizon to sell off mobile broadband spectrum in exchange for co-marketing of cable video services. And at the Cable Show in Boston last week, Verizon introduced a new mobile video service that highlights Comcast Xfinity video, while Verizon’s own FiOS video content will take longer to show up in the app’s menu.

On the other hand, cable companies and wireless carriers are also competing for customers, both with video services and in terms of network allegiance. Complementing Comcast’s Voice 2go launch, five large cable operators also announced a new Wi-Fi roaming initiative last week that will let cable subscribers access roughly 50,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country for free. Michael Roudi senior vice president of mobile services at Time Warner Cable described the effort specifically as a way to keep customers on cable networks outside the home. “We hear a lot about [Wi-Fi] offloading,” said Roudi. “I like to talk about onloading.”

In other words, cable companies would rather keep mobile customers on their broadband networks than hand them off to wireless carriers.

Cable’s focus on Wi-Fi has interesting implications for broadband usage. Consumers will gravitate toward services that don’t penalize them for excessive usage, and by sidestepping mobile data caps, the Voice 2go service certainly fits into that category. However, just because Voice 2go doesn't have caps now doesn’t mean it never will. In response to a question about caps as part of a recent industry panel, Roudi acknowledged that because users have to be authenticated to sign on with cable Wi-Fi, operators can certainly aggregate and manage usage at an individual level. They aren't instituting caps now, but they have the ability to do so in the future.

Meanwhile, Voice 2go has some cool features beyond the ability to bypass a mobile data plan. (You can still use 3G and 4G connections if you want.) For example, users can monitor incoming voice messages and intercept phone calls on an iPad. Phone calls to one number can be forwarded to up to four different devices. And text messages are supported not only domestically, but also internationally to more than 40 countries. Here's a demo video showing more.

Comcast says Voice 2go will be “coming soon” to new customers, and will roll out to existing customers on a market-by-market basis.

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