Cablevision opens door to more mobile video with WiFi phone service Freewheel

Operator Cablevision is launching a WiFi phone that will take advantage of the 1.1 million hotspots the company already has deployed in the New York metro area, and will offer users unlimited data and text for less than $10 a month to its broadband subscribers.

The offering, called Freewheel – which currently is available only on Motorola Moto G handsets – also will be available to non-subscribers for about $30, the company said. Cablevision is making those handsets available at $99.95 about 50% off retail.

Cablevision is hoping the new mobile product will provide a payoff for the more than $300 million it’s invested in it in-home and out-of-home WiFi network since 2007.

“Cablevision recognizes the growing shift to WiFi-driven consumer electronic devices and services,” said Jimmy Dolan, Cablevision’s CEO. “Freewheel is the next leap forward in the advancement of the connected lifestyle, and our Optimum WiFi network and the prevalence of WiFi nationwide serves as its foundation.”

While price may be a huge inducement for potential users, limited functionality may hold Freewheel back initially. The device won’t function if they’re not in an area covered by Cablevision WiFi.

“Particularly in or footprint, with 1.1 million hotspots, we’ve seen massive utilization of data over the Optimum network,” Kristin Dolan told the Wall Street Journal. “We didn’t feel like we needed any cellular backup because, for what people are using these devices for – which is predominantly data – we’re already the superior choice.”  

Cablevision is banking on developing sales inside its NY market area, although the phones will function when other WiFi is available outside the NY metro area, although users may be asked to log onto those networks.

What the WiFi connection does for users is make the mobile device a more complete extension of their home service, making all their usual network functions available to them out of the house as well.

Streaming video, for example, won’t impact usually tight cellular data caps, potentially making it more likely users will be willing to watch more long-form video on their phones.

What it does for Cablevision, meanwhile, is to add one more layer of stickiness to its service and, in the process, hopefully reducing churn and subscriber erosion.

“This is something that Jim [Dolan] really pushed on. He wanted us to come up with a way for people to expand their connectivity relationship with Optimum outside the home through WiFi,” Kristin Dolan told The Journal. “The best way to have a manifestation of that was to do this product, to put a device in their hand that was pre-configured for the network.”

Cablevision sees the Freewheel service as ideal for college students and for people who work in areas where WiFi is readily available.

If it’s successful, Cablevision will have become the first operator to find a way to actually monetize its WiFi investment, and in the process will help push even more video to smartphones.

Stay tuned.

Jim O’Neill is Editor of Videomind and Principal Analyst at Brightcove. You can follow him on Twitter @JimONeillMedia and on LinkedIn