Cablevision rolls out wireless Web in NY suburbs

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York cable TV operator Cablevision Systems Corp has started rolling out a free Wi-Fi network for subscribers who want to access the Web via laptops and other wireless devices.

Cablevision on Thursday said the Optimum Wi-Fi is free for existing subscribers to its Optimum home Internet service.

It said the service is already activated in commercial and high-traffic areas in the Long Island, New York suburbs of Nassau County and parts of Suffolk County. The cable operator has more than 2.4 million Internet subscribers, more than half of the homes passed by its cable systems.

The new Cablevision Wi-Fi network is already the largest in the country, according to analysts at Yankee Group.

Cablevision first said in May it was planning a Wi-Fi service and forecast capital investment of around $350 million to build it out.

“We believe free and broadly available Wi-Fi access will become an important and popular enhancement for our Optimum Online customers,” said Tom Rutledge, Cablevision’s chief operating officer in a statement on Thursday.

Free Wi-Fi for loyal subscribers could help Cablevision in its bid to fend off competition from Verizon Communications, which is mounting an aggressive campaign in Long Island with an advanced fiber optic-based video, high-speed Internet and phone service dubbed FiOS.

The move could also help allay investor concerns that phone companies such as Verizon and AT&T Inc may have a competitive advantage as more video and Web services go wireless via technologies such as Wi-Fi and WiMax.

Wi-Fi has become more widespread in use as popular mainstream devices such as Apple Inc’s iPhone and iPod Touch offer Wi-Fi capability.

“The latest frontier is Wi-Fi connectivity for cameras, media players and printers,” said Berge Ayvazian, Yankee Group, chief strategy officer. “By mid-2009, we will start seeing a new category of ‘mobile Internet devices’ all of which will be Wi-Fi connected.”

Cablevision said the new service delivers download and upload speeds of up to 1.5 megabits-per-second, which is comparable to DSL connections from telephone companies, but would be slower than Cablevision’s own cable connection speeds of around 15 megabits a second.

Other cable operators also are looking at wireless strategies, but are taking different paths from Cablevision. In May, the two largest cable providers Comcast Corp and Time Warner Cable Inc teamed up with wireless companies Sprint Nextel and Clearwire Corp in a $14.5 billon wireless venture that will use WiMax technology to offer video and data services.

Editing by Andre Grenon