Cablevision Launching Unlimited, Wifi-Only Mobile Plan In New York

This gentleman is so excited about his wifi-based phone that he can't even look at it.

This man is so excited about his wifi-based phone that he can’t even look at it, lest he burst.

Regional cable operator Cablevision is jumping into the mobile fray in a big way this week, and they’re doing it an untraditional way. The new service is 100% based on a network of wifi hotspots: Cell phones without the cell.

New York tri-state area cable and broadband provider Cablevision announced the new service today, the Wall Street Journal reports. It’s called Freewheel. Everyone on it gets unlimited talk, text, and data via ordinary wifi. Existing Cablevision subscribers can add it to their bills for $9.95 a month, or customers who don’t use Cablevision at home can get it for $29.95 per month.

This is the first mobile offering to make actual use of those millions of hotspots that cable companies keep putting everywhere. Cablevision does the same thing Comcast does, creating a second wifi hotspot network out of subscribers’ home routers. That contributes to the 1.1 million hotspots the company has in the greater New York area, which would hopefully provide solid coverage to subscribers.

There are downsides. At launch, the program only works with one phone: the Motorola Moto G, as being sold by Cablevision for about $100. That phone will come with apps pre-installed that allow it to detect and authenticate with any Cablevision hotspot. Eventually, the company says, apps will be available on other phones that allow users to connect.

And Freewheel isn’t suited well for everyone. Though Cablevision claims that 80% of all current smartphone usage happens over wifi, that remaining 20% can be pretty critical. Stalled out on the interstate with a blown-out tire? There’s probably not a wifi hotspot there for your phone to connect to. And if you’re on the road, plenty of venues that technically have wifi — airports and hotels among them — still charge consumers big bucks to access it.

Even without a lot of long-distance travel, users are likely to hit some holes in coverage where networks don’t quite meet or overlap. And although Cablevision puts a great deal of stock in having their own hotspot network to use, some of that relies on residential customers both existing and playing along. Consumers who have hotspot-creating modems and routers in their homes can choose to disable the second network, or use their own hardware entirely, which could create holes in Cablevision’s coverage.

Still, Cablevision is right that wifi penetration is growing. Avoiding traditional 4G/LTE mobile data entirely means avoiding the caps and fees that come with it. Cablevision COO Kristin Dolan told the WSJ that the service should be well-suited to consumers who want a budget-friendly option but don’t necessarily travel far afield that often, like college students living on-campus or a senior on a fixed income.

Cablevision to Offer Wi-Fi Phone Service [Wall Street Journal]