Editor's Corner—Comcast already operates a wireless network in Philadelphia. And builds in Chicago, San Francisco are underway

Comcast earlier this year finished the construction of a wireless network covering “the greater metropolitan area” of Philadelphia, where the company’s corporate headquarters are located. And the company is currently building similar wireless networks covering Chicago and San Francisco.

Comcast’s wireless networks, which the cable company said are being tested and are not yet available for commercial use, run on the LoRa wireless network standard and are designed for internet of things (IoT) uses.

“In the City of Philadelphia and throughout the broader metropolitan area, we have comprehensive IoT coverage that enables devices to transmit data that informs decisions that could make big impacts on the success of a business or community,” Alex Khorram, general manager of Comcast’s machineQ IoT business, wrote on the company’s website. “With this network in place, we’re working on number of exciting projects. We’re developing innovative solutions ranging from monitoring public infrastructure, to enabling predictive maintenance on consumer appliances, just to name a few. And, interest has come from organizations spanning a wide range of industries, like Healthcare, Public Utilities, Automotive and Consumer Electronics.”

Comcast declined to give me any more details about machineQ, including what spectrum it is using for its buildouts, what speeds its network supplies, when it might offer commercial service or what other cities it might target in its buildout.

However, the fact that Comcast is building IoT-focused wireless networks in U.S. cities across the country is noteworthy considering the company recently launched its Xfinity Mobile-branded MVNO through Verizon’s LTE wireless network, offering unlimited cellular service for smartphones like the iPhone.

Comcast’s machineQ is also interesting in light of the $1.7 billion Comcast spent on 600 MHz spectrum licenses in the FCC’s recently concluded incentive auction.

What machineQ looks like today

Details on Comcast’s machineQ effort are scarce. The company announced in October it would partner with Semtech—a LoRa equipment vendor—on trials of LoRa technology in 2016 in an effort to provide IoT offerings to businesses. The trials were set for Philadelphia and San Francisco, focusing on uses such as utility metering, environmental monitoring and asset tracking.

Comcast added that if the trials were successful, it planned to commercially deploy LoRa networks and services across its markets under the brand name machineQ, with the goal of completing those buildouts within 18 to 30 months.

It seems those 2016 trials were successful. For example, Comcast in January said it would offer thousands of dollars in prizes to entrepreneurs who “invent and create innovative solutions for the Internet of Things (IOT) on the machineQ platform.”

And just last month, Comcast formally joined the LoRa Alliance as a sponsor member, gaining a seat on the group’s board and announcing it will host a big LoRa Alliance event in Philadelphia in June.

“Since launching the trial venture, we’ve been contacted by organizations ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies with a wide variety of use cases, such as infrastructure monitoring and providing predictive maintenance for in-home appliances,” machineQ’s Khorram wrote on the company’s site. “While we are still in the early stages of our efforts, we’re excited about the initial interest, and are looking forward to developing proof of concepts and field trials of the machineQ service.”

The cost and performance of LoRa

So what might Comcast’s LoRa deployments look like? First, it’s likely that the cable company’s LoRa networks are running in unlicensed spectrum, and can only handle low-bandwidth connections that transmit only a few kilobytes per second. Such connections would seem slow even to the AOL dial-up users from the 1990s, and they are nowhere near the 10-100 Mbps that most LTE networks handle today.

But those slow-speed LoRa connections can be used by IoT applications like energy meters that only need to transmit a few numbers every day. Furthermore, the utility companies looking for such IoT applications don’t want to pay more than a few cents for those kinds of connections, and cellular operators like Verizon and AT&T have struggled to bring their IoT prices down to that level.

That’s the allure of LoRa IoT networks: They’re cheap to build and they offer cheap services to IoT customers. Already, Europe’s Orange and South Korea’s SK Telecom are both building commercial LoRa networks.

Here in the United States, startup Senet is building a LoRa network in the unlicensed 900 MHz band in locations across the country. The company said it has a presence in 225 U.S. cities and 23 states, covering a population of nearly 50 million people. (It’s also worth noting that CableLabs—which is essentially the research-and-development consortium for the global cable industry—tested a LoRa network for more than a year).

In fact Senet—the nation’s largest LoRa player in the United States to date—provides a guide to what Comcast is likely spending on its machineQ LoRa network buildout. Senet’s Will Yapp told me last year that the company previously built its own LoRa base stations for around $8,000 or $9,000, but is now purchasing LoRa equipment from the likes of Multitech and Kerlink for as low as $1,000 per gateway.

A few of those briefcase-sized gateways—if they are positioned correctly on a tower, rooftop or billboard—can cover miles of terrain, and traffic from them can be backhauled through satellites or LTE connections. Thus, it’s clear that a LoRa network would likely cost Comcast a fraction of the billions of dollars it would cost the cable company to build a full-blown cellular network with licensed spectrum.

Why Comcast is pushing into the IoT

It’s also clear that machineQ may well fit into Comcast’s long-term plans. The company last month launched its long-awaited Xfinity Mobile wireless service. The offering is only available to existing Comcast subscribers and works through an MVNO agreement with Verizon. Comcast has argued that its MVNO service will eventually make a profit where so many other MVNOs have failed, largely due to the favorable MVNO terms Comcast was able to obtain from Verizon as part of the AWS spectrum Comcast and other cable companies sold to Verizon in 2012 in a deal worth $3.9 billion.

As I have argued before, Xfinity Mobile appears to be more of a strategy by Comcast to prevent customers from leaving its pay-TV and internet service rather than the start of a major new initiative.

But Xfinity Mobile is just a part of Comcast’s wireless efforts. The company also just spent $1.7 billion in the FCC’s incentive auction for 10 MHz of 600 MHz spectrum covering about 145 million POPs in its own footprint within New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia. That’s far less than the $6 billion analysts had expected Comcast to spend, but it does give Comcast access to the kind of low-band spectrum that can cover wide geographic areas and reach into buildings and other structures. Indeed, it’s worth noting that 600 MHz sits below the 900 MHz spectrum that Senet uses for its own LoRa network.

For its part, Comcast said of its 600 MHz licenses that “we have no current plans for the acquired spectrum and note that the spectrum will not be cleared by the FCC and available for use for several years. The launch and growth of our Xfinity Mobile product is not dependent on this purchased spectrum.”

(It's also worth noting that Comcast isn't the only 600 MHz spectrum winner to talk about the IoT. "Based on the population, every analyst always quotes megahertz per POP, but the last several auctions we’ve kind of looked at where we think things are going. We looked at it (as) megahertz per thing, not megahertz per POP,” said Dish Network's Charlie Ergen today. The company spent $6.2 billion on licenses in the incentive auction. “So whether it be streetlights or heart monitors or drones or whatever, we’ve always looked at it as megahertz per thing. And when you do that, obviously, the more densely populated cities are quite a bit of a bargain discount, if you believe our strategy is right.”)

Finally, Comcast has already proven it can successfully sell the kinds of IoT applications that a LoRa network might support. The company just last week announced its Xfinity Home automation business now has 1 million subscribers.

MachineQ isn’t alone in the IoT

But if Comcast decides to make a major entry into the IoT market via a LoRa network, it will face a large and growing number of serious challenges. Not only will Comcast run up against Senet, it could also face other LoRa network operators like Full Spectrum, which just today announced it will build a private LoRa service in the New York City area covering up to 20,000 square miles and 20 million people in portions of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Other companies building IoT networks in the United States include Silver Springs Networks, Ingenu and Sigfox. Already Sigfox has said it covers 20% of the U.S. population with its own slow-speed wireless network, and plans to cover 40% of the U.S. population by the end of 2017.

And those are just the IoT startups. In response to the likes of Sigfox and Ingenu, both Verizon and AT&T are tweaking their own LTE networks in order to offer cheaper IoT connections.

Last month, Verizon announced the nationwide rollout of LTE Category M1 for IoT, and AT&T is not far behind. The operators are positioning LTE Cat M1 as a game changer, allowing them to offer a secure, low-cost module technology with long battery life and better coverage inside buildings.

As Comcast expands its wireless ambitions—which range from its 600 MHz spectrum to its Xfinity Mobile MVNO to its tests of fixed and mobile 5G technology— I suspect that machineQ may well stand as the cable operator’s best chance to actually make money in the near term in the wireless sector. After all, on its machineQ website, Comcast promises that the service is “connecting to your market soon,” a statement that sits just above a map of the continental United States filled with red dots. – Mike | @mikeddano

Article updated May 1 with information about Dish.