Time Warner Cable expands Wi-Fi reach by tapping public hotspots

Time Warner Cable(s twc) has added a secret ingredient to its growing outdoor Wi-Fi footprint: other people’s hotspots. The cable operator is working with Boston-Tel Aviv startup WeFi to create a virtual network of millions of hotspots its customers can access for free and without ever entering a password.

WeFi has developed software for the handset and network that detects, measures and tracks the signal strength and capacity of millions of deployed hotspots mobile cell sites around the world. The company’s WeANDSF (the acronym is for Access Network Discovery and Selection Function, a mobile industry standard designed to merge Wi-Fi into cellular networks) platform then crunches all of that data selecting the optimal network connection for any given device at any given location and time.

WeFi hotspotsWeFi sells the technology primarily to mobile operators, which use it to offload traffic from their 3G mobile networks to cheaper Wi-Fi connections, but VP of marketing David Fishman said that cable operators have gotten more interested in providing wireless data services. They may not run mobile networks, but cable providers want to encourage their customers to access their broadband connections and video programming outside of the home, making those services that much stickier, Fishman said. Given that the cable companies’ early attempts to launch their own mobile broadband networks failed, Wi-Fi presents itself as a cheap and plentiful alternative.

Time Warner has already launched extensive outdoor Wi-Fi networks in some of its key cable markets, and it has partnered with Comcast(s cmsca), Cablevision(s cvc), Cox Communications and Bright House Networks to create a 50,000-hotspot joint roaming network. WeFi used its WeANDSF technology to help Time Warner plan its portion network, but it also mined the unlicensed airwaves to find open and reliable hotspots Time Warner can tap for free.

Fishman wouldn’t reveal how many open hotspots it’s adding to Time Warner’s footprint, saying only there were a potential 10 million hotspots in the U.S. that could eventually be included. He stressed that these aren’t residential access point left without password protection, but free hotspots intended to be accessed by the public offered by governments and businesses like Starbucks(s sbux). WeFi competitor Devicescape already tracks 7.8 million of these hotspots in the U.S., and is adding more to its databases each day.

Time Warner customers don’t have to do anything to access these hotspots. In fact, some of them probably already are. WeFi’s client is already embedded in some of Time Warner’s Wi-F Finder apps, which allows smartphones and tablets to find and automatically connect to the virtual network, Fishman said, and TWC plans to implement it in all of its apps in the future.