Cablevision Freewheel review: A Wi-Fi-only smartphone from a cable company

Could you get mobile service from the same company that provides your cable TV and internet? That’s the idea behind Freewheel, a new service from Cablevision’s Optimum that gives you a mobile phone that only works over Wi-Fi. As Wi-Fi becomes more ubiquitous, often people find themselves bouncing between hotspots rather than staying on the cellular network, so by cutting out the carriers, Freewheel could end up the blueprint for other cable companies like Comcast to offer their own mobile plans.

If you’re looking for a smartphone replacement, you’ll probably find Freewheel to be a disappointing service. But if you want a home phone that you can take with you, then Freewheel might be right for you. There’s just one problem: It’s not clear what Freewheel does better — or cheaper — than a traditional mobile phone plan.

You can use any phone, as long as it’s Freewheel’s Moto G

The only device that currently works with Freewheel is the 2013 Moto G made by Motorola. It’s a fine device, and one of the most cost-effective phones on the market. The full Gigaom review is here. It costs $99.95 directly from Optimum, and you’ll need to purchase it to use the service.

freewheel-moto-g

It’s not the latest and greatest phone — it’s one generation removed from Motorola’s latest G — but it’s a solid device. And while you’re still on Android 4.4 KitKat at the moment, Cablevision says its phone will get an update to Android 5.0 when it becomes available for the Moto G.

freewheel-widget

The Freewheel Moto G is basically the same as other versions of the Moto G , but instead of using the standard Android calling and texting clients, Optimum has created its own Freewheel communications apps. A Freewheel widget puts the status of your Wi-Fi connection on the main screen, and when you connect to Wi-Fi, you’ll receive an alert in the notifications pane that Freewheel is available. Optimum also included a few more of its apps, including one for News12, and a support app.

Freewheel dialer app

Caller ID is handled by Optimum in the Freewheel dialer app, which is nice. Freewheel’s calling apps also support Google-synced contacts. If you don’t have someone in your contacts, your phone might still be able to give you the name of the person who the number is registered to. If you install a third-party dialer like Dialer+ or an SMS app like Google Messenger, it won’t work, but that’s to be expected. Over-the-top messaging and calling apps like Whatsapp and Viber work when you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

Optimum hasn’t worked out all of the kinks. In some cases, the Moto G thinks its still a regular mobile phone and it treats the lack of SIM card as a problem. For instance, when you pull the notifications pane down, it still suggests the phone is for “emergency calls only,” as if the device doesn’t have a SIM card installed. The lockscreen is the same story. Without fail, every time you’re looking at the device’s default lock screen, it will remind you that your device can’t make traditional calls.

freewheel-notifications-pane

Making calls and texts over Wi-Fi

Call quality is fine: Although it’s not quite as clear as HD Voice can be, dialogue is understandable and usually without lag. In most cases, calls don’t take that much time to go through — I tested making a call from the Freewheel and found no appreciable delay when calling a normal cellphone. Generally, I didn’t experience many issues when making a call while in a strong Wi-Fi network, like my home.

connected-but-poor

Freewheel starts to run into issues at the edges of Wi-Fi networks, though. Sometimes Freewheel warns you the audio will be poor and sometimes it doesn’t. There is some wonkiness if you walk out of a network’s range when you’re making a call — you’ll simply lose service. Your device will still think it’s making a call, but no sound will come through its speakers. If you’re at the edge of a Wi-Fi network, sometimes you’ll be able to make a call which will then be dropped immediately. During testing, I called the Freewheel from my cell phone when it was on the edge of a network, and my device simply tried to connect indefinitely.

Even worse, if you miss a call while not connected to a Wi-Fi network, you’d better hope that the person who is calling you knows to leave a voicemail, otherwise you won’t get a notification that you’ve missed a call. When back on Wi-Fi, there will be a little red bubble saying there’s a voicemail, but otherwise, there’s no missed call notification.

Sometimes when the call quality is subpar, you receive a weird error message, like this one:

2015-02-17 20.59.07

One major reason Optimum picked now to offer a Wi-Fi only phone service is that last year it turned on a new program where Optimum-furnished Wi-Fi routers basically became hotspots — if you’ve got a Optimum account, there’s a good chance you can use your neighbor’s Wi-Fi.

Freewheel does a great job automatically connecting to those Optimum Wi-Fi networks. When connecting to Optimum Wi-Fi with other devices, usually you have to sign in with your account in the browser, or set up auto sign-in on the Optimum website with your device’s unique identifier. The Freewheel Moto G simply latches onto every Optimum hotspot it sees like a regular mobile phone connects to a tower.

In my building in Brooklyn, New York, the only cable internet provider is Optimum, so it’s covered in Optimum Wi-Fi hotspots. Almost anywhere inside the building, service is great and the device can manage to make a call. On the street, Optimum Wi-Fi is omnipresent as well, but it’s much more difficult to find a strong connection — after all, you don’t know whose router you’re connecting and what walls are in your way. When testing the Freewheel Moto G in the street, I was unable to use Optimum Wi-Fi to place a call, although texts sometimes went through.

Even in the most densely packed Optimum neighborhoods, the Wi-Fi mesh isn’t yet strong enough to replace cellular service, a reason why Optimum or other cable companies might want to supplement their Wi-Fi networks with virtual cellular service.

Freewheel error

Who is Freewheel for?

Freewheel costs $9.95 per month on top of a Optimum cable internet package, and $29.95 if you’re not already an Optimum customer. At $10, it’s the same price as Optimum charges for a VoIP landline, and Freewheel could be a good replacement for a home phone, although users should keep in mind that as a smartphone, it requires daily charging and doesn’t come with a dock.

I don’t think many people are going to sign up for Freewheel if they’re not already Optimum subscribers. There are compelling MVNO plans that come with texts and minutes for well under $30 per month. The main difference is a cellular plan gives you the ability to be reached even if you’re not nearby a Wi-Fi hotspot. Republic Wireless offers a similar Wi-Fi-only talk and text plan for $5 per month, and Scratch Wireless has a service in plan in beta that gives you Wi-Fi calling and even SMS on the cellular network for free . And of course, you can always sign up for a Google Voice number at no charge and use that on your tablet or phone, or you can pay for a Skype number.

Small business owners might like that they can have a separate number that can go with them when they leave the house. And I can see Freewheel being a cost-effective way to start kids off with a first smartphone. There’s one scenario where Freewheel makes a lot of sense: It can make domestic phone calls for free from overseas. So if you’re planning a European vacation, you can bring along the Moto G and make free calls to home.

Still — even in these circumstances, I believe most people would be better off choosing their own smartphone or tablet and installing Skype with an online number, unless you plan on spending hours talking on the phone, in which case Freewheel could cost less. And while some parents might see Freewheel as a good starter phone, they might be better off with a service plan-free iPod touch or tablet. Sure, your kids will lose out on the ability to text, but they’re more likely interested in using data for apps like Snapchat and Instagram — because who makes phone calls these days? It’s all about whether you’re hooked up to the Wi-Fi.

Cable’s next step: Offer “virtual” cellular service

Cablevision has become the first cable operator to launch a smartphone running entirely off of Wi-Fi, but there’s one more thing it has to do for its mobile service to become truly mainstream. It has to become a mobile virtual network operator.

MVNOs are network-less carriers, buying voice, SMS and data capacity from an infrastructure-owning carrier like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. In fact, you’re probably familiar with many of them. You’re probably already familiar with many of them: [company]TracFone[/company] and Straight Talk Wireless and the branded prepaid service offered by [company]Walmart[/company] and [company]Target[/company] are just a few examples.

If [company]Cablevision[/company] has already built an extensive network of Wi-Fi to route its calls, texts and data, as my colleague Janko Roettgers pointed out, then why does it need some other carrier’s network? Well, it still needs to fill all the spaces in between those hotspots.

Comcast's hotspot network in the mid-Atlantic

Comcast’s hotspot network in the mid-Atlantic

The cablecos have long hinted at using Wi-Fi as a kind of a poor-man’s cellular, and Freewheel is the perfect example. Pricing starts at $9.95 a month, which is very cheap if you’re willing to forgo a mobile connection.

Right now Cablevision has a dense network of Optimum Wi-Fi hotspots that, coupled with your home and work networks, will probably cover, say, three quarters of the situations where you need a data connection or want to make a phone call. That’s going to appeal to several niche audiences like people in Wi-Fi-rich environments like college campuses and those willing to trade convenience for cost. Cablevision residential broadband customers might replace their home phones with Freewheel since they’re at $10 a month they’re essentially the same price.

But no Wi-Fi network has the umbrella coverage of a mobile network, nor can it support the handoff necessary for customers to move through a city without losing their connections. If Cablevision wants to make its mobile service truly mainstream, well then it needs to support true mobility.

The cable carrier enigma

The cable companies have entertained the idea of becoming carriers since 2006 when they all banded together with Sprint to buy spectrum at the Advanced Wireless Service (AWS) spectrum auctions. At the time the plan was to build their own networks with the help of Sprint and add a mobile “play” to their triple-play bundles to take AT&T and Verizon head on.

[company]Cox Communications[/company] was the only one to build a network, and that one was short-lived. The partnership with Sprint fizzled out, though [company]Comcast[/company] did become a Sprint MVNO for a few years to upsell its existing customers on smartphones. The cable companies’ carrier ambitions officially came to and end in 2012, though, when they sold off their spectrum to Verizon.

After six years of toying with the idea of being operators, why are the cable companies suddenly reviving those plans now? What’s changed is the fundamental nature of the mobile industry. Instead of voice and SMS driving carriers’ business, mobile is now primarily a data play. And more and more of that data traffic is being funneled over Wi-Fi networks, not cellular.

Stephen Stokols of FreedomPop, David Morken of Bandwidth.com, Elliot Noss of Tucows at Mobilize 2012

Dave Morken speaking at Gigaom Mobilize

“Carriers and cellular will become the mortar while Wi-Fi will be the bricks,” Bandwidth.com CEO Dave Morken said in a 2013 interview with Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham. He was describing a world where our primary decision in choosing a mobile data service should be based on the Wi-Fi networks available since they carry so much of our phones’ data traffic. Bandwidth’s MVNO Republic Wireless has taken its own advice to heart launching a dirt-cheap unlimited data service that leans primarily on Wi-Fi. Last year it went so far to offer a plan that eliminates cellular from the equation entirely. Since then other MVNOs like FreedomPop and Scratch Wireless have followed in Morken’s footsteps.

Eight years ago, building a mobile network meant providing a seamless voice experience everywhere. Today it’s about providing a lot of capacity in the places people consume data the most: home, work, public gathering places, commercial business districts and retail businesses. These are networks the cable operators can build themselves or cobble together through partnerships without the help of carriers and without buying spectrum (It helps that Cablevision is focused on metro NYC where there’s a dense layer of Wi-Fi).

But while Wi-Fi will act as the workhorse of the network, a cellular signal will need to fill the sizable vacuums in between. The difference between a cable MVNO of today and a cable MVNO of the last decade is that carriers are only needed to support the Wi-Fi network, not provide a backbone service.

If Cablevision or any of the other cable companies are looking for a model, they should look over the Atlantic at French ISP [company]Iliad[/company] (which recently tried to enter the U.S. by bidding on T-Mobile). Iliad launched a mobile carrier called Free Mobile that uses millions of Wi-Fi nodes built into its customer’s home broadband gateways as its core wireless network – both Comcast and Cablevision have done the same. Free then augments that capacity with its own limited 3G footprint and an MVNO deal with Orange, France’s largest carrier. In the process Iliad has jolted the once staid French mobile industry, gaining millions of subscribers and triggering a price war.

Will the carriers play ball?

If the cable companies do become MVNOs then they’ll effectively being buying capacity from the same companies they would compete against. It’s the same model Google would pursue if it becomes a mobile carrier as many news reports are suggesting.

Why would the carriers help their own competition? Traditionally carriers have only tolerated MVNOs that target demographics or services they aren’t, but some like Sprint and T-Mobile have become increasingly open to MVNOs that tread on their turf. To them a connection is a connection and a revenue stream is a revenue stream.

Photo by Peshkova/Shutterstock

Photo by Peshkova/Shutterstock

So it’s not only possible, but it’s very likely the cable industry is revisiting the idea of cellular service to supplement their growing Wi-Fi empires. There will be a lot of bumps along the way before a Cablevision phone service could match the reliability and availability of a Verizon service, but Wi-Fi technology is evolving to behave a lot more like cellular. Eventually technologies like Hotspot 2.0 will automatically connect us to available Wi-Fi using an encrypted link, and Next Generation Hotspot technology will allow one access point to hand off a voice call to another access point.

But in the meantime, you can’t beat $10 a month.

This is big: Cablevision launches Wi-Fi-only mobile phone service

Cablevision is getting ready to pick a fight with your mobile phone company.  Next month, the cable operator is going to introduce a low-cost mobile phone service dubbed Freewheel that’s based entirely on Wi-Fi connectivity. Freewheel will offer existing Cablevision internet service subscribers unlimited talk, text and data for a mere $9.95 per month. Consumers who don’t use Cablevision’s internet service can sign on for $29.95 per month.

At launch, Freewheel is only working with one handset: [company]Cablevision[/company] will sell Motorola’s Moto G for $99.95, and the phone will come preloaded with apps that automatically authenticate with any of the company’s hotspots.

Cablevision started building out its own Optimum Wi-Fi network in 2007, and now has more than 1.1 million hotspots in the New York tri-state area. The company adopted Fon-like Wi-Fi sharing last year, essentially turning its customers’ Wi-Fi routers into public hotspots by adding a second, separate network that can be accessed by any Optimum customer, and now by any Freewheel subscriber as well.

In addition to that, Freewheel customers have access to some 300,000 hotspots across the country, courtesy of the CableWiFi initiative that brings together Wi-Fi access points from big cable companies like [company]Comcast[/company], Cox and Time Warner Cable. And of course, the device will also work with any other Wi-Fi network a user has access to, whether it’s at home or at their office.

However, Freewheel users may have a harder time staying connected on their commute: The service doesn’t include any fall-back option to connect to mobile networks when Wi-Fi is unavailable, which means that users won’t be able to make calls or access data services when they’re not connected to a Wi-Fi network. That’s why the company is primarily targeting users who are in what it calls “Wi-Fi-rich environments” like college campuses and urban areas with a high density of mobile hotspots.

Cablevision has also in the past made a point of highlighting how big of a hit Wi-Fi already is with its customers. Each Cablevision internet household already has 2.88 devices accessing Wi-Fi on average, and customers have used Optimum Wi-Fi nearly one billion times during Q4 of 2014, consuming 19 petabytes of data, according to statistics shared by the company.

Cablevision isn’t the first company to use Wi-Fi as an alternative to traditional mobile networks. Low-cost mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) FreedomPop introduced a Wi-Fi-only service tier last year that promises access to 10 million hotspots for $5 a month. However, Cablevision does have a distinct advantage by operating its own network of hotspots, and it also has a lot bigger megaphone. Its new Freewheel service will be available to consumers nationwide, but Cablevision plans to heavily market it on its home turf.

That could quickly get interesting: Cablevision’s biggest competitor in its home market is [company]Verizon[/company], which has been using its FIOS broadband service to steal internet customers away from the cable company. With Freewheel, Cablevision is now attempting to turn the tables, and offer a combination of broadband internet, TV and mobile phone service of its own.

Ultimately, Freewheel could become a blueprint for other cable-led mobile initiatives. Comcast has been aggressively building out its own Wi-Fi network by also relying on a crowdsourced approach that turns customer’s Wi-Fi routers into Xfinity hotspots. And with mobile phone usage increasingly moving towards data services, we could possibly see a whole bunch of new players offering Wi-Fi-only or Wi-Fi-first mobile services soon.

Vid Biz: Netflix Canada, FLO TV Sale, YouTube Play

Today on the net: Qualcomm wants to sell FLO TV, Canada’s Netflix users will have a hard time with bandwidth caps, 7-Eleven’s branded web show gets two million views in three weeks, YouTube has selected the jury for its Play award and more.

Brightcove Ready to Bring Advertising to the iPad

Brightcove teams up with Freewheel to deliver advertising to the iPad and other HTML5 video devices. That’s good news for publishers, but could also be a big boon for both Brightcive and Freewheel.

FreeWheel Nabs $16.8M, Steamboat & Turner on Board

Online video ad firm FreeWheel announced today that it has raised $16.8 million that includes Disney (s DIS) venture firm Steamboat Ventures. Steamboat joins existing investors Turner Broadcasting System (s TWX), Battery Ventures and Foundation Capital. Along with the funding, Steamboat managing director Dan Beldy will join Turner Broadcasting’s Trish Jones on FreeWheel’s board of directors.
FreeWheel provides online video publishers with technology enabling them to serve ads through various distribution poinsts and across multiple destination sites. By working with video aggregators like YouTube (s GOOG) and distributors like Blip.tv, the ad firm can help its publishing partners monetize videos even when they’re not served on the publisher’s site. Read More about FreeWheel Nabs $16.8M, Steamboat & Turner on Board

Vid-Biz: Adobe vs. Apple, Irdeto, mDialog

Adobe Might Sue Apple Over Apps; Sources say that Adobe will take Apple to court within a few weeks if the companies aren’t able to resolve an issue of whether or not Adobe can sell tools that will allow Flash developers to build iPhone apps. (IT World)
YuMe to Integrate Online Video Ads Into Microsoft Silverlight; the online video ad startup announced that it will integrate its ad platform to work with Microsoft Silverlight. (Beet.TV)
Netflix Adds Irdeto To Protect Streaming Video; Netflix has licensed Irdeto’s Cloakware Embedded Security content-protection software, which it will use to expand the array of devices that are able to stream TV shows and movies over the Internet. (Multichannel News)
mDialog Joins With Akamai for First Ad Overlays on the iPad; the mobile video and ad management startup will support in-stream interactive ad overlays for the iPad powered by the Akamai HD Network. (VentureBeat)
Turner Sports Gears Up For Playoffs; Turner Sports will provide multi-platform coverage of the 2010 National Basketball Association playoffs, including some 50 live playoff telecasts combined on TNT and NBA.com beginning Sunday. (Multichannel News)
Digital Economy Act: Ofcom Gives Four Months For P2P Consultation; Ofcom says it will finalize the code that governs how ISPs must notify infringing subscribers by September. (paidContent:UK)
Gotuit Integrates With FreeWheel To Enable Superior Content Monetization; time-based metadata will help to provide better monetization opportunities. (press release)
FCC Chief Worried Over Retrans Aftershocks; Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski said he favored the marketplace over the government in retrans negotiations, but still thought there were “legitimate questions” about whether the process needed review. (Multichannel News)
Spanish Language Network V-me Integrates Kyte as Video Publishing Solution; V-me will be first to offer a Spanish iPad video application, planned for broad distribution via Apple’s App Store. (press release)

FreeWheel Launches Partner Program to Place Online Video Ads Everywhere

FreeWheel has made a name for itself by helping publishers to run ads against their videos no matter where they are seen, whether they appear on a publisher’s own web site or — more likely — a distribution partner’s. But it’s tough to do that alone, which is why FreeWheel is announcing a new partner program to help disseminate and target online video ads across a wide range of distribution platforms.
The video ad company has spent the last two years partnering and integrating with a whole slew of different video distributors, ad networks, video management platforms, creative technologies, and content identification companies. In total, FreeWheel has more than 70 partners helping it to reach, monitor, and measure ad effectiveness across various video distribution points. That includes about 25 different advertising partners and eight different online video platforms.
Read More about FreeWheel Launches Partner Program to Place Online Video Ads Everywhere