Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Comcast wants to use your routers

For a massive WiFi network.

Comcast is expected to flip a switch Tuesday in Houston that will turn 50,000 of its customers’ home Wi-Fi routers into a massive network of public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Comcast residential Internet subscribers with one of the newer cable modem/wireless router combos will show a public network called “xfinitywifi.” Other Comcast customers will be able to connect to it free.

By the end of June, there will be 150,000 such hotspots in the greater Houston area. It’s part of an initiative that will see 8 million Wi-Fi hotspots accessible to Comcast customers around the country by the end of the year.

The move could also lay the foundation for Comcast to get into the wireless phone business with a network that blends Wi-Fi and traditional cellular service.

Amalia O’Sullivan, Comcast’s vice president of Xfinity Internet Product, told the Houston Chronicle that the goal is to make it easier for “friends and family” to use each other’s Comcast home Wi-Fi networks.

“Instead of coming over to your house and saying, ‘Hey, what’s your Wi-Fi password?’ your friends can just connect to the Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot,” O’Sullivan said.

The free network will be on by default for customers who have an Arris Touchstone Telephony Wireless Gateway Modem, which Comcast has been distributing for about two years in Houston. The black plastic device is tall, narrow and has the word Xfinity on the front. It costs $8 a month to rent, and is the standard equipment being issued to Comcast customers who don’t buy their own modems or routers.

Comcast spokesman Michael Bybee said the Xfiniti Wi-Fi hotspot will broadcast only in those cases where customers are using the Wi-Fi feature of the Arris device. Customers who have their own Wi-Fi routers won’t be broadcasting the hotspot.

Bybee said the network will be activated in “waves,” with the first 50,000 switched on Tuesday afternoon. The remaining 100,000 will be phased in through the month.

Customers were notified of the plan in a letter last month, Bybee said. An email notification will be sent after the service begins.

Remember the discussion about municipal WiFi a few years ago? That never happened, but this appears to be a successor to it. There are some details to be worked out, so we’ll see how it all goes. Dwight Silverman has been all over this, with technical details including how you can turn this off if you want to. One thing he clarified for me is that if you bought your own router, as I did, you’re not affected by this.

Extremetech considers some of the implications of this.

Will Comcast Xfinity WiFi slow down your connection to the internet?

The more curious bit is Comcast’s assertion that this public hotspot won’t slow down your residential connection — i.e. if you’re paying for 150Mbps of download bandwidth through the Extreme 150 package, you will still get 150Mbps, even if you have five people creepily parked up outside leeching free WiFi. This leads to an interesting question: If Xfinity hotspot users aren’t using your 150Mbps of bandwidth, whose bandwidth are they using?

There are two options here. Comcast might just be lying about public users not impacting your own download speeds. The other option is that Xfinity WiFi Home Hotspot uses its own separate channel to the internet. This is entirely possible — DOCSIS 3.0 can accommodate around 1Gbps, so there’s plenty of free space. But how big is this separate channel? 50Mbps? 100Mbps? And if there’s lots of spare capacity, why is Comcast giving it to free WiFi users rather than the person who’s paying a lot of money for the connection? And isn’t Comcast usually complaining about its network being congested? At least, that’s the excuse it used to squeeze money from Netflix, and to lobby for paid internet fast lanes.

With 50,000 hotspots enabled in Houston today, 150,000 more planned for the end of the month, and then 8 million more across Xfinity hotspots across the US before the end of 2014, we can only assume that Comcast has a lot of extra capacity. Either that, or it’s intentionally trying to clog up the network for its paying customers — perhaps so it can levy further charges from edge providers like Netflix, or so it has some ammo in the continuing battle for net neutrality.

I figure sooner or later there’s going to be some kind of vulnerability that may expose data on the accompanying home networks. I’m just cynical that way. Are you a Comcast user that has been or will be affected by this? What do you think about it?

Related Posts:

2 Comments

  1. Ron says:

    Comcast has been doing this with business customers for some time. add a wifi modem and call that another nationwide hot spot

  2. Steven Houston says:

    As soon as they start providing users with free modems, I’d be okay with the practice.

Bookmark and Share