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municipal WiFi

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?

Nationwide WiFi?

This sounds like a big deal.

The federal government wants to create super Wi-Fi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.

The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to reconsider the idea, analysts say. That has been countered by an equally intense campaign from Google, Microsoft and other tech giants who say a free-for-all Wi-Fi service would spark an explosion of innovations and devices that would benefit most Americans, especially the poor.

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing Wi-Fi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and many rural areas.

The new Wi-Fi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate to another vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.

If approved by the FCC, the free networks would still take several years to set up. And, with no one actively managing them, connections could easily become jammed in major cities. But public Wi-Fi could allow many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet. The frugal-minded could even use the service in their homes, allowing them to cut off expensive Internet bills.

Of course, a few years ago some of us thought that free WiFi provided by cities would be a big deal, and we all know how that went. As it happens, the original Washington Post story isn’t quite about that.

Unfortunately, as Slate’s Matt Yglesias reported soon after, there is no plan for a free government super Wi-Fi network. What sounded like a plan to create free public Wi-Fi networks is in fact a less ambitious but still vital proposal to reallocate a larger share of the best public airwaves (spectrum) for free shared use without the need for a license. That’s exactly how Wi-Fi operates today—on “unlicensed” bands of spectrum that are equally open to everyone.

There is certainly a strong case to be made that 21st-century public infrastructure should include a minimum level of broadband connectivity almost everywhere. By leveraging existing public assets—both unlicensed spectrum and the spider web of federal, state, and local fiber optic backhaul that crisscrosses the nation—it would be relatively inexpensive to blanket most areas with a basic level of wireless connectivity.

In reality, though, the FCC is not proposing to subsidize the construction of networks. Instead, the agency wants to make enough free and high-quality unlicensed spectrum available that a far wider range of private companies, local governments, and individuals will find it economical to either offer or consume more broadband Internet services.

Oh, well. Still, having lived through the municipal WiFI boom and bust, I was hoping this might be a second chance to get that right. It still could be, but not in the way I envisioned when I read that first story. Kevin Drum has more.

Do we want Google Fiber For Communities in Houston?

Perhaps you’ve heard about Google’s latest project.

We’re planning to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States. We’ll deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections. We plan to offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Dwight Silverman wondered what Houston might do about this.

I e-mailed Richard Lewis, the city’s chief technical officer, and asked him if Houston was indeed an “interested in community”. I heard back from Janis Evans, director of communications for Mayor Annise Parker. She said:

This looks interesting. However, the city would need some time to take a harder look at it, which we are doing.

Houston was aggressive when it came to plans in the mid-2000s to set up a citywide Wi-Fi network – a project that imploded when the chosen vendor, EarthLink, decided to get out of the business. All that’s left of the endeavor now are some downtown Wi-Fi hotspots.

If the city wants to work with Google, they can click the button on this page to apply. And, if you’re a resident or group interested in nominating your community, there’s a button for that on the page, too.

How about it, Houston? Are you an “interested community”?

If we are, we’re going to need to step it up. The city of Austin has already taken official action – they’ve submitted an application, asked for public support, and have their City Council involved. In addition, there’s a grassroots campaign going on as well.

If Austin is going to convince Google to build here, it’s going to take a strong community response. In fact, there is a whole section of questions for the City to document the community response to the initiative.

The “Big Gig Austin” initiative has been created by a number of supporters, who want to work in support of the Google RFI. We’ve got about one month to document how incredibly badly Austin wants this network to be built here.

The official rollout of the project will be happening in the next few days. In the meantime, we’ve created a couple of resources.

24-Hour Twitter Campaign

If, in the next 24 hours, if we can get 200 people to follow @BigGigAustin, I’ll ask the City to put us in a press release. I know there have been discussions about sending out a press release about the Google fiber project. If we can get that kind of following so quickly, I’ll ask the City to cite us in their press release as an example of how Austin is rallying behind this project.

That was posted Wednesday at noon. As of now, there are 199 followers of @BigGigAustin, so they didn’t quite make their goal by the stated deadline, but that’s still a pretty good showing.

So that’s what Austin is doing, and if we want Houston to be a part of this, that’s an example of what we’re up against. What do you say, folks?

Interview with Council Member Jarvis Johnson

Jarvis Johnson

Jarvis Johnson

Wrapping up my series of incumbent district Council member is Jarvis Johnson, who is finishing his second term in District B. Council Member Johnson has been one of the leading advocates for bringing wireless Internet access to various parts of the city, as well as being an adopter of social media through blogging and Twitter. (He and CM Mike Sullivan appear to be the most frequent users of Twitter among the not-running-for-another-office members of Council.) He has one opponent for November.

I want to say that at this point I am done doing interviews. I’ve got two more HISD Trustee interviews to run this week, to be followed by the Controller and Mayoral interviews I’ve got in the queue, but I am not scheduling any more candidate interviews. While I’ve done a huge number of these, I’ve not gotten to everyone. If you are, or you represent, a candidate with whom I’ve not done an interview, I’m willing to run a statement from you instead. Send me a few paragraphs (say about four) about yourself and your platform in which you address one or two issues that I’ve been asking about in these interviews, and I’ll print it. Please do not simply lift a bunch of text from your campaign website. You can contact me via email (kuff – at – offthekuff – dot – com) or Facebook message. I’ll run any statements I get as I get them, with October 30, the last day of Early Voting, being the deadline. Thanks very much.

Finally, you might also note that there’s a new tab on the top of this page called “2009 Election”, which collects all the interviews I’ve done in a more organized fashion, and includes information about early voting as well. There’s also a new item on the sidebar that links to my most recent interviews. Many thanks to Greg Wythe for the additions.

Download the MP3 file.

PREVIOUSLY:

Karen Derr, At Large #1
Brad Bradford, At Large #4
Stephen Costello, At Large #1
Lane Lewis, District A
Lonnie Allsbrooks, At Large #1
Noel Freeman, At Large #4
Brenda Stardig, District A
Oliver Pennington, District G
Amy Peck, District A
Herman Litt, At Large #1
Natasha Kamrani, HISD Trustee in District I, not running for re-election
Alex Wathen, District A
Robert Kane, District F
Council Member Melissa Noriega, At Large #3
Jeff Downing, District A
Mike Laster, District F
Council Member Jolanda Jones, At Large #5
Mills Worsham, District G
Rick Rodriguez, At Large #1
Council Member Sue Lovell, At Large #2
Carlos Obando, At Large #5
Richard Sedita, District G
Jack Christie, At Large #5
Dexter Handy, District G
George Foulard, District G
Alma Lara, HISD Trustee District I
Anna Eastman, HISD Trustee District I
Linda Toyota, HISD Trustee District I
Council Member Ed Gonzalez, District H
Council Member Wanda Adams, District D
Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, District C
Progressive Coalition candidates
Council Member Mike Sullivan, District E
Council Member James Rodriguez, District I

Comcast to offer wireless broadband in Houston

Dwight has the news.

Coming next year to the hot, humid air all around you, Houston: High-speed wireless broadband from Comcast.

Its new High-Speed 2go service is rolling out now in Portland, Ore., and local Comcast spokesman Michael Bybee said today Houston will get it in 2010. He didn’t offer any other specifics.

Some more details can be found here. The main bits of interest to me for this service are these:

Comcast will offer its own wireless laptop cards and the service will not have any voice component. The card is free with a 1 year contract or it can be purchased for $99 and customers can go month to month.

[…]

Consumers can pay $69.99 a month for a “fast pack” national offering that buys them unlimited wireless data and a 12 Mbps home broadband offering. A metro-only service will cost $49.99 a month.

It’s not municipal WiFi, but it sounds interesting. As an existing Comcast customer, I’ll be most interested in what their pricing will be to bundle home broadband service with this. It would be nice to be able to take the laptop with me and not have to worry about finding a hotspot. Anyone else interested in this?