Comcastic

I'm here to install XFINITY WIFI
I’m here to install XFINITY WIFI

Comcast, a perennial champion runner-up in the “Most Hated Companies” surveys, has now figured out a way to have its customers pay to construct a nationwide network of public WiFi hotspots, by re-selling access to the customer’s home equipment and bandwidth to the public for rates starting at $2.95 an hour.

Here’s how it works.

Many Comcast customers rent cable modems and wireless routers from Comcast for $7 or $8 a month. These routers contain wireless internet radio transmitters, which allow customers to create their home WiFi networks.

When a friend visited last week and wanted to connect his computer to my wireless network, he asked me which network to use: WeaselNet, my private network, which required a password, or XFINITY WIFI, a public network that did not require a password. Both showed four-bar signals, the strongest WiFi signals in the house.

Comcast started testing the XFINITY WIFI service in a handful of cities last year. It is now expanding the scheme, equipping its new cable modems – they call them “wireless gateways” — with this dual-network WiFi capability.

The second, public network is created by default. The network’s SSID (Service Set Identifier, the code that allows computer, tablets, phones and other devices to connect to the wireless network) is broadcast to the world.

Comcast does not ask permission to set up a second, public network inside the customer’s house, using the bandwidth that he or she is paying for. It does not ask permission to route the data traffic of strangers through the same router that handles the customer’s private network. No, Comcast is The Honey Badger.

Comcast calls this a “feature enhancement.” A Comcast spokesman said, “The wireless gateways rent for $7 a month and there’s no additional charge for enabling the public networks.”

It's a feature, not a bug
It’s a feature, not a bug

Customer: Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.

Comcast: Don’t worry sir. No extra charge.

Customer: Waiter, there’s also a strange man sitting at my table.

Comcast: You have an extra chair at the table, and he’s paying to eat whatever soup you have left over. There’s no extra charge to you for the companionship.

Customer: Whoa. Now there’s a big snake. He’s coiling around my leg.

Comcast: Don’t worry. He’s just waiting for the fly.

It’s a brilliant strategy: Comcast doesn’t have to spend a dime to build out a nationwide mesh of wireless hotspots. Instead, it has its customers pay for both the hardware and the bandwidth. Comcast then generates megabucks in new profits by re-selling access to the hardware and bandwidth. If people squawk, Comcast merely points out that it, not the customer, owns the box. If the customer doesn’t like it, they can switch to another broadband provider.

Switch?
Switch?

Oops. Silly me. There isn’t another broadband provider in most towns, if you use the same definition of broadband that the rest of the world uses. If the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger is approved, there will be even less competition.

Let’s add up the pros and cons of the new “feature” that Comcast is offering, starting with the pros.

  • As long as I remain a paying Comcast customer, I get free access to the public wireless network when I’m out of the house.
  • Instead of using up my data allowance on 4G wireless telephone carrier networks, I can freeload on some other Comcast sucker’s home WiFi network.
  • The next time I buy a tablet computer, I might decide not to pay extra for the 4G radio and monthly telephone company wireless service fees, because Comcast will soon be a nationwide monopoly and half the broadband households in America will be open hotspots.
  • I live in the last house on a dead-end street in a small town, so the chances of weirdoes parking in front of my house to use my broadband connection are minimal.

And now the cons.

  • Despite Comcast’s assurances to the contrary, I’m unconvinced that increased network traffic will not slow down my home broadband service. Comcast says there is more than enough capacity on the feed into my house to accommodate any extra traffic. If that’s the case, why do my network speeds so often fall woefully short of the speeds I’m paying for? Why does my system slow to a crawl on Friday nights when all the neighbor kids are streaming movies and playing online games? Comcast says:

“The broadband connection to your home will be unaffected by the XFINITY WIFI feature. Your in-home WiFi network, as well as XFINITY WIFI, use shared spectrum, and as with any shared medium there can be some impact as more devices share WiFi. We have provisioned the XFINITY WiFii feature to support robust usage, and therefore, we anticipate minimal impact to the in-home WiFi network.”

  • Comcast offers no guidance on whether XFINITY WIFI runs on the same channel as a customer’s private home network, in which case the network performance will definitely suffer, or runs on a separate channel, in which case it will probably interfere with the private home network.
  • Wireless networks are notoriously hard to secure. I simply don’t believe Comcast when it says there is no risk in allowing a stranger to directly connect to the router that controls my private home network. Once on the public network, the proverbial 14-year-old hacker would have little problem hijacking the router and taking control of my private network, where he or she could intercept all my user names and passwords, etc. If I’ve allowed sharing on the network, the hacker would have access to the files on every shared device.

Let’s go to Comcast’s XFINITY WIFI FAQ:

A discount?
A discount?

Q. Is Comcast going to give me a discount because it’s re-selling the bandwidth and equipment I’m already paying for?

[Hysterical laughter]

Okay, I made that one up. But the next two are verbatim:

Q. How do I disable/enable the XFINITY WIFI Home Hotspot feature?

“We encourage all subscribers to keep this feature enabled as it allows more people to enjoy the benefits of XFINITY WIFI around the neighborhood. You will always have the ability to disable the XFINITY WIFI feature on your Wireless Gateway by calling 1-800-XFINITY. You can also visit My Account at http://customer.comcast.com/, click on “Users & Preferences,” and then select “Manage XFINITY WIFI.”

Q. What happens if I choose to disable the Home Hotspot feature?

“We encourage all subscribers to keep this feature enabled as it allows more people to enjoy the benefits of XFINITY WIFI around the neighborhood. You will always have the ability to disable the XFINITY WIFI feature on your Wireless Gateway by calling 1-800-XFINITY. You can also visit My Account at http://customer.comcast.com/, click on “Users & Preferences,” and then select “Manage XFINITY WIFI.”

So what happens when you visit My Account at http://customer.comcast.com/, click on “Users & Preferences,” and then select “Manage XFINITY WIFI”? Is there a “Disable XFINITY WIFI” option?

Of course not. You get this:

In other words, G.F.Y.
In other words, G.F.Y.

I guess Comcast doesn’t want customers to disable the XFINITY WIFI network.

It’s a variation on this.

An alternative is to purchase a Comcast-compatible DOCSIS 3.0 modem and wireless gateway. Comcast can’t force a customer to create a public network and give strangers access to equipment it doesn’t own. The cost of buying the equipment will eventually be offset by the money saved on equipment rentals.

Another alternative is to switch to another cable provider. The choices are limited, thanks to Congress, cable industry lobbyists, and dimwitted local and state politicians (flush with campaign contributions from the cable companies) who oppose the creation of public municipal wireless networks.

Note: This post has been edited, and an embarrassing correction has been filed.