Comcast has a clever new scheme to dramatically expand the coverage of public Wi-Fi Internet access. So far so good.
The controversial part? Comcast's plan - announced on Monday - leverages its customers' home Wi-Fi routers to make the connections available.
A Good Idea On Paper
On paper, Comcast's Neighborhood Hotspots sound like a pretty good idea: The new Wi-Fi network, which will broadcast with the "xfinitywifi" network ID (SSID), piggybacks a separate Wi-Fi signal on the Xfinity customers' home routers to - keeping things separate from the Wi-Fi and wired network that belongs to the customer.
Existing Xfinity customers can log into the public network with their Xfinity account information. Non-Xfinity users will be able to log into the network as a guest, receiving two free one-hour Wi-Fi sessions per month. Or they can choose from one of three options to pay by the hour, day or week.
In densly populated areas, this bifurcated system would effectively create a huge Wi-Fi cloud through which logged-in users could get net access using Wi-Fi rather than cellular signals. Obviously, coverage would be spotty in sparsely settled areas, or in markets where Comcast does have a large presence as an Internet provider.
(By the way, some think that Google plans a very similar public Wi-Fi network via Google Fiber.)
But even then, at least visitors to an Xfinity user's home would be able to use the public Wi-Fi network instead of having to request the Wi-Fi passcode. Sharing passcodes can lead to awkward situations, with guests able to download or pirate content with which the account holder might not want to be associated. (Well-intentioned guests might even try to download "anti-virus" spyware to protect your Linux servers... true story.)
Who Is Responsible?
There is no monetary cost of the service to Xfinity customers, but it would seem to place some additional burdens on customers.
First, there's the bandwidth question of bandwidth. While the dual signals should not interfere with each other from device to router and home users won't have to pay for bandwidth that visitors use, what will happen to your streaming episodes of Burn Notice if someone happens to be standing outside watching a Game of Thrones bootleg on their phone?
That should not be an issue, says Charlie Douglas, Senior Director of Corporate Communications at Comcast. "Typically, there should be minimal impact to the customer’s private home Wi-Fi network’s speed or experience due to the neighborhood Wi-Fi hotspot in the home," Douglas explained in an email. And, if there is a problem, home users can always opt out and disable the public Wi-Fi feature.
That, in turn, brings up liability - if tracking for illicit downloads is done via IP address, then at some point Comcast would have to step into the process and report on exactly which user was using which network at any given access point.
According to Douglas, that kind of granularity is actually a feature. "Account holders are only responsible for the content that flows over their own Wi-Fi hotspot, not the neighborhood hotspot," he explained. "Having two Wi-Fi signals is actually safer for customers because they won't have to share their private network or passwords."
Comcast is the nation’s largest Internet service provider, with nearly 20 million customers. It has been testing the neighborhood hotspot concept since last year in parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area.
The implementation of this new neighborhood Wi-Fi system seems to have a number of potential benefits. Still, home users might be less than thrilled to have people parked outside their houses just to suck up Wi-Fi, no matter who is paying for it.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock.