Comcast has revealed that it plans to use home customer’s routers to expand its public WiFi network. But it insists the system works on a separate signal and won’t affect privacy or service.
The company is calling the idea a “neighborhood hotspot initiative.” If you subscribe to Comcast’s Xfinity service and have a wireless gateway (a single device combining the router, modem and VOIP equipment), it will broadcast two wireless signals: one private for your own use, the other available to the public (under the SSID “xfinitywifi”). The public signal will be at 25 megabits per second, regardless of your broadband package.
The public signal isn’t a complete free-for-all: people can only connect to it twice on a particular device free of charge, after which they have to pay an access fee unless they are a Comcast subscriber. The routers broadcast at 5GHz, so not all devices will be able to connect.
According to Comcast, the public signal is completely separate to the customer’s private signal with no danger of unauthorized access. It also says the use on the public signal won’t affect the speed or capacity on the customer’s broadband service in any way. Tom Nagel of Comcast insisted to CNET that “Our broadband customers will continue to get the service that they are paying for.”
Comcast is putting the marketing emphasis less on the ability to stand in the street and grab a connection from a random nearby resident’s cable connection and more on the idea that you can have friends or family visiting and let them get online without having to hand over your Wi-Fi password or worry about their data use.
Presumably, if you do want to download a particularly illicit file, you can just switch to the public signal and then, if the police or lawyers ask questions, quite credibly blame it on a random passer-by. And of course, presumably if a random passer-by does use your router’s public signal to do something nefarious, the lawyers will probably try to pin it on you.
The system will automatically be activated on all compatible wireless gateways: customers can opt out, but will have to actively do so. Around 100,000 customers already have the relevant boxes, which will be provided to all new customers on a plan with 25 megabits per second or more.
The announcement comes on the same day as the unveiling of a combined Wi-Fi network with Bright House, Cablevision and Time Warner that’s billed as the nation’s largest with 150,000 hotspots (the network doesn’t include the ones in Comcast customer homes.)
The idea is that if you subscribe to any of the cable services, you simply need to keep an eye out for Wi-Fi networks called “CableWiFi” and you can then log-in using the same details that you use to connect to hotspots provided by your cable firm.