Comcast began the process last week of turning home WiFi routers into public hotspots. They announced that they were turning up 50,000 home routers in Houston, and that this was going to be followed up nationwide with millions of home routers being opened up to allow access to anybody with a Comcast password or anybody willing to buy bandwidth by the hour.
Comcast says that this is being implemented by opening up a second channel in each router so that external users won’t be using the same bandwidth as paying customers. Comcast promises this won’t degrade the bandwidth purchased by customers. Interestingly, they are going to match the bandwidth from each public channel to match the home bandwidth that has purchased.
I must say as a Comcast customer that this feels both good and also a bit scary. It certainly would be convenient when walking around my town to be able to be connected to Comcast WiFi and not use cellphone data. And it certainly could make it convenient for me to go outside and still be able to work on my laptop or tablet. So for someone like me who is always connected this sounds promising.
But as the owner of a Comcast router of my own I am somewhat worried by the security aspects of this. There is a nagging part of my brain that tells me that even if this is done on separate channels that there are people smart enough to hack this. So I worry that this could give somebody access into what I am doing inside my own home on my own network. I hope I am wrong about this, but it seems a lot easier to think somebody could hack me when starting inside my router rather than having to start outside of it. Comcast does offer the option, for now, of turning off the second public channel of your router. I’m not sure what they’ll do if everybody chooses that option.
One thing to remember is that this is not Hotspot 2.0 which is a suite of technologies that is going to let people automatically connect to WiFi routers as they move from place to place. That new technology is supposed to come with new security features that will make it safer to be on a public WiFi router. But Comcast is still deploying current WiFi technology, and a user just has to log on one time to any Comcast hotspot and they will then automatically log on to other hotspots with the same password and ID.
Certainly as I move around town on Comcast hotspots I am going to use the same security measure that I would use at a Starbucks. I won’t log into financial institutions or make credit card purchases. Those are common sense security measures to take when sharing a hotpot with people you don’t know. But over the last few days I read a lot about hotspot security and there are a lot more dangers out there. A smart hacker can get into your computer and dig out whatever data you have stored including passwords to accounts and other damaging data. So this is the scary side of using Comcast hotspots or allowing my home router to become one of them.
I also now have to worry that I am giving Comcast the same sort of data about my whereabouts that I give to the cell phone companies. Comcast will be able to follow me as I move around and the knowledge of when and where I go has to be worth something in terms of profiling me.
Why would Comcast do this? They began deploying public hotspots in areas where they are having significant competition with Verizon FiOS. For example, it’s been reported that you can go almost anywhere on the Jersey shore and stay connected to Comcast. So in those kinds of markets it is a feature and a service that they think gives them a competitive edge.
But I see less advantage from deploying this in the average suburban neighborhood. It makes a lot of sense in downtown areas, even in small towns, where WiFi can be deployed where people shop and dine and congregate. But a WiFi signal doesn’t propagate very far from any one hotspot and so in suburban areas one can imagine your cell phone gaining and losing WiFi access as you take a walk. I shudder to think about what that is going to do to the battery on my cell phone as it constantly searches and adds and drops WiFi connections.
The big beneficiaries of this are the wireless companies and one can speculate that Comcast has figured out a way to charge them something for WiFi offload of cellular data. If not they are missing an opportunity. I know that Cisco and other manufacturers have been talking up WiFi offload as a new business line, but I have not yet heard of any specific deal being struck anywhere for this as a revenue generating service.