Expanding Public WiFi

Wi-FiComcast 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.

7 thoughts on “Expanding Public WiFi

  1. Dear Doug:
    The availability of WiFi reminds me of roaming during the early days of cellular telephone service. The cellph user developed a ‘feel’ for knowing when and where they might be able to access service, and when and where one might fall into a “black-hole”. There were even printed books available with network access information.
    Today, computer users have developed the same ‘feel’ for when and where they can access WiFi… I think everyone knows that free WiFi is available at any Starbucks… This vendor has made the very conscious business decision that if they offer free WiFi, this will attract users who will purchase food and coffee while they are there. Other vendors have also made this choice.
    Eventually, the hodge-podge that was cellular roaming “morphed” into nationwide, ubiquitous cellular coverage. Network providers realized that most customers, especially the high-end users — wanted and needed this feature… and were willing to pay for it. They also realized that offering nationwide coverage cut down on the numbers of customers calling customer care with problems and disputes. It was just good, basic customer service!
    Will this nationwide coverage occur with WiFi? If customers want it, and if network providers are willing to offer it… Will the ‘bugs’ get worked out of the systems? Yes.
    * * * * * * *
    Now, your big question: Would I want my home router turned into a public Wifi hotspot? Hmm… I would have to say no. I would not trust the other users and what they might be doing on my router.
    Back in the late 1990s, a colleague discussed how when he was on the road, he periodically pull into neighborhoods, accessed someone homeowner’s unpassword-protected WiFi, and checked e-mail, etc. We all laughed about it, and realized this was incredibly risky — for the WiFi host and the end user.
    The bottom line is that the ubiquitous promise of the Internet has given in to human nature and its base, untrustworthy side. And that is definitely too bad.

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  2. I guess I’m a little more polite than some bloggers, but today I saw one guy write that this is the stupidest thing he has ever seen an ISP do. That is saying something.

    I’m I the industry and knew this was coming, but the average person is going to have no idea that they are now an operational hot spot. You have to wonder who at Comcast thought this was a brilliant idea?

    Comcast is going to hack off millions of their customers by turning the modem they are paying for into a public hotspot. They didn’t warn them or notify them. One would think that this ought to be the kind of thing you have to opt out of, not opt in to.

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  3. Doug,
    I’ve been kinda following this Comcast decision since I heard about it. Personally I would have been furious with them had they done this to me.
    I’ve been reading many threads and posts regarding this. Many are bringing up the security issue. A few are bringing up another issue of “trespassing” or “theft”.

    One forum post that sticks out to me is:
    “Who owns the lines between the modem and the wall jack? or the street?
    You own the cable between the wall jack and the modem. You also own the cables in your home. You own the cables between your house and the Comcast junction in the street or alley. Comcast is not paying you for the use of your line. Comcast pays other loop and line owners for the right to transmit data on those lines. They are using your assets (lines and power) for commercial gain and they are doing so without permission from the asset owners. This is commonly called theft.”

    Al

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    • I am going to guess that Comcast covered this in the Terms of Service language that everybody agrees to without reading when you sign up for service. I’m going to go back and read that, but my guess is that Comcast thinks customers granted them this right.

      But even if that is the case, why are they making people this mad? Can there be an upside to this that is worth antagonizing the cable model customers that drive almost all of your profit?

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    • Yep. It’s covered under the first full paragraph of contract item 6.b.1, It says, ” You agree by using the Service(s), you are enabling and authorizing (i) Comcast, its authorized agents and equipment manufacturers to send code updates to the XFINITY Equipment and Customer Equipment, including, but not limited to, cable modems, digital interactive televisions with CableCARDs, and voice-capable modems at any time it is determined necessary to do so as part of the Service(s): and (ii) Comcast and its authorized agents to use the XFINITY Equipment, Customer Equipment and Inside Wiring connected to our cable network to provide the Service(s) to you and others, including, but not limited to, the XFINITY Internet WiFi Home Hotspot (“HHS”). Such code updates may change, add or remove features or functionality of any such equipment or the Service(s).”

      http://www.comcast.com/Corporate/Customers/Policies/SubscriberAgreement.html

      Hot spots haven’t been around forever and wonders what a customer who started cable service many years ago agreed to? But newer customers have clearly given Comcast the authority to do this. Not theft, merely the exercise of a contractual right that customers already granted to them.

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      • Yeah, I figured they had their butts covered somewhere. That was also part of the discussion. I question how many actually know/knew that this permission was given? Considering how many people actually read the TOS;)

        Al

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  4. Pingback: Comcast Expanding Public WiFi | POTs and PANs |...

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