The Report

Comcast spreads Wi-Fi through neighborhood hotspots

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Sitting dormant like sleeper cells, wireless routers in Comcast homes around the country are getting ready to activate a new Wi-Fi network.

Sitting dormant like sleeper cells, wireless routers in Comcast homes around the country will soon by recruited to activate a new Wi-Fi network. With the recent announcement of its neighborhood hotspot initiative, Comcast is preparing to split the wireless signal from home routers to create two parallel Wi-Fi access routes. The first will be private, entirely controlled by the subscriber at home. The second will be open and accessible to anybody with a Comcast Xfinity account.

Comcast's ambitious hotspot plan effectively uses the company's customer footprint, which includes nearly 20 million broadband subscribers across 43 states and Washington D.C., to create a new wireless service. Much like with the Fon Wi-Fi network internationally, subscribers will be able to travel virtually anywhere within a Comcast region and connect to the Internet for free. Customers at home -- unless they choose to opt out -- will provide the access point for that connection without sacrificing their own bandwidth or having guests rack up data usage on an account that's monitored for excessive Internet activity.

"We logically separate [traffic] from a data flow standpoint," says Tom Nagel, a senior vice president at Comcast Cable. "Data that comes in one side cannot migrate to the other. So from a security standpoint there are pretty hard walls."

Here's how it works. Some existing Comcast routers as well as new routers being deployed, will be provisioned to create two separate data tunnels. The technology makes it look a bit like there are two distinct modems in the home. Each virtual connection broadcasts a different SSID, or network name, and connected devices are all assigned different IP addresses. Home users sign on as usual, while guests log in with their own credentials to the wireless network labeled "xfinitywifi".

Nagel suggests there are multiple advantages to creating neighborhood hotspots, as evidenced by other similar deployments around the world.

"Customers really like it... They're using it to get connectivity for two primary reasons. One is lowering the cost of their cellular data plan. Actually three reasons, that's one... The second thing is they love the speed of it... And the third reason is, at least in our footprint, is that they trust the security."

Along with the clear advantages, however, come more nuanced implications. Comcast will ultimately monitor data usage no matter where a consumer signs on to Xfinity Internet service. So, instead of tracking their bandwidth consumption at home, the company will eventually develop a record of a consumer's activity across Wi-Fi hotspots as well. Comcast has no official data cap in place today, and has not moved to usage-based pricing. If that changes, however, subscribers will find that offloading to an Xfinity Wi-Fi network doesn't help keep usage totals down. "This is one network," Nagel says.

Perhaps more important, Comcast, however anonymously, will create a log of when and where subscribers sign on to their accounts. In light of recent Prism revelations, that could fuel consumer privacy fears.

For Comcast, new neighborhood hotspots offer nothing but upside. In conjunction with broader cable industry efforts to let authenticated users roam freely between operator networks, the new hotspot program extends Comcast's reach further beyond the home. The growth potential is huge. In Nagel's own words, "We see millions of hotspots in the next couple of years."

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure