An Experiment In Wireless Connectivity

Comcast router

Comcast's Experiment With the Hotspot

By Thursday Review staff | published June 18, 2014 |

Very soon, if an experiment underway in Houston, Texas succeeds, cable television giant Comcast may begin deploying a way for your neighbors to share your internet and content accessibility by turning your router into a Wi-Fi hotspot.

The technology is simple enough: Comcast will use some of its leased residential routers as hubs to enable people within the same neighborhood or in the same apartment building to gain access to Xfinity services and content, in theory without causing internet speeds for the host location to slow down.

Despite early and boisterous complaints on numerous blogs, Comcast has assured its customers that desktop computers, laptops, printers and gaming devices in the hosting home will be safe from invasion or hacking by outsiders: the Wi-Fi hotspot will be designed to remain independent of any equipment in the host’s home. This means Comcast customers in one house have nothing to fear from the snooping eyes and keystrokes of their neighbors. At least in theory.

Comcast has also stressed that speeds and performance will remain constant, no matter how many users are engaged or connected, because the new hotspot technology will include boosted bandwidth, enough—again in theory—to assure solid streaming, and reliable download and upload speeds.

There are a few advantages to this technology, especially for Comcast. The new Wi-Fi hotspots may mean fewer truck rolls—both for installation purposes and for trouble tickets. Some installations and trouble calls can be managed over the phone. The new routers will also reduce the amount of leased or loaned hardware in the field: with one home or apartment serving as a hotspot for several others, there will be fewer gadgets deployed and reduced headaches when the time comes for departing customers to turn the devices in (or for Comcast to track them down, or worse, bill customers after-the-fact). Less lost equipment means less write-off.

Again, so the theory goes.

Comcast is hoping that its customers in greater Houston accept the hotspot technology peacefully, and it plans to have at least 150,000 of the Wi-Fi residential routers deployed within the next 30 days. If things go well in Houston, Comcast may expand the project into other cable markets.

But Comcast’s massive customer base may not embrace this experiment. Comcast, once one of the most well-liked of the major cable and internet companies, has seen its reputation sag substantially over the last decade or so. It now often ranks as the worst company in the U.S. in terms of customer satisfaction and reliability—a dubious distinction for a major player now seeking final approval from Congress and several Federal agencies to once again merge with another company, this go-round Time-Warner, a cable giant with an equally bad reputation.

If Comcast customers begin to sense that outages or internet failures are the direct result of too many neighbors crowding onto the same hotspot, Comcast offices may be flooded with calls to remove the devices. And despite Comcast’s assurance that the wireless system will be safe—free from prying eyes or neighborhood hackers, and safe from the guy across the street attempting to download Led Zeppelin IV from your music files—customers will no doubt blame disruptions to their computers on the Wi-Fi system and its lack of security. Comcast has said that this should not happen, and stressed that a host’s home will be safe.

But some security analysts aren’t so sure. A computer and networking expert we spoke to—and he asked to not be identified for the purposes of this article because of his work with a cable and internet company which competes with Comcast in some markets—said that no Wi-Fi system is hack-proof. He said that on paper it may look safe, but very soon those who are the subject of this experiment in Houston will experience some form of compromise, on their computer, their peripheral hardware, or simply through slow internet speeds.

“Even if it’s just nosy neighborhood teenagers,” he said, “there is someone out there who can bypass security on even the best wireless devices.” Furthermore, he said, no Wi-Fi system is immune to spreading viruses or bugs.

Many cable customers lease newer modems or multimedia terminal devices (MTA) which already have the capability to serve as routers. Many Comcast customers have these devices in their dens, offices and living rooms now, though they may not realize it. In some cases, Comcast may be able to activate the hotspot function without making a trip to the home. That means that customers will be sharing the hotspot with neighbors without being aware that the activation has taken place.

Comcast also said that this plan will not affect customers who own their own routers or other wireless systems—only those who lease Comcast hardware as part of their service subscription. Customers will still have the option to purchase their own router if they choose to opt out of the Wi-Fi service sharing plan. Comcast will also promote the plan as advantageous to its Xfinity customers, who will be able to grab a signal in a variety of locations—as long as their laptop is able to talk to the network.

The computer and networking expert who spoke to Thursday Review also confirmed the obvious: customers who have leased equipment may choose at any time to simply unplug their modem or router at night, thus depriving neighbors of being able to surf using the hotspot. Under such conditions, a Comcast technician will have to eventually install a modem at each home within range of the Wi-Fi anyway.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Your Power Company is Watching; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; June 13, 2014.

Do Recent Cable Mergers Signal Worse Customer Satisfaction?; Thursday Review; May 20, 2014