Talking tech since 2003

Ever notice that xfinitywifi seems to appear on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop pretty much anywhere?  Well, the reason for that is because in mid-2013 Comcast started turning customers’ Internet connections (home and business) into public WiFi hotspots that other Comcast customers can connect to, creating a massive network of hotspots across the U.S.  The problem is customers have been surprised by the fact that the company is doing this and reactions to this “feature” have been mixed.

There was a recent story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press which tells the tale of Comcast customer Ronaldo Boschulte who called the company to get his malfunctioning modem replaced with a new one, when the tech showed up the install it something happened he didn’t expect.  Comcast’s cable modem doubles as a Wi-Fi router, which is useful for many people as it means don’t need additional hardware, but what Mr. Boschulte didn’t realize is that the router would, by default, broadcast a public Wi-Fi network that anyone with a Comcast account could connect to.

In an FAQ, Comcast doesn’t provide instructions for turning it off manually.  In fact, you have to call Comcast for that. “You will always have the ability to disable the XFINITY Wi-Fi feature on your Wireless Gateway by calling 1-800-XFINITY,” the company says. Probably so they can try to persuade you not to disable it.

“We encourage all subscribers to keep this feature enabled as it allows more people to enjoy the benefits of XFINITY Wi-Fi around the neighborhood,” Comcast says.

A map of XfinityWiFi hotspots in the U.S.
A map of XfinityWiFi hotspots in the U.S.

As you would expect, Comcast downplays the affect the WiFi hotspot will have on your in-home/business connection.  “The broadband connection to your home will be unaffected by the XFINITY Wi-Fi feature,” the company says.  However, then goes on to note that, “Your in-home Wi-Fi network, as well as XFINITY Wi-Fi, use shared spectrum, and as with any shared medium there can be some impact as more devices share Wi-Fi. We have provisioned the XFINITY Wi-Fi feature to support robust usage, and therefore, we anticipate minimal impact to the in-home Wi-Fi network.”

I think for the most part that is likely true, however, the problem I have with all of this comes from a data and electricity perspective.  Comcast imposes a 300GB monthly data cap on customers, if someone were to connect to your hotspot and start watching Netflix, all indications are that data usage goes against your cap — which in my opinion sucks.  Plus, this feature will likely draw more electricity and therefore will cost customers more money (albeit pennies, but still–it adds up).

At the very least, you shouldn’t have to share your Internet connection if you don’t want to.  And certainly shouldn’t have to call up Comcast to find out how to disable the hotspot feature.

Nonetheless, despite being surprised by the hotspot feature, Mr. Boschulte thinks it’s actually a good idea.  “I think it is a great idea how to expand their service. I think it is a great way to make the Internet and Wi-Fi available to a large audience,” he said.

While I’m all for more WiFi, Comcast should build its xfinitywifi network on its own dime — not its customers (though one could argue that those costs would eventually fall back into the customers lap).  So maybe this is the best solution, but like I said, customers should be able to easily disable it and perhaps even have more control over it.

What do you think?

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