In the coming weeks, Comcast is rolling out a new feature that turns residential customers' new Xfinity Wi-Fi routers into public hotspots. The rollout starts in Houston on Tuesday, and the company says it'll be in millions of homes across the country by the end of the year. That's a big hotspot!
It's easy to have mixed feelings about this idea. On the one hand, it's wildly convenient. What Comcast is essentially doing is creating the country's largest public Wi-Fi network by simply enabling people to share their connections. Of course, it's not entirely public. You have to be an Xfinity customer to be able to log on to the new super hotspot, but as long as you pay your bill, there's a decent chance you'll never have worry about Wi-Fi again.
Then there are the inevitable caveats. The first thing that comes to mind is performance-related. Specifically, if a bunch of strangers are tapping into your home connection, won't that slow down you Game of Thrones downloads? Comcast says it won't. Only five people will be able to log onto a single home network at once, and the network is designed to handle the load. That, of course, remains to be seen.
There's also the creepy aspect. Comcast's messaging about the new program is very friends-and-family oriented. "Instead of coming over to your house and saying, 'Hey, what's your Wi-Fi password?' your friends can just connect to the Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot," Amalia O'Sullivan, Comcast's vice president of Xfinity Internet Product, told the Houston Chronicle. The network simply pops up as "xfinitywifi," and again, any Xfinity customer can join. However, you have to have a new Xfinity router for your home network to work as a public hotspot.
But do you really want to share a connection with someone you don't know doing whatever they do on the internet through your connection? What if they're downloading Game of Thrones illegally? What if they're really into child porn? What if they're hacking into the Pentagon? The list goes on. (Update below)
Comcast is automatically enrolling all Xfinity customers in the new program. If you're an Xfinity customer and don't want your router to become a public Wi-Fi hotspot, you can opt out by calling Xfinity or going to the preferences section on the account page of Comcast's website. And if you don't want to be a part of Comcast's continual creep into a nationwide monopoly on internet service, well, good luck finding another option.
All that said, easier access to the internet is a good thing. So if Comcast manages to avoid all those pitfalls, this could be a potentially great service for customers. We'll have to wait and see how it really works. [Houston Chronicle]
Updated 3:20: Comcast followed right up with an answer to the questions about security that this new service raises. "In order to use the xfinitywifi SSID in a home, the person has to authenticate their device or log on to that hotspot so any of that data usage and activity is the responsibility of that end user, not the home owner's," Comcast's Charlie Douglas told Gizmodo. It's unclear if this process will also offer protection against data breaches.