Comcast casts net over public WiFi

With 'free WiFi' tied to your cable contract, is wireless access still a public service, or a private utility?

By TheStreet Staff Jun 11, 2013 4:31PM

thestreet logo Man with laptop © Ken Seet/SuperStockBy Dana Blankenhorn

 

Four years ago, I was stuck in Chengdu, China, facing numerous deadlines back in the United States.

 

My solution was to turn on my computer's WiFi router, look for open connections among my new Chinese neighbors and piggy-back on them.

 

It worked. My copy made it to where it needed to go. I even wrote a story about it. I suggested that a "side-band" could separate the bits a subscriber was using from those the public could access, and the router could firewall a subscriber's computer from those radio signals. Voila -- free universal access to the Internet!

 

Comcast (CMCSA) is now doing something like that, but without the free part.

 

Back in 2009 I couldn't have done my work in Atlanta the way I did it in China because my neighbors were, even then, routinely locking down their routers with passwords. They were encouraged to do so by stories like this, in ComputerWorld, scary stuff in which a guy with an open router had the FBI knock on his door because someone had used that access to trade child porn.

 

Despite the fact that courts are not holding people negligent for open WiFi connections, as TechDirt reports, there are countless stories like this one from HowStuffWorks that call using an open WiFi router "stealing" or "hijacking." 


There's a catch 

Now, in an effort to expand the utility (and popularity) of its Xfinity cable modem service, Comcast wants to re-educate you. Their new wireless routers will broadcast two separate signals, one to your local network, and the other its other customers can use, according toCNet.

 

There's a catch here, of course. In order to use the "public" signal, you also have to be a Comcast customer. Thus, neighborhoods will be filled with signals the users of rival ISPs can't access, increasing the value of Comcast to those who have it.

 

The company has posted a searchable map of its Xfinity hotspots and is offering an app its customers can use to find them.

 

This is an "opt-out" service, not "opt-in." As soon as you get one of these new WiFi routers for your home network, your neighbors who are Xfinity customers can get free bits from you.

 

Why is Comcast doing this? 

  1. Comcast and other cable operators sold their cellular spectrum to Verizon Wireless in 2011 and that deal has now been approved. So WiFi no longer cannibalizes Comcast revenue.
  2. Rival AT&T (T) is using its own network of WiFi hotspots as a profit center, charging as much as $3.99 per session. AT&T even offers its own app through which its customers can find these hotspots.
  3. Comcast also hopes to make money by charging non-Comcast customers $2.95/hour to use its hotspots, starting in July.

All this puts the public interest in a bit of a bind. With routers turning into paid hotspots, there's no need for communities or coffee shops to invest in free WiFi networks. But with your "free WiFi" access tied to your cable contract, is WiFi still a public service at all, or a private utility?

 

Stay tuned.

 

More from TheStreet.com

3Comments
Jun 12, 2013 2:47PM
avatar
cant wait for Google Fiber to hit Chicago, greedy cable companies need to die
Jun 17, 2013 3:54PM
avatar
As long as it isnt killing my connection speeds or opening my network for security issues, why not. Sounds like a great idea.
Report
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
Categories
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?

DATA PROVIDERS

Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.

ABOUT TECHBIZ

Start investing in technology companies with help from financial writers and experts who know the industry best. Learn what to look for in a technology company to make the right investment decisions.

RECENT POSTS

Google unveils modular smartphone

Dubbed 'Project Ara,' the phone would have interchangeable parts, such as cameras or lighters, that could be slotted into a metal frame and held in place by magnets.

VIDEO ON MSN MONEY

RECENT QUOTES

WATCHLIST

Symbol
Last
Change
Shares
Quotes delayed at least 15 min

MSN MONEY'S