(Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 01--When Comcast asked Ronaldo Boschulte to swap out his malfunctioning broadband modem and Wi-Fi router with an all-new model late last year, he didn't know the Internet device was a high-tech Trojan horse of sorts.
Comcast fessed up a bit later in an email to the Maple Grove man.
The new Xfinity-branded modem and Wi-Fi router also works as a public Wi-Fi hotspot.
This means any Comcast subscribers within range can gain access to the Internet, via the router, simply by tapping in their Xfinity credentials.
"I didn't know it had a hotspot" feature, the accountant said. "That was pretty much a surprise."
Boschulte has plenty of company in this regard -- and not all are thrilled about it. Some Xfinity subscribers, when made aware of this public-hotspot feature embedded in their home routers, have reacted with a mixture of apprehension and suspicion. Others say they like it.
Comcast residential customers by the hundreds of thousands across the country now have the new Xfinity routers with this public-hotspot feature, which makes their homes rough equivalents of coffee shops and other public venues that have long offered free Wi-Fi.
Modems that Comcast sets up for its small-business clientele also are capable of broadcasting two separate Wi-Fi signals -- one for private use by the company staffers and visitors and another for public use by any Xfinity subscriber who happens to be nearby.
Nearly 200 Twin Cities businesses with such public Xfinity Wi-Fi are listed in a "hotspot finder" directory at hotspots.wifi.comcast.com. Comcast, based in Philadelphia, is the No. 1 cable and Internet service provider in the Twin Cities.
Xfinity neighborhood and small-business hotspots, when lumped together, are approaching the 1 million mark, Comcast executives said during an earnings call last week. That is up from about half a million over the past year.
And the Internet and cable-television behemoth makes no secret of its plan to raise that figure as it aspires to be a major U.S. Wi-Fi provider -- with the assistance of customers and their residential and business facilities.
Such customers aren't required to broadcast such public Wi-Fi signals, the company stresses, and they can easily turn it off.
But Comcast hopes they won't.
Comcast's grand plan to stitch together vast urban webs of overlapping and interlocking Wi-Fi networks is a major branding exercise, for one thing. Every such public hotspot has the same moniker -- "xfinitywifi" -- that is readily detectable by any Internet-capable laptop computer or mobile device via their Wi-Fi control panels. Xfinity also makes available apps for this purpose.
Comcast users log on to any such network with their Xfinity usernames and passwords.
Comcast hopes this might spur those who aren't Xfinity subscribers to consider signing up. To seal the deal, it offers a couple of complimentary Wi-Fi sessions, and then gives them the option of buying day passes to continue testing the service.
In addition, Comcast is positioning its rapidly expanding Wi-Fi footprint as a kind of public utility for its customers.
When they're away from their own Wi-Fi networks, they have any number of others available as they move about their urban areas. If one Comcast subscriber is visiting the residence of another Xfinity user, he or she can simply log on to the home's public wireless signal and not trouble the homeowner with any requests for private Wi-Fi access. This is useful because it does not incur cellular-data charges.
Comcast's broad scatterings of neighborhood and small-business Wi-Fi networks can function as a single network -- when someone logs on to one such network, they're automatically logged on to all of them, wherever they go.
For all its potential practicality, the public-hotspot feature built into residential Xfinity routers isn't being met with universal acclaim.
Some people have privacy and security concerns, even though Comcast insists the public and private Wi-Fi networks are entirely separate and shielded from each other. Others worry that the public network will affect the private network's performance. Comcast says this isn't so.
No amount of reassurance has stopped some from turning the public-hotspot feature off. That is what Anthony Domanico, a St. Paul-based technology journalist, did, partly because of performance concerns.
Ditto for Ehren Stemme, an information-technology worker who lives in St. Paul. He said he has data-privacy concerns, partly because his spouse works in the health industry and needs to be extra careful about data security.
Stemme also laments having little control over the public-hotspot feature, other than being able to turn it on and off.
And Stemme has trust issues. Of Comcast, he said he doesn't "trust their (customer-service) team to provide accurate info."
But Boschulte, the Maple Grove accountant, came to understand and appreciate the public Wi-Fi feature after getting over his initial surprise.
"I am fine with it," Boschulte said. "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."
Xfinity public hotspots could someday proliferate to the point where tablet-toting customers could forgo pricey cellular-data plans and rely solely on Wi-Fi, Boschulte believes.
"You get access to the world without paying the extra bills for mobile and data plans," he noted.
In addition to neighborhood and small-business Wi-Fi, there is a third prong to Comcast's public wireless strategy -- extra-powerful Wi-Fi transmitters set up in major public venues, like transit stations, shopping malls and sports stadiums.
For instance, Comcast has been anointed the official Wi-Fi provider for the San Francisco 49ers and that team's new Levi's Stadium, now under construction in Santa Clara, Calif. The partnership was announced this month.
No Twin Cities public venues are blasting out this extra-powerful wireless access, which is able to accommodate many more simultaneous connections than typical Wi-Fi networks. But such public wireless networks are likely to start appearing in the metro area by later this year, the company has said.
Comcast also has seized on the coming Winter Olympics to promote its Wi-Fi capabilities. For the duration of the event, it said, its nonresidential hotspots will be available to everyone, not just its subscribers. Comcast owns NBC, which will be televising the games.
This, it hopes, will earn it the loyalty of legions after the Winter Olympics have faded into history.
Comcast isn't the only company promoting the concept of Wi-Fi sharing, though it is perhaps the most ambitious and successful in the United States to date.
A variety of other technology companies are promoting similar wireless-sharing, via public Wi-Fi hotspots and other approaches, but are hampered somewhat at the moment because of smaller U.S. footprints.
Spain-based Fon (fon.com) is one such company. Hugely popular in European cities, such as Madrid and Paris, it distributes compact residential Wi-Fi routers that serve as public wireless hotspots, much as the Comcast variants do.
Fon's newest router, or "Fonera," is available for $49 on the Fon home page or on Amazon.com.
Fon has tried to cultivate a U.S. following with limited success. It is making another run by partnering with major U.S. wireless carrier AT&T and its tens of thousands of hotspots in this country.
Other companies with variations on this public-hotspot theme include Karma (yourkarma.com) and France's Free Mobile (free.fr).
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