Rich Warren: Comcast taking Wi-Fi hot spots to the next level

Rich Warren: Comcast taking Wi-Fi hot spots to the next level

In utopia, everyone connects for free. Just about everywhere you are there would be free Wi-Fi.

But short of someone like Warren Buffett with the resources to pay for all of us to enjoy free Wi-Fi wherever we go, Comcast now offers the next-best thing, at least for Comcast customers.

Wi-Fi stands for "wireless fidelity," and was developed so long ago that it was a play on the term Hi-Fi. It has evolved from a slow, short-range wireless technology to send and receive data to a medium-range, very fast way to send and receive data wirelessly. Nearly every portable device and many desktop computers and even household appliances now include Wi-Fi. Considering the cost of copper these days and the fact that most people don't want to tangle with wires, Wi-Fi is a boon.

Comcast intends to offer its subscribers entertainment and connectivity everywhere. To this end, last summer it began including new circuitry in its Xfinity cable boxes that makes every cable box a Wi-Fi hotspot; a hot spot powerful enough to cover your entire house (or apartment) and quite a few yards around it. Not only does that enable you to sit on your porch sipping mint juleps while watching videos on your tablet or smart phone, but it enables any other Comcast customer in your vicinity to also log on.

When enough Comcast subscribers in an area upgrade to the Xfinity cable box, entire neighborhoods become hot spots. All you need is a Comcast ID and password. This feature recently arrived in Champaign-Urbana after being tested and improved in the Chicago area during the past nine months.

Some of you might immediately cringe that strangers will siphon off your available gigabytes (Comcast limits maximum data transfer per month), slow your data stream or even get you into trouble.

What's to stop someone from parking in front of your house and using the hot spot provided by your Xfinity box to download illegal videos or worse yet, pornography? Absolutely nothing, assuming he/she is a Comcast subscriber.

However, the Wi-Fi hot spot provided by your Xfinity box uses a different IP/SSID address than the one you use. A Comcast representative assured me that data flowing through that IP address does not count against your limit and rarely slows your own data transfers. Furthermore, should something nefarious occur, it's logged to the other subscriber's address, not yours.

Privacy advocates might be concerned about this system and certainly a clever hacker could probably use it to get into your system. But a clever hacker can penetrate anyone's Wi-Fi. If you read the fine print, you can call Comcast and ask them to disable the Wi-Fi hotspot signal from your Xfinity box, but why kill the party? Comcast also urges its business/commercial customers to deploy the service.

From the information provided by the Comcast representative, you can log on in any Comcast service area that includes Xfinity hotspots. Even better, Comcast is installing independent Wi-Fi outdoor hot spots around the country in shopping areas, bus terminals, commuter train stations and even parks. Thus, you won't have to go to Starbucks to check your email.

This gives Comcast a huge competitive advantage. If you subscribe to AT&T's Uverse or live in an area with a different cable company, you're out of luck. After reading the news release, I begged the Comcast representative to tell his employer to please buy Mediacom. My other wish would be for them to take over the Chicago airports, which charge outrageously for Wi-Fi.

Comcast is a bit vague about the home cost for this hot spot service, other than you must subscribe at the Xfinity level. Using the hot spots themselves is free. Still, this is a rather incredible value added proposition that, if it works as claimed, improves the value of Comcast cable services, assuming you desire away-from-home "free" connectivity.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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