KTRK, the ABC News affiliate in Houston, reported that on Tuesday Comcast switched the wireless routers of 50,000 Houston-area XFINITY WiFi home users to public WiFi hotspots. This is part of the company's nationwide program to covert customers' home WiFi to public hotspots. (See the list of rollout cities below.) The company did not give its customers a choice to participate in or decline the program. Instead, it simply bulk reconfigured their home routers so the routers can also be used by other XFINITY WiFi customers.
Roaming or "guest" XFINITY WiFi customers must enter their account credentials in order to access and use one of the hotspots. However, the XFINITY WiFi website stated that non-customers can use some hotspots:
"Limited Free Trial: At select XFINITY WiFi hotspot locations, visitors are allowed two 60-minute complimentary sessions per month. You must wait 24 hours between sessions."
In an announcement in April, Comcast explained that the program includes several types of hotspots. Some are at commercial locations, and others are:
"Neighborhood Hotspots: Recently, Comcast began providing residential customers with Xfinity Wireless Gateways the ability to have a second "xfinitywifi" signal (or SSID) in their home that is separate and distinct from their private and secure home Wi-Fi signal. This second signal provides visiting Xfinity Internet customers Wi-Fi access without the need to use the homeowner’s private network password..."
XFINITY WiFi Home customers who don't want their home routers included in the program must must opt out. The XFINITY WiFi site explained why some XFINITY Internet customers can't particate in the home hotspot program:
"This new feature enhancement is not yet available on all XFINITY Wireless Gateways or supported with all XFINITY Internet products. Wireless routers purchased at retail outlets don’t support the XFINITY WiFi service."
Up to five "guest" mobile devices can connect to a home hotspot. So, the loss of wireless bandwidth to the home user could be substantial, especially if the home user has multiple mobile devices already connected. Comcast said it "expects minimal impact" in bandwidth loss by its customers.
Some customers are already not happy. KTRK reported:
"Michelle Eulene has been a Comcast customer for years, but she's not happy with her WiFi now that her router is playing host to other Xfinity customers who want an internet connection. "It feels weird for Comcast to take my modem that I am already paying for and delivering it to other people," said Eulene."
The April announcement by Comcast included plans for eight million hotspots in 2014:
"Comcast Cable’s Xfinity WiFi network will reach eight million hotspots by the end of 2014, covering 19 of the country’s 30 largest cities with fast and reliable wireless Internet access... the company plans to add new hotspot locations coast-to-coast in cities like Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Hartford, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, Minneapolis, Nashville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C."
To opt out of the program, customers must disable the public setting on their wireless home routers. The XFINITY WiFi website provides instructions:
"You will always have the ability to disable the XFINITY WiFi feature on your Wireless Gateway by calling 1-800-XFINITY. You can also visit My Account at http://customer.comcast.com/, click on “Users & Preferences”, and then select “Manage XFINITY WiFi."
The way that Comcast structured its hotspot program abuses its customers. It's another example where the customer is literally the product -- in this case, part of a national network of WiFi hotspots usable by other customers. I'll bet that many customers didn't expect this when they subscribed to XFINITY WiFi. In this instance, Comcast took the customer-unfriendly approach and just switched a bulk of wireless routers. It could have asked first, but it didn't -- a stark reminder that the equipment is the company's property and not the customer's.
Comcast's program should have been opt-in, not opt-out. Customers should have been in control to enroll in the national hotspot program. Instead, Comcast forced in on them. Plus, Comcast should compensate customers for both their participation and the bandwidth lost. There is value in a national WiFi network, which its customers are helping Comcast build and operate.
There is precedent for compensating customers. Companies frequently offer discounts to customers who use online-billing services, compared to traditional, monthly paper bills. The former is less costly to companies. Another example: 40 states have programs for consumers to sell electricity generated via renewable methods (e.g., solar, wind, geothermal) back to the local energy utility or grid -- in effect, a price discount for participation.
Instead, Comcast took the customer unfriendly approach and didn't offer any compensation. Is this fair? Is it right? I think not.
What do you think? What are your opinions of the Comcast's Xfinity wireless program? If you are an Xfinity customer with a wireless router, please share your experiences.