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Cable’s Community Wi-Fi Challenge

As cable operators such as Comcast push ahead with policies that turn home gateways into quasi-public hotspots, it’s becoming clear that a big challenge ahead will be centered on educating consumers and allaying their fears, and less so on the technology that's driving it.

When Comcast announced last year that it was starting to broadcast a separate, public “XfinityWifi” SSID in a growing number of home-side Wi-Fi-capable DOCSIS gateways in select markets, I figured it wouldn’t be long before stories in local markets started to surface detailing consumer concerns about this budding home-as-a-hotspot idea, which has already taken firm root in markets such as Europe.

Among the recent examples, worries about Comcast's rollout were expressed in this story about some consumers who were surprised to learn that their gateways were also capable of providing a wireless broadband signal that was available to other Comcast customers  who happened to be roaming by.

While some consumers clearly understood the network-expanding benefits of an approach, many others were upset that it was an opt-out program, or were fearful that a gateway emitting this separate SSID was somehow siphoning some of the bandwidth they were paying good money for. Still others had security concerns or flat out didn't trust Comcast and were sure that company was in some way up to no good.

And many of those are valid concerns, of course. But they are also concerns that Comcast has tried to address in its communications to customers when this capability got turned on.

I received such a communication from Comcast when my home gateway was turned into a semi-public hotspot, and I held on onto it, knowing that it would be a matter of time before such stories would start to pop up. And the materials clearly address the types of concerns that are starting to appear now and will likely continue to bubbling up as Comcast and other MSOs expand and launch similar community hot spot projects.

“The Xfinity WiFi service," the letter explained, "is designed to work on a separate network so that your home WiFi network remains entirely secure. By enabling guests to use Xfinity WiFi, you won’t need to provide your private home Wi-Fi network Password to guests.”

The consumer FAQ goes on to note that the customer’s broadband connection to the home “will be unaffected by the Xfinity WiFi feature. Your in-home WiFi network, as well as Xfinity WiFi, use shared spectrum, and as with any shared medium there can be some impact as more devices share WiFi. We have provisioned the Xfinity WiFi feature to support robust usage, and therefore, we anticipate minimal impact to the in-home WiFi network.”

To keep the mind-melting to a minimum, the documentation doesn't get into the technical mumbo-jumbo about why the bandwidth to the home isn't being impaired by this feature, but, boiled down, DOCSIS is capable of isolating those data flows, ensuring that those travelling to and from the home’s private SSID don't affect the flows that are hitting the device’s quasi-public SSID.

So, it’s clear that Comcast is trying to get the message out and to get out ahead of these concerns. But it’s similarly clear that not everyone bothers to read them the first time through, meaning it will take a prolonged effort to educate consumers, hammer home these messages, and (maybe) put these worries at ease.

Of course, not every concern will be addressed. For example, I think it’s very unlikely that Comcast or other MSOs will move to an opt-in policy for these community Wi-Fi initiatives. While it will be important for operators to make it easy for customers to opt-out, an opt-in policy would almost certainly turn these initiatives into non-starters.