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Comcast Feels Heat Over Home Hotspots

Comcast’s plan to light up quasi-public WiFi hotspots in millions of DOCSIS gateways in customer homes is being challenged in court.

A lawsuit claims the MSO is launching “homespots”— WiFi hotspots created by turning up secondary “XfinityWiFi” signals in home broadband routers so the signals are accessible to other credentialed Comcast customers when they’re roaming — “without first obtaining authorization.” The suit claims the program poses security risks and degrades broadband performance.

The suit, filed Dec. 4 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Cal ifornia by two plaintiffs — Comcast subscribers Toyer Grear and Joycelyn Harris — are seeking classaction status, arguing in part that Comcast’s homespot approach violates the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

“Without authorization to do so, Comcast uses the wireless routers it supplies to its customers to generate additional, public Wi-Fi networks for its own benefit,” the suit claims.

The Comcast homespots are currently set up as “opt-out,” meaning that the routers support the practice by default. Some Comcast customers, however, have said on the DSL Reports message boards that it’s difficult to stay out of the program, even after they’ve opted out. Whenever Comcast issues firmware changes to its routers, the devices revert back to the default state of broadcasting the secondary Xfinity WiFi signal. Consequently, those customers report they’ve kept the default settings to avoid the hassle.

Comcast, which aims to deploy 8 million WiFi hotspots by the end of 2014 via routers installed in homes and commercial venues, disputed the suit’s claims, holding that its homeas- a-hotspot program is beneficial to customers and that subscribers have always had the ability to turn off the capability.

“We disagree with the allegations in this lawsuit and believe our Xfinity WiFi home hotspot program provides real benefits to our customers,” a Comcast spokesman said in a statement. “We provide information to our customers about the service and how they can easily turn off the public WiFi hotspot if they wish.”

Comcast announced its neighborhood WiFi hotspot initiative in June 2013.

Comcast’s WiFi FAQ notes that the gateway’s private and public-facing SSIDs use separate service flows and “therefore anticipate minimal impact to the in-home WiFi network.” The document acknowledges, however, that WiFi, which is a shared resource, could be subject to “some impact as more devices share the network.” Data usage via the secondary SSID does not get applied to the home customer’s monthly totals.

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs also claim that Comcast’s homespot program opens subscribers up to security risks and pushes power costs to them; they also predict Comcast will use the secondary WiFi signals to build out a wireless/mobile service that can compete with cellular carriers.

The Comcast FAQ notes that customer credentials are protected by 128-bit encryption on the sign-in page, “the same standard used by thousands of online banking and financial services around the world.”

Regarding power consumption, the suit cites a Speedify test purportedly showing that heavy use of homespots could boost the router’s electrical costs by up to 40%.

Comcast has not announced plans to use its WiFi network as a rival to cellular offerings, but there has been plenty of speculation that the cable industry could pursue so-called “WiFi-first” services that prefer WiFi and use cellular as a backup. In October, Craig Moffett, partner and senior analyst with MoffettNathanson, suggested that cable is “best positioned” to reap the benefits of such a strategy.

Like Comcast, Cablevision Systems has introduced a similar homespot strategy. The Comcast lawsuits, though, could cause other MSOs to put similar initiatives on hold until the cases are resolved.