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Comcast to turn up millions of Wi-Fi hotspots in neighborhoods

Mon, 06/10/2013 - 11:08am
Mike Robuck

Using subscribers’ home gateways, Comcast plans on booting up millions of Wi-Fi access points for its customers through its neighborhood hotspot initiative.

After trials last year in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. metro area, there are currently more than 100,000 hotspots enabled in customers’ neighborhoods. Those hotspots are separate from the 150,000 nationwide hotspots that are enabled by the CableWiFi Alliance that was announced at last year’s Cable Show that allows Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision and Bright House Networks subscribers to roam on each other’s Wi-Fi networks.

Comcast’s Tom Nagel, senior vice president of business development, said the neighborhood hotspot project works by offering private and public Wi-Fi signals on the same gateway.

“We’ve been able to add certain feature functionality to the firmware of our devices,” Nagel said. “The way its architected is we sort of logically split the modem in two. On the private side, you still get the same things. You can do your own security, you can manage, you can do port forwarding and all of the things that no one really understands but are available to you.

“On the public side what happens is it’s logically a separate network. We actually provision a separate service flow to that cable modem for the public side. If that public side uses up what we’ve given them, there is no getting from someone else.”

The neighborhood hotspots currently can only be accessed by Xfinity broadband subscribers. Nagel said Comcast has educated users that having a public network provisioned from their home gateways won’t impact their own speeds.

“On the private side if you’re a Blast customer, and for us Blast is a 50 Mbps customer, with public side open and with someone on it, you’ll still be a 50 Mbps customer,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we addressed it up front so that people would be comfortable with it. We made sure we could provision separately, and that we could provide different service flows and therefore manage it differently and that there would be no leakage from the public to the private on the broadband piece.

“There’s also no leakage of the public and private security functions as well. We do two totally different security regimes in the box and there’s really no way to get in between the two.”

The neighborhood hot spots work with Comcast’s XB2 and XB3 wireless gateways, the latter of which was announced in April, that broadcast two wireless signals. The XB3 gateway features include: a DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem; a dual-band 802.11n wireless router with concurrent 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz radio frequencies; and VoIP adapter.

The range of the public Wi-Fi networks can vary based on terrain and the materials, such as brick, that were used to build a home, but Nagel said a radius of 250-to-300 feet was about average. The wireless gateways rent for $7 a month and there’s no additional charge for enabling the public networks.

“We do provide people the ability to opt out of the service but there have been very few people that have done that, like sub fractions of 1 percent,” Nagel said. “We believe that as we’ve gotten to this point it’s really a good news story. Customers like it, they’re using it and there’s really no call volume around it saying they don't like it or don't want to use it.

“For the most part, the installation is a non-event, which is exactly what we wanted it to be, and yet the use is really taking up. It’s all a happy story.”

Comcast’s XfinityWiFi is a value-added service to its broadband tiers. While Comcast doesn’t charge to use the service, its a means to reduce churn while enabling mobile broadband on smartphones and other devices.

Comcast, which is opening up its Wi-Fi metro access points for free to non-customers across its footprint until July 4, could eventually allow other cable subscribers access on the neighborhood hotspots.

“I’m actually migrating between backoffices,” Nagel said. “The one that is on the home hotspot, that’s my future back office so somewhere between now and the end of the year the metro and retail will move over to that. I can’t manage them the same way right now, but next year you’ll see all of these open up.

Comcast’s over-arcing Wi-Fi strategy

The neighborhood hotspots are the third leg of Comcast’s Wi-Fi strategy. Metro hotspots, which hang on Comcast’s strands, are enabled in about eight markets to date with more on the way. Through Comcast Business, retail businesses, such as coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and other merchants, can offer Wi-Fi services to their customers.

“Step one was to get good coverage in places that people expected, which we do with our metro hotspots,” Nagel said. “No. 2 was get good coverage where people were, which is what I call dwell locations. The last part is to get good coverage almost anywhere we can, which is the neighborhoods.

“In the end the goal would be to have the fasted Wi-Fi network and the most locations, carrying as much broadband traffic for the consumer as possible. That’s the structure we’re looking for.”

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