Comcast resists call to open home Wi-Fi hotspots, cites potential congestion

Three US senators today urged Comcast to open all of its Wi-Fi hotspots to children who lack Internet access at home during the pandemic. A letter from Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) says that Comcast recently refused a request to do so because it would cause congestion for subscribers. But the senators argue that “Comcast’s excuse simply does not add up.”

Comcast has been praised by advocates for its pandemic response, which includes two free months of home-Internet service for new low-income subscribers, temporary suspension of its data cap, and making many of its hotspots free to the general public. But while Comcast opened up 1.5 million hotspots located at businesses and other public areas, there’s another category of Comcast Wi-Fi hotspots that still require a Comcast login and subscription. Those are the hotspots that are enabled by default on Xfinity routers used by home-Internet subscribers.

Since 2013, Xfinity gateways have broadcasted a separate network that other Comcast subscribers can log in to with a Comcast username and password. Unless you’ve disabled the functionality, anyone within range of your Comcast router can get Internet access if they have a Comcast subscription or have paid for a temporary Wi-Fi pass.

Wyden, Harris, and Booker argue that Comcast should open these hotspots to children without Internet access during the pandemic so that kids can get free broadband at home instead of having to go to a parking lot or other public places. They wrote in a letter to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts:

Comcast has taken important steps to help Americans get connected during this global public health emergency. But it can—and should—do more to help children and teachers in Oregon and across the country. We urge you to start by dropping the paywall and providing free access to Comcast residential public Wi-Fi networks. While Comcast started providing free access to its business customers’ Wi-Fi access points on March 13, 2020, the paywall remains on the millions of Comcast-operated public Wi-Fi networks located in homes and apartment buildings across America.

Comcast subscribers have long been concerned that public hotspots broadcast by their routers would slow down their own broadband service. Comcast has denied that such problems exist, and those Comcast denials were cited in the senators’ letter:

According to statements that Comcast made to the press, the private and public Wi-Fi networks operated by Comcast’s residential Wi-Fi routers are completely separated, both for security reasons and, as Comcast Senior VP of Business Development Tom Nagel has said, so that Comcast’s “broadband customers will continue to get the service that they are paying for.” However, after Senator Wyden’s office asked you to drop the paywall on your residential public Wi-Fi networks, your staff stated that doing so could create Wi-Fi congestion and could impact the speed for paying subscribers’ Internet connections.

Comcast’s excuse simply does not add up. Millions of Comcast’s customers pay the company $14 a month to rent a Wi-Fi router which includes, by default, a Comcast-controlled public Wi-Fi network to which Comcast sells access. If Comcast’s previous statements are true, and use of that public Wi-Fi network does not impact the subscriber, it should not matter if the person using it has paid Comcast for a Wi-Fi access pass or if they are a low-income school child trying to do their homework. Alternatively, if use of the public Wi-Fi network can, in fact, impact the subscriber and prevent them from getting the level of service for which they are paying, Comcast has misled their customers.

Comcast defends pandemic response

We asked Comcast if the senators’ request would cause congestion for subscribers and whether the cable company will open up the residential hotspots as requested. Comcast didn’t directly answer those questions but told Ars that its network has “performed exceedingly well at this new record level of traffic due to our substantial investment in our network and the herculean efforts of our front-line technicians and workers. Our engineering teams are focused on the critical work of supporting our network to allow the millions of Americans who now depend on it to stay connected through the current crisis.”

Comcast also defended its existing pandemic offers for low-income subscribers.

“Comcast has taken multiple unprecedented steps to make broadband more accessible during this crisis,” Comcast said. “We’ve offered free Internet for 60 days for new low-income customers eligible for our Internet Essentials program. We opened our 1.5 million business and outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots for anyone to use for free across the country for the first time, and are keeping them open until June 30. We have committed not to disconnect service or to charge late fees to our customers who are unable to pay due to the pandemic.”

Comcast noted that, through 2019, it connected 180,000 low-income people to Internet Essentials in Sen. Wyden’s home state of Oregon. Comcast also pointed to partnerships in which some schools recently purchased Internet Essentials to support online learning during the pandemic. The low-income program Internet Essentials typically costs $10 a month and offers 25Mbps download speeds and 3Mbps uploads.

Questions for Comcast

The letter from Wyden, Harris, and Booker asks Comcast to answer a list of questions by May 22. For example, the senators asked Comcast how many subscribers rent an Xfinity gateway and how many customers “have opted to disable the public Wi-Fi network in their Comcast-supplied cable modem/Wi-Fi router, which Comcast enables by default.”

The senators further asked how much revenue Comcast earns from gateway rental fees and from people purchasing passes to public Wi-Fi hotspots, and they noted that Comcast “generated $18.7 billion from high-speed Internet access fees in 2019 alone.” They also want Comcast to provide specific details on how opening up the hotspots would affect network performance.

“Please identify the specific performance issues that you anticipate would impact Comcast subscribers and their ability to get the level of service for which they pay if Comcast removed the paywall on its residential public Wi-Fi networks,” the senators wrote. “For each issue you identify, please explain why the use today of a subscriber’s public network by someone who has purchased an access pass from Comcast does not cause the same problem.”

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