Two San Francisco residents are now suing Comcast for suffering from, among other things, “decreased, inadequate speeds on their home Wi-Fi network.” Though plausible, the suit wasn’t over any of the problems that people tend to bring up around Comcast, but because the cable company has been, with little notice, been using its customers’ home Wi-Fi routers to extend its pay-as-you-go “public” Internet service.
Toyer Grear and Joycelyn Harris claim in a class-action lawsuit filed last week in California, that Comcast is violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by exploiting customers for profit, using their electricity to help power the company’s giant network–it can often be seen listed as “xfinitywifi” or “CableWiFi”–and never asking for permission in the process.
The little-publicized program rests on the modem/router boxes that Comcast rents to its customers. These gateways house two separate antennas, one of which the customer can use while the other is reserved for the “Xfinity Wi-Fi” signal, an option that pops up increasingly often on lists of nearby Wi-Fi networks.
“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 complaint says.
In 2013, Comcast announced its vision for stretching its network by turning customers’ routers into public hotspots with the SSID “Xfinitywifi,” allowing Comcast customers the ability to access hotspots by entering their account credentials into a website, or the public to access them for a fee. The company quietly started rolling the program out in Texas and Washington earlier this year before spreading it to more cities, with the goal of 8 million hotspots by the end of the year. Comcast has 21 million customers in the U.S., and says that over 200 million have connected to the Internet through the Xfinity network so far this year.
Issuing a statement at the time, Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas said that there shouldn’t be any conflict between the two networks, and “The last thing we want to allow is to create a bad user experience.”
While security may not be the main concern–unless an exploit is discovered–there are still some potential concerns for customers, including the increased electricity from more constant Internet usage, what the suit alleges is as much as a 30-40% higher electricity cost for the modem.
“If a consumer uses a Comcast-supplied wireless router that enables an Xfinity Wi-Fi Hotspot, he or she can expect an additional $20-30 in electricity costs annually if no one uses the hotspot,” the suit alleges. It asks for unspecified damages and an injunction that would stop Comcast from using home wireless routers for its hotspot network.
Around the time of Comcast’s initial announcement, Speedify, a company that analyzes Internet connections, tested Comcast’s equipment to determine its electricity consumption compared to standard equipment. “Based on our tests,” the company stated on its website, “we expect that by the time they roll it out to all of their subscribers, Comcast will be pushing tens of millions of dollars per month of the electricity bills needed to run their nationwide public Wi-Fi network onto consumers.” Comcast asked the company to re-do the tests on a newer version of the router and the results, Speedify said, were even worse.
Comcast, which has brought in $8.4 billion in revenue from high-speed internet so far this year, has recently sought to burnish its reputation with a raft of customer service improvements. Of the 200 or so companies rated in this year’s American Customer Satisfaction Index, only United Airlines and Time Warner Cable drew lower ratings for their services than Comcast did. In the last three years, there were 31,980 complaints lodged against Comcast with the Better Business Bureau, compared to just 22,332 against AT&T–a company with three times as many customers.
As Daniel Kline wrote for the Motley Fool: “Very few companies are brazen enough to sell customers a service then piggyback its own product on top of it. But Comcast has not become one of the more disliked companies in the country by always playing nice.”
Comcast has defended the hotspots, explaining that they consume minimal extra power and do not pose security risks because they are walled off as a separate IP address. The company acknowledges that, as the suit contends, neighborhoods with many routers broadcasting many signals can result in interference and impact the speed of connections. But Comcast calls this “minimal” and that it designed the system “to support robust usage.”
Comcast also offered a general response to the lawsuit today, saying, “we disagree with the allegations in this lawsuit and believe our Xfinity Wi-Fi home hotspot program provides real benefits to our customers. We provide information to our customers about the service and how they can easily turn off the public Wi-Fi hotspot if they wish.“
If you are affected, you can switch off the public Wi-Fi service by accessing the gateway’s settings or calling Comcast directly. A Reddit forum on the issue includes one common complaint: Many are having trouble successfully turning the “feature” off.
From the website:
We encourage all subscribers to keep this feature enabled as it allows more people to enjoy the benefits of XFINITY WiFi, but you will always have the ability to disable the XFINITY WiFi feature on your Wireless Gateway. Visit My Account at https://customer.comcast.com/, click on “Users & Preferences” and then select “Manage XFINITY WiFi” or call 1-800-XFINITY.
A Reddit user also posted instructions for disabling the Wi-Fi altogether if you’d rather connect your own wireless router to avoid the problem. (Just be sure your new modem is compatible with your internet package by checking Comcast’s website first.)
To disable the XFINITY modem/router’s DHCP/Router/WiFI settings, plug a computer into port 1 via ethernet cable. Open a web browser and navigate to 10.0.0.1, log in with the username ‘admin’ and password ‘password’. From here you can navigate to the advanced settings. Locate the function BRIDGE MODE and enable it. Save the settings.
Back in June, after rolling out to 3 million homes, CNN reported that fewer than 1% of customers had turned off the feature.