Comcast is turning Chicago homes into public Wi-Fi hotspots

An important step for public Wi-Fi, Comcast tries to steer customers to its Wi-Fi when they leave their homes.

Comcast recently launched a new project to leverage "hundreds of thousands" of Chicago residential customers' equipment for public Wi-Fi hotspots available to Comcast customers who happen to be walking through these neighborhoods, the Chicago Tribune reported today.

Hardware already deployed in existing Comcast customers' homes will send out a separate signal extending public Wi-Fi connectivity that other Comcast customers can find with the Xfinity WiFi app, available for both iOS and Android devices. According to the Tribune, the plan is to establish enough of these public hotspots to make entire city blocks available as Wi-Fi hotspots.

In terms of functionality, the project is similar to Comcast's Xfinity in-home hotspot offering, which offers a separate signal for a guest network. Intended for customers who would prefer not to connect their guests' devices to their network - a legitimate security concern - the hotspot offering also prevents cluttering the network's bandwidth and dragging down performance. The same measures will be taken in the Chicago project, which will be rolled out in the next few months, according to the Tribune.

It's a nice offering, and one that is likely to have wireless carriers upset with a Comcast move that will steer customers away from their 4G networks while out in public. It will be great for those looking to watch videos or stream music while hanging out at a park or walking their dogs.

However, I'm not so sure how effective this kind of initiative will be. When in public, most smartphone and tablet users don't think twice about whether Wi-Fi is available unless they can't get any 4G connection. Futhermore, how many people will take the time to connect to a public Wi-Fi network if they're just passing through?

Then there are the security concerns. The kinds of tech-savvy users who will even be aware of Comcast's public Wi-Fi hotspots are probably security-conscious enough to avoid connecting to them when the proper security standards aren't in place.

This is a consistent issue in the current state of internet in the U.S. We have the means to improve access and performance, but many everyday users aren't aware enough of the available options to take advantage of them. Comcast's public Wi-Fi hotspot initiative could be a good first step toward ubiquitous Wi-Fi access, but it's still a long way away.

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