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Comcast sued for launching public Wi-Fi hotspots from customers' routers

Customers complain of higher electric bills, slower internet speeds since Comcast used their in-home routers to launch public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Xfinity Wi-Fi signs
Credit: Mike Mozart via Flickr

A class-action lawsuit filed in San Francisco last week charges Comcast with exploiting its broadband customers by using their in-home routers to send a separate signal for public Wi-Fi hotspots that extend into their neighborhoods, according to a recent San Francisco Chronicle report.

Comcast has pushed its plan to create public Wi-Fi hotspots to 19 cities so far, and reportedly plans to launch 8 million hotspots by the end of the year. I covered the project when it launched in Chicago this summer. Here's a quick breakdown from that article on how Comcast is approaching the project.

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.

The suit was filed by Comcast customers from Pittsburgh who took exception to their inclusion in Comcast’s effort at establishing a nationwide network of public Wi-Fi hotspots, according to the report. Among the lawsuit’s arguments is that Comcast’s customers will shoulder the bill for the electricity costs of the plan, which a study conducted by network technology company Speedify estimated as a potential 40% increase in electricity costs for customers when secondary network encounters heavy usage. In interviews with the San Francisco Chronicle in June, Comcast’s communications director for its California region said the Wi-Fi hotspots would not increase electricity costs for customers.

The company has consistently billed its Wi-Fi hotspot project as a convenient option for customers, providing an extra network for house guests that would reduce the bandwidth and security risks of additional users on the customers’ private network. However, the lawsuit claims customers have seen "inadequate speeds on their home Wi-Fi network" since the hotspots were launched, according to the report, and argues that using the same router to launch both networks puts the private network at risk all the same.

Back in June, Comcast told the Chronicle that less than 1% of its customer base had opted out of the service in other areas. That could be because many other customers don’t know that the router in their home is part of the project, nor the impact it could have on their electric bills or privacy, the lawsuit argues.

"Comcast's contract with its customers is so vague that it is unclear as to whether Comcast even addresses this practice at all, much less adequately enough to be said to have obtained its customers’ authorization of this practice," the suit reads, according to the report.

Ultimately, the suit aims to nix the project altogether, seeking "an injunction preventing Comcast from using home wireless routers for its hotspot network."

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