If you’re a Comcast customer, your WiFi is probably open to the whole neighborhood.

Comcast SUX VanI noticed something strange the last time I was home visiting my parents in the Philadelphia suburbs: They suddenly had a public wifi hotspot in their home. 

My parents’ house is far enough from public utilities and any neighbor houses that they often have difficulty just getting cellular service, so a public wifi network with a signal as strong as their home wifi seemed impossible.

But this was shortly after Comcast, their ISP, cable, and phone provider, forced my mother to switch out her modem and router (which I’d chosen and installed for her) for a new Comcast-owned 2-in-1 gateway. 

That part of the story is questionable enough. For years I had insisted they own their own equipment, both because it ensured better quality hardware and less tampering from Comcast and because they could avoid the nonsense monthly rental fee that meant they’d essentially be purchasing the crappy Comcast hardware anyway.

[Aside: Have you ever seen the stories about how hundreds of thousands of people who never realized the telephone provided by the phone company in the 1970s or 80s came with a monthly rental fee, and wound up paying thousands of dollars over several decades for a plastic phone they could have purchased for less than a hundred? Consumerist has a story here about an elderly couple who paid more than $6,000 over two-plus decades for three plastic princess phones.]

So it was suspicious enough when the Comcast rep told my mother they were no longer allowing privately owned hardware, and all customers were required to use leased gateways. That’s not even true, as far as I know—although Comcast is reportedly employing more nefarious methods of discouraging people from owning their own hardware.

The mystery of the public hotspot sent me to Google, where I learned that Comcast had indeed turned every customer’s home gateway into a public wifi access point. There was no notice or announcement about this. If you are leasing a newer Comcast modem or router, you may not even realize that strangers are logging on and sharing your Internet connection without your permission or even knowledge.

This is reportedly their attempt to compete with cellular broadband services, but in Comcast’s case it also brings back memories of the time they sued their home city of Philadelphia for trying to build a citywide public wifi network. By turning every consumer router into a hotspot, Comcast effectively activated a citywide wifi network—provided, of course, that every user is a Comcast customer with a username and password in good standing.

Comcast claims the practice is entirely safe, because there is a separate antenna and a firewall between the private home network and the public access spot. Of course the two still share a single cable connection, raising questions about bandwidth, and the public wifi increases the hardware’s electricity consumption by 30-40%, according to the customers who sued Comcast in California in December 2014. According to their research, this change will save Comcast “tens of millions of dollars per month” by pushing electricity charges onto their customers instead of maintaining dedicated public hardware.

Comcast rival Cablevision has apparently followed suit, and they too were sued by one of their customers in August. This may be the new trend for ISPs seeking to compete with cellular providers in major cities. I don’t yet see any rulings in any of these lawsuits, although Comcast forced a class action in theirs.

If you’re paying to lease hardware from Comcast, you may want to check and see if a strangely strong public hotspot has suddenly appeared in your home. I also note that, while I’m not expert enough to do any formal testing, it certainly appears that the public wifi at my parent’s house is considerably faster and more stable than the private home network. This is probably only because most of our networked devices (cell phones, e-readers, computers, tablets, television hardware, the list grows day by day) are on the private network and not the public, but it’s interesting either way.

And if you’d like to turn off the public network on your Comcast router, so your entire neighborhood isn’t invited in to use your Internet connection, the instructions appear to be here at ITWorld.

Comcast SUX Photo from Flickr user Carl Lender, used under Creative Commons license.

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