NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Four years ago, I was stuck in Chengdu, China, facing numerous deadlines back in the United States.My solution was to turn on my computer's WiFi router, look for open connections among my new Chinese neighbors and piggy-back on them. It worked. My copy made it to where it needed to go. I even wrote a story about it. I suggested that a "side-band" could separate the bits a subscriber was using from those the public could access, and the router could firewall a subscriber's computer from those radio signals. Voila -- free universal access to the Internet! Comcast ( CMCSA) is now doing something like that, but without the free part. Back in 2009 I couldn't have done my work in Atlanta the way I did it in China because my neighbors were, even then, routinely locking down their routers with passwords. They were encouraged to do so by stories like this, in ComputerWorld, scary stuff in which a guy with an open router had the FBI knock on his door because someone had used that access to trade child porn. Despite the fact that courts are not holding people negligent for open WiFi connections, as TechDirt reports, there are countless stories like this one from HowStuffWorks that call using an open WiFi router "stealing" or "hijacking."
Now, in an effort to expand the utility (and popularity) of its Xfinity cable modem service, Comcast wants to re-educate you. Their new wireless routers will broadcast two separate signals, one to your local network, and the other its other customers can use, according to CNet. There's a catch here, of course. In order to use the "public" signal, you also have to be a Comcast customer. Thus, neighborhoods will be filled with signals the users of rival ISPs can't access, increasing the value of Comcast to those who have it. The company has posted a searchable map of its Xfinity hotspots and is offering an app its customers can use to find them. This is an "opt-out" service, not "opt-in." As soon as you get one of these new WiFi routers for your home network, your neighbors who are Xfinity customers can get free bits from you.
- Comcast and other cable operators sold their cellular spectrum to Verizon Wireless in 2011 and that deal has now been approved. So WiFi no longer cannibalizes Comcast revenue. Rival AT&T ( T) is using its own network of WiFi hotspots as a profit center, charging as much as $3.99 per session. AT&T even offers its own app through which its customers can find these hotspots. Comcast also hopes to make money by charging non-Comcast customers $2.95/hour to use its hotspots, starting in July.
All this puts the public interest in a bit of a bind. With routers turning into paid hotspots, there's no need for communities or coffee shops to invest in free WiFi networks. But with your "free WiFi" access tied to your cable contract, is WiFi still a public service at all, or a private utility? Stay tuned. At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Follow @DanaBlankenhorn This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.