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Lawsuit filed against Comcast over residential WiFi hotspots

This ought to be interesting.

Two San Francisco-area residents are suing Comcast for plugging their home’s wireless router into what they call a power-wasting, Internet-clogging, privacy threatening network of public WiFi hot spots.

The class-action lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court on behalf of Toyer Grear and her daughter Joycelyn Harris, claims Comcast is “exploiting them for profit” by using their home’s router as part of a nationwide network of public hot spots.

Comcast turned on the Xfinity WiFi hot spots for its Houston residential customers in June, and at the time a spokesman said 150,000 hot spots would eventually be enabled in the Houston area.

[…]

Although Comcast has said subscribers have the right to disable the secondary signal, the lawsuit claims the company turns the service on without permission and placed “the costs of its national WiFi network onto its customers.”

“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 lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit quotes a test conducted by Philadelphia networking technology company Speedify that concluded the secondary Internet channel will eventually push “tens of millions of dollars per month of the electricity bills needed to run their nationwide public WiFi network onto consumers.”

Tests showed that under heavy use, the secondary channel adds 30 percent to 40 percent more costs to a customer’s electricity bill, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also said “the data and information on a Comcast customer’s network is at greater risk” because the hot spot network “allows strangers to connect to the Internet through the same wireless router used by Comcast customers.”

The Chron’s Dwight Silverman was all over this when Comcast enabled this in Houston. Like Dwight, who blogged about the lawsuit here, I find the claim about a 30 to 40 percent increase in one’s electric bill to be dubious. That Xfinity router would have to be one hell of a power drain for that to be remotely true. The concern about a possible security breach is valid, though honestly anyone with an old home router, or one that uses default admin information, is at a greater risk. At least those Xfinity modem/routers have a complex password on them. As for the rest of it, we’ll see. I used the Xfinity router for awhile, mostly because when I plugged it in I didn’t realize it would make my existing router useless. (*) After a couple of weeks, I followed Dwight’s advice, bought an Arris Motorola Surfboard SB6141 modem, and had no trouble installing it or getting Comcast to activate it, and I’m back where I was before. Whatever does happen here won’t affect me, but I’ll be interested to see how it plays out, and to see if someone takes similar action here. What do you think?

(*) Once I installed the Comcast Xfinity modem/router, I had to switch nearly all my previously connected devices to it, as they wouldn’t connect to the Internet otherwise. The one exception was my TiVo, whose wireless network card continued to use the IP address it had gotten from my existing router with no problems. My theory was that its IP address was outside the range the Comcast router had allocated. It also continued to work with no intervention after I switched back. Who knows why for sure, but as that was the clunkiest interface to make updates to, I wasn’t complaining.

Comcast wants to use your routers

For a massive WiFi network.

Comcast is expected to flip a switch Tuesday in Houston that will turn 50,000 of its customers’ home Wi-Fi routers into a massive network of public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Comcast residential Internet subscribers with one of the newer cable modem/wireless router combos will show a public network called “xfinitywifi.” Other Comcast customers will be able to connect to it free.

By the end of June, there will be 150,000 such hotspots in the greater Houston area. It’s part of an initiative that will see 8 million Wi-Fi hotspots accessible to Comcast customers around the country by the end of the year.

The move could also lay the foundation for Comcast to get into the wireless phone business with a network that blends Wi-Fi and traditional cellular service.

Amalia O’Sullivan, Comcast’s vice president of Xfinity Internet Product, told the Houston Chronicle that the goal is to make it easier for “friends and family” to use each other’s Comcast home Wi-Fi networks.

“Instead of coming over to your house and saying, ‘Hey, what’s your Wi-Fi password?’ your friends can just connect to the Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot,” O’Sullivan said.

The free network will be on by default for customers who have an Arris Touchstone Telephony Wireless Gateway Modem, which Comcast has been distributing for about two years in Houston. The black plastic device is tall, narrow and has the word Xfinity on the front. It costs $8 a month to rent, and is the standard equipment being issued to Comcast customers who don’t buy their own modems or routers.

Comcast spokesman Michael Bybee said the Xfiniti Wi-Fi hotspot will broadcast only in those cases where customers are using the Wi-Fi feature of the Arris device. Customers who have their own Wi-Fi routers won’t be broadcasting the hotspot.

Bybee said the network will be activated in “waves,” with the first 50,000 switched on Tuesday afternoon. The remaining 100,000 will be phased in through the month.

Customers were notified of the plan in a letter last month, Bybee said. An email notification will be sent after the service begins.

Remember the discussion about municipal WiFi a few years ago? That never happened, but this appears to be a successor to it. There are some details to be worked out, so we’ll see how it all goes. Dwight Silverman has been all over this, with technical details including how you can turn this off if you want to. One thing he clarified for me is that if you bought your own router, as I did, you’re not affected by this.

Extremetech considers some of the implications of this.

Will Comcast Xfinity WiFi slow down your connection to the internet?

The more curious bit is Comcast’s assertion that this public hotspot won’t slow down your residential connection — i.e. if you’re paying for 150Mbps of download bandwidth through the Extreme 150 package, you will still get 150Mbps, even if you have five people creepily parked up outside leeching free WiFi. This leads to an interesting question: If Xfinity hotspot users aren’t using your 150Mbps of bandwidth, whose bandwidth are they using?

There are two options here. Comcast might just be lying about public users not impacting your own download speeds. The other option is that Xfinity WiFi Home Hotspot uses its own separate channel to the internet. This is entirely possible — DOCSIS 3.0 can accommodate around 1Gbps, so there’s plenty of free space. But how big is this separate channel? 50Mbps? 100Mbps? And if there’s lots of spare capacity, why is Comcast giving it to free WiFi users rather than the person who’s paying a lot of money for the connection? And isn’t Comcast usually complaining about its network being congested? At least, that’s the excuse it used to squeeze money from Netflix, and to lobby for paid internet fast lanes.

With 50,000 hotspots enabled in Houston today, 150,000 more planned for the end of the month, and then 8 million more across Xfinity hotspots across the US before the end of 2014, we can only assume that Comcast has a lot of extra capacity. Either that, or it’s intentionally trying to clog up the network for its paying customers — perhaps so it can levy further charges from edge providers like Netflix, or so it has some ammo in the continuing battle for net neutrality.

I figure sooner or later there’s going to be some kind of vulnerability that may expose data on the accompanying home networks. I’m just cynical that way. Are you a Comcast user that has been or will be affected by this? What do you think about it?

Crane sues McLane

This ought to be fun.

Jim Crane’s Astros ownership group filed a state court lawsuit Thursday against former Astros owner Drayton McLane, Comcast and NBC Universal, accusing them of fraud and civil conspiracy and accusing McLane’s corporation that owned the Astros of breach of contract in conjunction with Crane’s 2011 purchase of a 46 percent interest in the parent company of Comcast SportsNet Houston.

The suit accuses McLane, who sold the Astros and his CSN Houston share to Crane in 2011 for $615 million, of selling “an asset (the network) they knew at the time to be overpriced and broken.” It also says Crane was “duped” when he bought McLane’s network interest based on what have been proved to be “knowing misrepresentations” and “falsely inflated subscription rates.”

“Ultimately, fans of the Houston Astros have been injured because defendants’ misrepresentations leave (Crane) with an impossible choice: accept the broken network as is and deprive thousands of fans the ability to watch Houston Astros games on their televisions, or distribute the game at market rates and take massive losses out of the Houston Astros player payroll – thereby dooming the franchise for years to come,” the suit adds.

[…]

Crane’s suit alleges McLane and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander demanded in 2010 that Comcast charge a base subscriber rate for CSN Houston in Zone 1 – the area around Houston where Astros and Rockets games can be seen – that Comcast said was too high. In fact, the suit said, the rate was so high Comcast feared it could not convince other distributors to carry the network.

Comcast eventually agreed to the inflated base rate, the suit said, in return for a most favored nation clause, which ensured Comcast it would always pay the lowest base rate of any distributor.

Faulty business plan

Crane, according to the suit, was not aware of these facts when he was negotiating to buy the team in 2011 and that Comcast, NBC Universal and McLane agreed to “conceal material information” about the network’s business plan.

The suit also accuses Jon Litner, group president of the NBC Sports Group, of making false and misleading claims the CSN Houston business plan was achievable, even though they were based on what the company knew were inflated subscriber rates.

Crane became aware of the 2010 demands by Alexander and McLane, according to the suit, during a December 2012 meeting in New York City, about a year after he bought the team and three months after the network launched.

The suit asks that McLane’s McLane Champions corporation be ordered to repay Crane’s group for losses that have resulted from alleged breaches of the group’s purchase agreement – including, presumably, more than $30 million in rights fees the Astros failed to receive in 2013 and what Crane says is the “artificially inflated price” he paid for McLane’s network share. Court testimony indicated CSN Houston was valued in 2010 at $700 million, with McLane’s share valued at $326 million.

I haven’t followed it here on the blog, but CSN Houston has been plagued with problems, mostly stemming from the fact that nobody other than Comcast carries it. That limits its reach to about 40% of Houston-area viewers, which also limits ratings and ad revenues. Mayor Parker has tried to facilitate talks between Comcast and other carriers to resolve this, but has had no luck. The infamous game nobody watched probably didn’t improve Crane’s mood about the station. The Astros have been trying to get out of this deal but aren’t on the same page as the Rockets, who are also stakeholders in CSN Houston. Four Comcast affiliates have filed for bankruptcy stemming from that action. It’s all a big mess, is what I’m saying. I have no idea what happens from here, but I’ll be watching. Sports Update and Hair Balls have more.

Cutting the cord on cable

I have no plans to change the way I watch TV any time soon, but a lot of other people are at least thinking about it.

The Convergence Consulting Group of Toronto predicts that about 1.6 million U.S. households will “cut the cord,” or cancel monthly cable subscriptions, by the end of 2011, as more content becomes available online.

Time Warner and Comcast recently reported that third-quarter cable subscriber losses more than doubled from a year earlier, though both argued the economy was a bigger factor than cord-cutting.

Research firm Nielsen Co. also says the phenomenon is overstated. At a conference this summer, Howard Shimmel, a senior vice president at the company, said cord- cutting is mainly isolated to young, emerging households that aren’t watching much online programming either.

Nevertheless, media businesses have made strides to stay ahead of the issue, responding by offering on-demand services, digital video recorders and “TV Everywhere” options that allow paying customers to access content over the devices of their choosing.

Dwight recently ran a guest post from a cable cord-cutter. What was fascinating to me was all the comments from people had already done this or who were planning to. A lot of them sounded like too much work in return for the savings, plus a lot of experiences with Comcast that are worse than mine, but to each their own. I didn’t have cable until I was 31. It wasn’t available where we lived when I was a kid, it wasn’t available on the Trinity campus when I was in college, and I was too cheap to spring for it my first few years in Houston. Having finally taken that step, I have no plans to go back. I can see the appeal of just getting the shows you want via the Internet, especially since it’s a lot easier to watch them on a TV now, but for me the value of not having to change my habits outweighs that. My TiVo does what I need it to do, thanks. I know that nothing lasts forever and that sooner or later I’ll be forced to change, but I’m content to wait till that happens. What about you? All Things Digital nd Yglesias have more.a

Comcast to offer wireless broadband in Houston

Dwight has the news.

Coming next year to the hot, humid air all around you, Houston: High-speed wireless broadband from Comcast.

Its new High-Speed 2go service is rolling out now in Portland, Ore., and local Comcast spokesman Michael Bybee said today Houston will get it in 2010. He didn’t offer any other specifics.

Some more details can be found here. The main bits of interest to me for this service are these:

Comcast will offer its own wireless laptop cards and the service will not have any voice component. The card is free with a 1 year contract or it can be purchased for $99 and customers can go month to month.

[…]

Consumers can pay $69.99 a month for a “fast pack” national offering that buys them unlimited wireless data and a 12 Mbps home broadband offering. A metro-only service will cost $49.99 a month.

It’s not municipal WiFi, but it sounds interesting. As an existing Comcast customer, I’ll be most interested in what their pricing will be to bundle home broadband service with this. It would be nice to be able to take the laptop with me and not have to worry about finding a hotspot. Anyone else interested in this?