Comcast Blankets Small Businesses in Wi-Fi Expansion

Can crowdsourced Wi-Fi help small businesses grow?

Cable TV and broadband Internet services provider Comcast this month announced a bold plan to blanket its service areas with a far-reaching Wi-Fi network, enabling its customers to stay connected with their mobile devices without depleting their cellular carriers’ data plans. Consumers win, but small businesses are also set to reap some of the benefits.

Currently, the company is in the midst of creating millions of new Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Comcast’s 39-state service area, plus Washington D.C. The aim is to provide fast, broadband-quality connectivity not only within the home, but around town and in public places. “Wi-Fi is an important part of our strategy to be the place where customers connect all devices, anywhere and at any time,” said Tom Nagel, senior vice president of business development for Comcast Cable, in a company statement.

How? By leveraging the hardware that already resides in customers’ homes.

This neighborhood hotspot initiative uses Comcast’s Wireless Gateway—the Wi-Fi router, cable modem combo that connects customers to the Internet—to deliver two wireless networks. Home users still enjoy access their secure, private home network, but a new “xfinitywifi” signal appears while scanning for SSIDs on a smartphone, tablet or Wi-Fi-enabled PC. Users can connect to the public Wi-Fi network using their own Xfinity usernames and passwords.

Nagel told Small Business Computing that the system works by essentially updating the hardware. “We download a firmware that logically splits that unit in half,” he said. And as far as delivering on the services that customers pay for, Nagel assures that they aren’t getting shortchanged in the deal. “You’ll still get 50 Mbps for your private use,” the speed users experience on the company’s Blast tier, he added.

Public Wi-Fi Draws Customers

The program extends to Comcast’s small- and medium-size business (SMBs) customers as well. Judging by some early feedback, SMBs are already feeling the impact.

“Customers like it,” reported Nagel. Small business owners are noticing that “customers are coming in, staying longer and coming back more often.” They also like not having to manage and otherwise troubleshoot their public Wi-Fi services.

Users are on a different network, for all intents and purposes said Nagel. For shop owners, “the risk the exposure to their own network is non-existent.” There are no arcane settings to wrestle into compliance or passwords to hand out. “They don’t have to manage it,” he boasted.

Finally, like home users, Comcast isn’t asking SMBs to sacrifice any of their network resources. The public hotspot functionality “won’t impact any type of network usage or utilization,” said Nagel.

To date, over 100,000 Xfinity Internet subscribers have used the service. The neighborhood hotspot trial was first conducted last year in parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. metro area.

Although the roll-out is in its early stages, the program has the potential to affect countless small businesses. Comcast claims that as the nation’s largest ISP, it has 20 million customers that access the Internet on its network.

That’s a lot of potential neighborhood hotspots.

Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at Small Business Computing and Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.

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