DENVER - Thousands of cable internet customers in Colorado will soon be helping Comcast provide wireless internet to the public - whether they know it or not.
Comcast is turning people's home internet connection into public WiFi hotspots.
The company says it's already done so with one million customers and counting. Comcast said Monday that it will install more neighborhood Wi-Fi hotspots in its service markets to encourage Internet customers to stay connected on their handheld devices even when they're not at home.
Comcast said the service will be available in the Denver metro area "very soon."
The new program from the cable giant aims to let other users log onto WiFi using the signal from your Comcast router. It means adding a second, public signal to the private one you use at home. So anyone from your babysitter to a total stranger can register their device and hop online if they're nearby.
Some customers are already experiencing the service at home, though the project has not officially launched here yet. Viewers wrote in saying they can see the second signal –called "Xfinity WiFi" - in their wireless options list.
9NEWS tested the service Friday in an apartment in downtown Denver. We were able to access the system by creating a new username and password.
Comcast says that apartment may be part of a test pool composed of roughly 100,000 Colorado Comcast customers. In April, Comcast sent out a letter to those selected for the test pool letting them know the company would soon turn on a secondary, public signal.
Comcast said its free for its cable service customers. Those who aren't Comcast customers can use it for free twice a month, an hour at a time.
"WiFi is an important part of our strategy to be the place where customers connect all devices, anywhere and at any time," said Tom Nagel, Comcast Cable's senior vice president of business development.
9news spoke with Jefferson Graham, a tech columnist for USA Today. For him, the concept raises more questions than answers over privacy.
"By making so many WiFi signals out there more available, of course it's making it available to hackers, although of course Comcast would say no it's not," Graham said.
It's a fear echoed by University of Denver law professor John Soma. After studying privacy law for more than three decades, Soma says security is rarely certain.
"I'm very confident that at least a middle schooler or high school kid somewhere in the world will be able to [hack into your router]," Soma said.
Comcast said that the company has several layers of security in place in addition to free privacy programs. A spokesman suggested a strong password. They insist the system is secure.
Can you really opt out?
Comcast says you can opt out by calling 1-800-XFINITY. Or you can visit visit My Account at http://customer.comcast.com/, click on "Users & Preferences", and then select "Manage XFINITY WiFi."
When a 9NEWS employee with Comcast service followed the online opt-out instructions, they led to a page that touted the benefits of the public hotspot idea but didn't offer any way to opt out.
The 9NEWS employee then tried Comcast's second opt-out method, by phone. After 42 minutes on the phone with various customer service representatives, we were told it's impossible to opt out.
"We are not able to disable that because it's free for all the customers in your area," said customer service representative "April," who said she works at a call center in the Philippines.
Told that Comcast spokespeople were promising customers the ability to opt-out, the customer service representative wouldn't budge.
"This is the third time I'm explaining it," the Comcast rep said. "The WiFi hotspot from Comcast is open to all customers. We are not able to disable that."
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the cost?
Comcast says there is no additional cost for the second, public signal.
Will the program affect my internet speed?
Because the private signal is separate from the public signal, Comcast says there will not be any impact on WiFi speed.
How can I opt out?
Comcast says the opt-out feature is available on the webpage here: http://customer.comcast.com/. Comcast also says customers can opt out over the phone.
Is it secure?
Comcast says the system is secure, as the signals are separated and locked. Each user will have to register a device when attempting to use a public signal via home Comcast router. 9News spoke with a technology industry reporter and a University of Denver lawyer - both raised security concerns. Our tech analyst pointed out that with more signals, there is more opportunity for hacking. The lawyer explained that security is rarely certain, and the opportunity to penetrate safeguards is ever present.
Who can use my secondary public signal?
Comcast customers will have unlimited access to the public signal. Non-Comcast users will be able to use the service for up to two hours per month and have the option to buy additional time.
What is the benefit?
Comcast says more wireless signals means customers will rely less on cellular data, eventually lowering bills. The company says the hope is to expand the home user experience to more public areas.
If someone uses your router for something illegal, will it come back to you?
Comcast says no. Each user has to register a device, and Comcast users will have to input their subscription information. The information accessed through WiFi will be traced back to individual devices and subscriptions.
Does this use current hardware or will they have to install a new router for it to work?
This program uses the XfinityWifi Wireless Gateway already in place.
(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation with USA TODAY)