Wi-Fi systems with fancy network-management tools, smartphone apps, and cloud services are the hot new thing, so Comcast is radically retooling its broadband gateways to counter the threat. The cable company and internet service provider is rolling out “Xfinity xFi” to deter customers from swapping out the broadband gateways they rent from Comcast for $10 per month. It will also introduce mesh-like “xFi pods” later this year to increase the Wi-Fi coverage its gateways deliver.
Comcast describes Xfinity xFi as a “digital dashboard” that customers can use to set up and manage their home Wi-Fi network. It will run on the company’s existing broadband gateways and in the cloud, and customers will interact with it via a smartphone app, web portal, or on their TV screens using Comcast’s X1 remote—including voice control.
In a briefing last week, Comcast Chief Product Officer Chris Satchell said Comcast’s focus is on making the home network easier to use as consumers bring more smart devices into their homes. “Surveys tell us there will be 20 billion internet-of-things (IoT) devices by 2020. In the U.S., consumers will go from having three, four, or five smart things in their home to having 10, 20, to 40 to 50. The adoption rate for smart devices is rapidly accelerating. Our key is how do we make this easy for our customers without having to make them into their own chief information officers?”
A mix of familiar and new capabilities
Many of the features Comcast is touting will be familiar to anyone who’s used one of the many Wi-Fi systems on the market (Netgear Orbi, Linksys Velop, or TP-Link Deco M5, to name a few). There are parental controls that can prevent underage users from visiting inappropriate websites, you’ll receive alerts when new devices join your Wi-Fi network, you can schedule when client devices are allowed access to the internet, and you can pause any client device—or your entire network—from connecting to the internet. You’ll also be able to manage your home network from anywhere you have internet access, so that if an unknown device joins your network while you’re away from home, you can respond to the alert by “pausing” that device’s ability to reach the internet until you can determine what it is.
Satchell also described several other less-common features, including the ability to automatically diagnose and report why a client device is having trouble connecting to the internet and offer suggestions how you might fix the problem. The gateway can also automatically block network client devices from visiting malware sites, including IoT devices that don’t have displays that you can monitor to see what they’re connecting to. And Comcast customers who also subscribe to the company’s cable TV service will be able to manage their home network using the Xfinity X1 set-top box. “It’s really important to be able to interact with our services from the comfort of your couch,” Satchell said, “looking at the biggest screen in your house, [and] using voice commands to give you that singular experience.”
The problem with parental controls
Satchell admitted, however, that Comcast’s new gateways won’t be any more sophisticated than other routers when it comes to how parental controls work. As is typical in the industry, parents will establish profiles for each user in the house. Each profile includes rules for what that user can do on the network, where they can go on the internet, the time periods they’re allowed to be online, and so forth. The next step is to assign devices to those profiles.
That’s fine for families that can afford to give each person their own computer, tablet, smartphone, or what have you. The problem is that most families share a family computer or tablet. So if you want to restrict what the kids can do while they’re using that PC, you’ll need to assign it to one of the kids’ profiles. And when you want to use that computer, you’ll be subject to the very same restrictions. What’s more, Comcast’s current parental controls will be more restrictive than most because the current profiles are focused on children aged 12 and under. Satchell said the company will add a teen-oriented category later.
“Yeah, if you’re an adult and you’ve assigned the device to your kid’s profile that has a parental control,” Satchell said, “that device will have that parental control.” He went on to say that you could temporarily move that device from that restricted profile to regain the freedom an adult user would want, but then you’d have to remember to change it back before you let the child use it again. To be fair to Comcast, this is how all router-based parental controls work, and it’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan.
Satchell did suggest a solution that I could get behind, however: “Ideally, the device would biometrically recognize the user, so that you don’t have to type in a user name and password. You’d just pick it up and it would know who it is.” The router would then apply access rules to that specific user, instead of just that device.
The Xfinity xFi gateways
Satchell said Comcast’s existing broadband gateway—the Xfinity XB3—is already compatible with the new app, so it’s simply being renamed the Xfinity xFi. If you’re one of the 10 million Comcast broadband subscribers using that router, you’ll only need to download the new app to see what the company has to offer.
Comcast is rolling out a brand-new gateway to customers who subscribe to its top-tier service offering download speeds up to 1Gbps. Satchell said this new device—dubbed the xFi Advanced Wireless Gateway—meets the DOCSIS 3.1 cable-modem standard and includes an 802.11ac Wave 2 router with an 8x8, 160MHz radio that supports multi-user MIMO. “It also has an 802.15.4 IoT radio, so it can communicate using Thread, ZigBee, and Bluetooth LE” all at the same time,” Satchell said. “We think it’s the most powerful gateway on the market.”
For the time being, the router portion of Comcast’s better gateway delivers more power than current clients can take advantage of. As Satchell points out, “probably the best you can get right now is a MacBook Pro. It’s got an 80MHz 3x3 radio, so you can pull 700Mbps over W-Fi with that. We think later this year we’re going to see 160MHz clients come out. We’ve done some testing on that and were able to get speeds up to 1.5Gbps over Wi-Fi using a 4x4 160MHz client.”
Whole-home Wi-Fi is on the road map
“Whole-home Wi-Fi” is the other hot topic in the router market these days, so Comcast has plans for that technology as well. Satchell said the company has made an investment in the home-networking startup Plume, which has developed what they describe as “adaptive Wi-Fi” technology. Instead of relying on one or a few access points, Plume asks users to distribute its small pods all over the home (they plug directly into an AC duplex, and are small enough that they won’t block the adjacent outlet).
“We know that for the majority of our customers, the most important thing is that it’s easy,” Satchell said. “With Plume’s technology, you just plug an extender into the wall. You don’t have to think about having enough of them, you don’t have to think about where it goes, it automatically joins your network and seamlessly extends it throughout your home. The combination of their technologies and our technologies that we’re integrating together is allowing us to do just that. If the gateway isn’t enough for your home, we can easily give you a solution. This will come out later in the year.”
Prospective Plume buyers who aren’t Comcast customers should take heed. Comcast’s parental controls are based on technology developed by PowerCloud Systems, the startup behind the subscription-based Skydog router I reviewed in 2013. Comcast killed the Skydog, effectively bricking the router as its owners’—many of whom backed PowerCloud’s Kickstarter campaign—subscriptions ran out.
Sounds great, but…
Comcast’s new Xfinity xFi gateways sound compelling, but forcing customers to pay for them in perpetuity just sticks in my craw. The best Wi-Fi systems we’ve tested cost between $350 and $500. Even if you assume the high-end xFi is a $500 retail value, you’ll have paid for it in a little more than four years.
And then there are those of us who live in areas that Comcast can’t—or chooses not to—offer service. I live in a rural area of northern California, for instance, and would have the option of signing up with Comcast if I lived in the city limits, but my home is just beyond that line. So even if I wanted to pay $10 per month to rent Comcast’s gateway (on top of whatever they charge for broadband), I couldn’t. If it wasn’t my job to be aware what the big ISPs were up to, this gateway wouldn’t even be on my radar.