Comcast customers looking for a Wi-Fi hot spot might want to try their neighbor's yard.
The cable and Internet provider has begun to turn hundreds of thousands of Chicago-area homes into virtual coffee shops, using existing Comcast equipment to build out its publicly accessible wireless network.
The neighborhood hot spots initiative, rolling out during the next several months, will send a separate Wi-Fi signal from Comcast-issued home equipment, enabling anyone within range to get online. Soon, entire residential blocks will begin to show as hot spots on Xfinity's Wi-Fi mobile app, the company said Tuesday.
Because the Comcast subscriber's signal will be kept separate from the second, publicly available signal, the subscriber's speed and privacy shouldn't be affected, Comcast officials said, acknowledging that such concerns have been raised in test markets.
"They'll look like two separate networks and they'll act like two separate networks," said Tom Nagel, who heads the Xfinity Wi-Fi initiative for Comcast. "Any use on the public side doesn't impact the private side."
The roots of Wi-Fi, once a perk at coffee houses, date to 1999, when manufacturers banded together under that banner to promote wireless local area networking technology to connect to the Internet. The technology received a boost in recent years when the popularization of mobile devices, paired with the rising cost of cellular access, prompted huge demand for inexpensive, or in many cases, free Wi-Fi access.
"The real sea change in Wi-Fi came when the wireless operators started charging for data consumption around four years ago," said Craig Moffett, senior analyst at MoffettNathanson, a telecommunications and cable research firm. "Suddenly, there was a huge economic incentive to rely on Wi-Fi whenever it was available, and you started to see the consumption of Wi-Fi go through the roof."
Last year, adults spent more than 19 percent of their media time on mobile devices, second only to television, according to eMarketer. That includes everything from watching video to engaging on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
With smartphones becoming ubiquitous, mobile data traffic is projected to grow eightfold from 2013 to 2018 in North America, according to networking equipment-maker Cisco. Much of that growth will come through Wi-Fi networks, which accounted for 57 percent of mobile data traffic last year. By 2018, 64 percent of mobile data traffic will be through Wi-Fi, according to Cisco.
Wi-Fi is gaining significant national traction through cable companies such as Time Warner and Cablevision, looking to provide customers with mobile access to their video and Internet offerings. Comcast has led the way with its Wi-Fi initiative, which started in its home city of Philadelphia more than three years ago.
Chicago may be the tipping point on the way to a national Wi-Fi network.
Comcast began building out its Chicago-area Wi-Fi network last year, placing outdoor hot spots in a variety of locations, including shopping centers, commuter stations and parks. Additionally, about 9,000 Comcast business customers have signed on to serve as public hot spots. But the neighborhood initiative will turn Chicago into a Wi-Fi hotbed for Comcast as it closes in on 1 million access points nationwide.
Once the dual-mode modems are activated remotely by Comcast, visitors will use their own Xfinity credentials to sign on, and will not need the homeowner's permission or password to tap into the public Wi-Fi signal. Nonsubscribers will get two free hours a month; beyond that, they can access Xfinity Wi-Fi on a per-use basis. Rates run from $2.95 per hour to $19.95 per week, according to Comcast.
Xfinity subscribers can travel from hot spot to hot spot — in this case, from home to home — without needing to log on again through their mobile device.
Home Internet subscribers will automatically participate in the network's growing infrastructure. But a small number have chosen to opt out in other test markets, according to Nagel, who cited customer concerns about the potential effect to their service.
"There is an ability to go into your Comcast account settings and turn your device off from sharing," Nagel said.
A spokeswoman with Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office said Comcast's announcement isn't directly related to the city's broadband initiative, which seeks to bring free Wi-Fi to parks, beaches and other spaces.
The Chicago Broadband Challenge launched in September 2012, but early last month, Emanuel announced a two-step competitive process — a request for qualifications and then proposals — to attract potential partners to establish "affordable gigabit-speed broadband networks in key commercial corridors." The idea is that low-cost, high-speed Internet in those spots will help increase entrepreneurship and create jobs.
Also, the city partnered with Cisco and Chicago-based Everywhere Wireless last summer to provide beachgoers with free high-speed Wi-Fi at North Avenue, Osterman/Hollywood, Montrose, Foster and Rainbow beaches as part of a pilot program.
The city's effort is a drop in the bucket compared with Comcast's potential reach.
Last month, Comcast agreed to acquire Time Warner Cable for $45.2 billion, which, if approved by regulators, would give it access to about one-third of cable and Internet subscribers nationwide. Leveraging the equipment it has placed in those homes to develop a national Wi-Fi network is efficient, feasible and a lot better for users than a patchwork of coffee shops, according to Moffett.
"The Utopian ideal of a massive, free Wi-Fi network has been around since the early days of Wi-Fi, but there was never an economically viable path to deliver it," Moffett said. "Comcast has a better shot at it than just about anybody else."
Tribune reporter Ellen Jean Hirst contributed.