Comcast mimics Fon, creating a crowdsourced hotspot network in millions of homes

As Comcast(s cmsca) and its cable partners revealed today it already has the largest Wi-Fi hotspot in the U.S., but the cable provider has plans to make that Wi-Fi network bigger – far bigger.

Monday at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association conference in Washington, D.C., Comcast said it has begun shipping a new version of its wireless gateway to residential broadband customers that pulls double duty as a private Wi-Fi router and a public hotspot. Basically the Cisco Systems(s csco) gateway transmits two signals — each with separate SSIDs – each functioning as a separate network. The family that owns or rents the router can access the first network, but the second is open to any Comcast broadband customer.

A FON router

A FON router

This kind of crowdsourced broadband isn’t new. It was pioneered by Spain’s Fon years ago, but it’s recently gained traction among traditional telecom services providers looking for a cheap way to expand broadband capabilities to customers outside their homes. The biggest worldwide practitioner is France’s Free Mobile, whose parent company Iliad is a residential broadband provider like Comcast.

Iliad opened up its 4 million home wireless home gateways to all of Free’s mobile phone customers with the idea that Wi-Fi could carry the bulk of its mobile data traffic and allow it to offer much cheaper mobile service. Whether the economics of Iliad’s plan are working is debatable, but there’s no question it’s cheap. Its rock-bottom mobile plans set off a pricing war in France.

But where Free and Fon both fall flat is in the inconsistency of their networks. As you would expect with home broadband, those networks are centered in residential neighborhoods, but where most people need Wi-Fi connectivity is in densely trafficked public and business areas. Comcast, however, seems to have solved that problem — at least in some key major cities – with a two-pronged Wi-Fi approach. It and its CableWiFi partners have built outdoor public hotspot networks in dense urban areas where traffic is highest.

Comcast subscribers can move between those public and private hotspots seamlessly. If it does wind up installing these gateways in its 20 million broadband customers’ homes, it will have quite the Wi-Fi network indeed.

A network by the masses, for the masses

Many Comcast customers might bristle at the idea of letting other people use their broadband connections even if their traffic is kept separate and their own connections are secure. I would argue that those customers should keep an open mind, though. These kinds of crowdsourced broadband arrangements are ultimately in everyone’s interest. What most people deal with today is plentiful and cheap bandwidth at home and at work but expensive and limited bandwidth everywhere in between. If everyone teamed together to share their broadband with one another, then everyone suddenly starts getting solid connections wherever they go. It might sound like a bit of a utopian model, but it’s one that can easily be managed with technology.

Comcast That said, Comcast has to keep itself in check if it’s to keep this social contract equitable. Comcast can’t apply a stranger’s data usage against your data cap, and if tries to do so it would have a mighty big class action lawsuit on its hands. Also if Comcast tries to sell access to this residential hotspot network to other providers – for instance, its new comrade in mobile, Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) — then it will be violating the social contract with its customers.

Comcast has every right to ask its customers to give up a little to gain a lot. But it can’t pimp its customers’ broadband connections out for its own financial benefit — not without compensating them, at least.