Comcast thanks customers for helping build its Wi-Fi network with higher fees

It looks like Comcast customers are in for another price hike, this time not on programming charges but on the fees they pay to rent our broadband modems. Several Comcast customers told Ars Technica that their home internet gateway fees have risen from $8 to $10. Those prices reflect the new rates Comcast began setting for its latest modems, which support its new Xfinity Wi-Fi Hotspot service.

The timing of the fee increase couldn’t be more apt, given Comcast is angling to buy up Time Warner Cable next year. It’s bad form to promise regulators that your merger will bring greater competition and more consumer options and then raise a significant billing fee by 25 percent. But [company]Comcast[/company] also risks inflaming those regulators. While the Comcast-[company]Time Warner[/company] deal was once seen as sure thing, my colleague Jeff John Roberts reports that the deal now may be on much thinner ice.

What’s most galling about this price hike, though, is that it’s being charged on newer equipment that Comcast is using to build its new residential public Wi-Fi network. Comcast is building a nationwide Wi-Fi network on the backs of its residential and business customers’ home gateways. Its new modem/routers create two Wi-Fi networks, a private network for the customer and a public network accessible to any other Comcast customer. Comcast is basically asking its customers to pay the cost of building that public network by charging them higher equipment fees.

There’s a simple way to avoid the fee, and that’s to purchase your own modem (here’s a list of Comcast certified devices), but the vast majority of Comcast’s customers resort to rentals. I count myself as one of them, though for a time I did buy my own modem. The problem was is that modems can break or they become outdated. Even though I knew I would save a lot of money by purchasing my own gear, it wasn’t worth the inconvenience.

In part I’m lazy, but there was also a cynical calculation on my part. In my experience my internet connection has always been the most problematic of the services Comcast provides. By using Comcast’s modem rather than my own, that’s just one less excuse for Comcast’s horrible customer service to use when my broadband goes down.

The $10 fee hasn’t shown up on my bill yet, but I’m definitely reconsidering my decision to rent rather than buy, and the reason isn’t just cost but a matter of principle.

When Comcast first proposed its Wi-Fi sharing plan, I was all for it. By using its customers home broadband connections to build a wireless network, you create a situation where cheap broadband is available to more people in more places, and that’s a direction all ISPs and carriers should be moving in. But the way Comcast has implemented this plan has been less than transparent and more than just a little unfriendly to its customers, providing little information to consumers on when and how hotspots are enabled on their modems and little or no option to opt out.

What started out as a great idea for Comcast to work with its customers to create a communal broadband network has started to look more like a company taking advantage of its customers to grow its network reach. And now Comcast appears to be asking its customers to foot the bill for that growth.

The ironic thing is that if this new fee drives customers away from Comcast’s gateways, then its hotspot network will shrink not grow. But while some customers may opt to buy their own gear, my bet is most people will just eat this new fee.

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