Comcast Fears Unplugged

By Ed Sutherland

May 25, 2004

The recent offer by Comcast of a Linksys cable modem gateway lead to speculation by some that end-user home networks would be spied on. Is this paranoia or a big deal?

In an effort to reach the growing number of newcomers entering the home networking market, cable-giant Comcast is teaming up with Linksys to streamline the process. However, privacy concerns swirling around the company's home networking program are causing the two companies to deny they are wireless snoops.

The fears surround a little-known technical specification putting cable providers in greater control of home networks -- an industry expected to hit $17 billion by 2008, according to In-Stat/MDR.

The number of home networks is expected to jump as broadband connections flourish with a widening array of digital gadgets pumping out information and entertainment. Both Comcast and Linksys hope to exploit the growing segment of average consumers looking to home networks but bewildered at the technology.

"Comcast subscribers can now let their service provider worry about the technical part of the home networking equation and focus their efforts on simply having fun," according to a Comcast prepared statement.

The program provides a Linksys router and a PC card. The setup is $200 for two computers -- $300 for up to five computers. There is a $5 monthly fee.

A mini-controversy erupted when Comcast announced its Comcast Home Networking program would provide subscribers with the Linksys Wireless-G Cable Gateway device permitting users to leave details such as maintaining security and trouble-shooting problems to their cable provider. However, such ease-of-use could come at a price said some, namely that of Comcast snooping through your home network and possibly disabling offending gadgets or entertainment sources, went the allegations.

Both Comcast and Linksys for the first time are using the CableHome specification, created by CableLabs, the cable-industry's research-and-development arm. The allegation is that the Cable Home Management Portal portion of the spec goes beyond simple maintenance functions to downright snooping. The offending section includes these capabilities: "Enabling viewing LAN IP Device information" and "Provide the capability to disable LAN segments."

This is taken by some to mean CableHome-savvy gear can learn what is connected to your home network, and if it doesn't meet someone's approval, offending devices connected to the network could be disabled.

Those are the fears. Where's the reality?

Don't Worry, Get Convergence

"Comcast holds customer privacy in the highest regard," says company spokesperson Jeanne Russo. "For customers who prefer to independently configure and manage their own networks, that option remains in place as well."

Consumers concerned about the privacy of their home network can opt to install another router or install the network themselves, according to Matt Donaruma, another Comcast spokeperson.

"It is not technically possible for the cable operator to disable specific devices on the home network," says Ralph Brown, senior vice president of the CableLabs Broadband Access Department responsible for the CableHome specification.

"I think the privacy stuff is hugely overblown," says Joe Laszlo, analyst with JupiterResearch. "There's no sign that Comcast can or will prevent you from running your own home network with gear separate from their integrated Linksys modem/router."

"The paranoid can just go out and buy their own Wi-Fi stuff and operate as normal," he says.

The analyst says Comcast would be "foolish" if they snooped on customers or broke their Vonage VoIP connection, for instance.

Although it would technologically be simple to break streaming multimedia or VoIP from a competitor, "the risk of a backlash is too great," says Laszlo.

Like the others, Mike Wolf, analyst with In-Stat/MDR dismisses any privacy concerns regarding the Comcast deal. The analyst calls the fears "unfounded."

Of greater interest to the analysts in the announcement is the growing trend toward consolidation of devices, such as the combined 802.11g router and cable modem offered by Linksys.

"The future of home networks will be all-in-one," says Wolf.



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