Comcast Denies Role in Wi-Fi Disconnects

By Ed Sutherland

July 08, 2004

It's a feature, not a bug, claims the broadband provider, which says outages on home networks might have been caused by automated router upgrades.

Comcast executives point to a recent rash of wireless hardware problems as unintended "endorsements" of the cable giant's home networking program.

Following a May Wi-Fi Planet report of the Comcast Home Networking program, readers responded with horror stories of Wi-Fi routers losing Internet connections and blame being passed between hardware vendors and ISP.

Comcast touts its Home Networking program as one way to remove the complexity from managing a home computer network. The bundled Linksys cable modem gateway allows an ISP to remotely monitor and repair networking problems.

"Tech support is going volume has more than tripled," according to one Wi-Fi Planet reader, who works for a wireless vendor.

The problem centers on Comcast subscribers using wireless routers/gateways providing Internet connections to multiple computers. A router is a device moving data between networks -- in this case the Internet and an office or home computer network.

"Comcast upgraded their modem's firmware on their entire network and now some wireless routers cannot connect to the Internet," wrote one reader.

"Comcast has changed settings to render some of the Dell TrueMobile wireless routers almost useless," wrote another.

An Arlington, Texas CPA claims his Dell wireless router suddenly stopped working. "I finally gave up," he wrote. In the end, he bought a brand new Linksys Wireless-G router.

Comcast is bundling the Linksys Wireless-G cable router for subscribers to its new Home Networking service.

A Comcast executive, speaking on condition his name not be used, said Home Networking subscribers recently had their cable gateway devices automatically upgraded to the latest version of the Cable Home specification. Cable Home is the technology promoted by Comcast and others to remotely manage home broadband computer networks.

The cable executive emphasizes that the upgrade would not effect owners of other routers. In fact, Comcast says it "only knows of less than a handful" of subscribers reporting problems with their wireless routers.

Comcast's customer agreement states firmware updates can happen at any time: "Whether the cable modem is owned by you or us, we have the unrestricted right, but not the obligation, to upgrade or change the firmware in the cable modem at any time that we, in our sole discretion, determine is necessary or desirable."

Comcast "continually" upgrades cable modems "to benefit the customer," says the executive.

The cable network says the reported problems are not linked to efforts by the ISP to reduce unwanted e-mail spam often unwittingly sent from home computers with broadband Internet connections.

Confusion surrounding home networks is one reason the Comcast Home Networking program is getting a "very, very positive reception" with customers, according to the Comcast official.

But onlookers say there may be problems with hiding the technical details from users.

"It doesn't surprise me," says Julie Ask, senior analyst at Jupiter Research. She says reducing technology's difficulty isn't always best for everyone. "If you hide the complexity from people, it's easier to set up, but it gives them no ability to fix or diagnose what is wrong."

Ask says it is a myth that complexity is holding back home wireless networks. "Only eight percent of the consumers we surveyed online say that they don't have wireless networks at home because they are too complicated," she says.

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