Comcast has a lousy reputation even before this head-turning move.
It may seem outrageous at first. Why would anyone want to have strangers relying on their connectivity to go online? Comcast is quick to point out that the Wi-Fi hotspot will be separate from a home's network. You won't have outsiders firing off your Wi-Fi printer or diving into your music collection and family photos. Comcast also promises that Xfinity members hosting these routers will be allocated additional bandwidth to make sure that third-party access to the router doesn't slow them down.
It's still bound to be a dicey practice. For starters, Xfinity customers don't opt in to participate in the bold experiment to create residential neighborhoods with Wi-Fi accessible to existing subscribers. The onus is on the customer to opt out.
It also doesn't help that Comcast, despite being the country's largest cable TV and broadband provider, has a lousy reputation even before this head-turning move.
Consumerist in April published it annual list of the country's worst companies. Readers vote in tournament-style fashion until the initial list of 32 is whittled down to the villainous victor. Comcast won in 2010 and is back as Consumerist's Worst Company in America, just beating out Monsanto (MON) for the dishonorable honor.
Yes, Monsanto. The agribusiness giant that never has a problem rounding up vocal protestors picketing the state of chemical supplements that increase crop yields lost out to a company that simply provides cable programming, Internet access and Web-based home phone service.
Then again, it's hard to please customers as a pay TV giant. Comcast had working relationships with 26.8 million homes as of the end of March, and more than 21 million depend on Comcast's Xfinity for online access.
It's hard to find cable customers who are happy with their provider given the service outages and the ever-rising cost of programming. Comcast and its peers will argue that it's merely passing on the contractual upticks of the channels they carry, but that still doesn't excuse them from forcing folks to pay for countless unwatched channels just to have access to the ones that they do watch.
It also doesn't help that Comcast's financials show that it's doing more than merely passing on the increased costs. Revenue climbed 14 percent in its latest quarter despite having fewer pay TV subscribers than it did a year earlier. Adjusted earnings per share soared 33 percent.
Nipping a Revolution in the Bud
There will be natural resistance to Comcast's ambitious push to blanket key markets with Wi-Fi. Comcast can argue that it's only drafting its own company-owned routers to active duty. Folks are leasing the modems with router functionality. Comcast isn't doing this to routers provided by customers.
If Comcast is able to overcome all of these hurdles, it will be an interesting feature to pitch to its customers. Xfinity subscribers may be able to find Wi-Fi access in unlikely places. However, if inconsistency has been the biggest hit on Comcast's reputation, it's hard to fathom how the random nature of this new offering will improve its image. Doing something questionable when the public already sees you as the bad guy isn't usually a good idea.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz and the Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned.