comcast wifi freeThose who believe in open-source soft- and hardware  often also believe in the value of free information over the Internet. But, chances are, they still want their own personal information to be private. The two positions aren’t exactly contradictory, but they do lead to some head scratching when it comes to open Wi-Fi networks.

When Wi-Fi routers first came out — and we were all a bit naïve about data privacy — the tenants of a multi-unit apartment building might split a network, presaging the sharing economy in which sharing means that individuals have to fork over less money to big corporations. Still, those halcyon days faded as we learned to lock our digital doors against thieves.

But in a strange plot twist, Comcast, which became notorious for suing the U.S. government for its net neutrality rules, is opening up the Wi-Fi routers it rents to its cable ISP subscribers to provide free hotspots for nearby users to log on. The company has opened up 150,000 routers in Houston, but has said it plans to expand the program.

With Comcast’s abysmal reputation, one might first suspect that the move will violate the privacy of its subscribers? Comcast insists that the bandwidth opened up to guest users will not eat into the subscribers’ data, nor will the guests have access to their data. Subscribers can also opt out of the program, though the routers create the guest networks by default. A mobile finder app shows available networks but doesn’t provide exact addresses.

Comcast actually seems to be playing with the good guys when it comes to embracing the sharing economy.

If there is unused capacity in Internet infrastructure and telecoms and hardware-makers now have the smarts to keep subscribers’ data walled off, marshaling an army of Wi-Fi routers for use as hotspots could help expand access to those who lack it. The move also helps Comcast make a name for itself in the public hotspot arena currently dominated by AT&T and to poach cellular data charges from AT&T and Verizon.

Of course, Comcast could eventually charge for use of the hotspots, whether by selling minutes or bytes to guests or by making the additional guest network a premium service for its subscribers.

But there’s something odd about Comcast’s apparent good will. The company’s aggressive opposition to net neutrality rules has relied on a claim that data-hungry services like BitTorrent, Google and Netflix are using more than their share of a limited good: bandwidth.

Comcast has justified its position that it needs toll lanes on the Internet highway because the regular lanes are nearing full capacity. Yet, with the Wi-Fi hotspots, the company is unveiling brand new, open lanes on that very same highway. No toll required. The two positions are difficult to reconcile.

The highway metaphor might tell us a bit more about ongoing Internet controversies that we might like. Stop-and-go traffic in some areas and lack of roads in others different problems with the same general cause: inadequate infrastructure. It was the federal government that built the interstate highway system, but it has sat back and advocated for private competition when it comes to the Internet highway. Corporations will, by definition, look for a pay-to-play solution.

While Comcast’s move to open up Internet access from in-home routers seems, for now, to help users, its plans to make the pipes that feed the routers a private toll road don’t.

Photos: wifi concepts/mtkang courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.