Not one to be left in the dust, Comcast has spilled all the beans regarding its multi-faceted retort to the Wi-Fi mesh systems and easy-to-use router management apps of the past year or so: the xFinity xFi app, new coverage-boosting xFi Pods and a new xFi Advanced Wireless Gateway device.
In essence, the xFinity xFi app instantly upgrades millions of existing Comcast customers’ now-renamed xFi Wireless Gateway (previously the Wireless Gateway 3) devices with more control than ever.
The free iOS and Android app allows Comcast customers to see all the devices connected to their xFi gateway in real time and pin them with custom user profiles. Then, at any given time, the administrator (i.e. mom or dad) can see which users are on the network and through which devices.
From there, the administrator can choose hours during which the network isn’t accessible to certain users (called BedTime), pause everyone’s internet access at once (which we’re calling DinnerTime) and automatically control the content seen online by users.
Though, xFi parental controls are currently a simple toggle that filters all requests through a partner’s online content mappings to display only content rated appropriate for all ages. There isn't any finer control than that at the moment.
Your network on every screen and in every room
To make access to this information and these controls easier, Comcast has released the app through a web portal as well as to its X1 set-top box with support for voice control through the X1 remote.
Comcast aims for its Wi-Fi offering to catch up with how integral and pervasive the internet is in its customers’ homes – before those customers stop paying hardware rental fees and pick up a third-party’s Wi-Fi mesh system and fancy app.
“When we think about the xFi platform, it’s going to touch 10 million homes,” Comcast Cable VP of IP Services Patti Loyack tells us. “That’s a tremendous scale as we think about some of the competitors that are out there today. We also differentiate by this experience working across all of our services.”
Unless Google has a surprise for us at this year’s Google IO, the xFi app and gateway will be the only such solution accessible from your TV screen for some time. But, that’s not enough. Solid Wi-Fi coverage for the rest of the home is the other piece of this puzzle.
To that end, Comcast has partnered with Plume, a Wi-Fi device maker that has designed Comcast’s forthcoming xFi Pods. These outlet plug devices use a different, proprietary approach to whole-home networking than wireless mesh: auto-channel hopping.
The idea is for every room to be home to an xFi Pod, with the gateway in constant communication with every pod in the house, transmitting data through multiple channels at once rather than just one at a time.
Comcast hasn’t disclosed when its xFi Pods will be available – just “later this year” – nor whether they’ll come at additional cost to Comcast customers.
“We’re working through some of the technical underpinnings for the solution later this year, and it will be integrated with the xFi experience,” Loyack says. “You’ll be able to onboard those pods very easily. Then, you’ll be able to personalize them through the experience. You’ll be able to qualify a room in the case of a kitchen or a bedroom [for example]. This allows the devices connected to it ensure they’re on the right pod."
Comcast wants to power your future smart home
However, Comcast sees yet another piece of the puzzle that needs fitting: the awfully-named Internet of Things. That’s where Comcast’s brand new xFi Advanced Wireless Gateway comes in.
Available only to customers paying for speeds of 300Mbps or more, this new, squarer device will lay the in-home groundwork for Comcast’s growing gigabit service. But, perhaps more importantly, this new gateway will support communication protocols other than now-standard 802.11ac over 2.4 and 5GHz frequencies.
“The advanced gateway obviously supports higher tiers, but also is a device that supports other protocols for the connected home,” Loyack tells us. “For instance, it will support Zigbee, IoT Thread and Bluetooth LE.”
These are key communication standards for smart home devices, like smart light bulbs, door locks and connected cameras. Clearly, Comcast’s goal is to leverage its already massive presence in customers’ homes to be at the center of their smart home.
“As we think about the millions of devices that will be coming into customers’ homes, we don’t want … every device having an app,” Loyack says, speaking to the sea of smart home apps and protocols already. “You can have about 50 apps if you think about the devices come 2020. Ultimately, we want to build that platform that provides that intelligent aggregation and automation, so that [our customers] can go to one place, and that one place is the xFi experience.”
Naturally, this inspires the concerns of security for both customers’ cloud-stored data and their in-home networks.
“We’re in the process of evaluating multiple options,” Loyack simply states. “With xFinity Home [Comcast’s rival to security systems like ADT and Vivint], we’re protecting the security of the home, but we know that as more and more devices come in, digital security is equally important.”
This is one piece of the puzzle you might wish had already been filled, with the product so shortly coming to market. However, that’s not to say nothing of the device monitoring tools already available through the xFi app and cloud platform. The latter allows Comcast to detect strange behavior in internet traffic and report that to customers to further investigate potential breaches.
With the release of the xFi app and platform, as well as the new xFi Advanced Wireless Gateway, it’s obvious that Comcast saw what firms like Google and Netgear were up to years ago and is finally responding.
But, with these third parties getting even better at marketing to, and developing intuitive apps and devices for, the general public – for products with a one-time purchase – will xFi be convincing enough for customers to keep paying those hardware rental fees?
Deeper controls and access from the couch via voice should help a long way, but only time will tell whether Comcast’s xFi Pods offer stronger coverage than Wi-Fi mesh. In the meantime, Comcast customers can try out the new xFi app with their newly-named xFi Wireless Gateway (excluding the TC8717 model) here.
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Joe Osborne is the Senior Technology Editor at Insider Inc. His role is to leads the technology coverage team for the Business Insider Shopping team, facilitating expert reviews, comprehensive buying guides, snap deals news and more. Previously, Joe was TechRadar's US computing editor, leading reviews of everything from gaming PCs to internal components and accessories. In his spare time, Joe is a renowned Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master – and arguably the nicest man in tech.