Comcast takes on today’s best routers with Xfinity xFi, a cloud-based service for home-network and broadband management

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Wi-Fi systems with fancy network-management tools, smartphone apps, and cloud services are the hot new thing, so Comcast is radically retooling its broadband gateways to counter the threat. The cable company and internet service provider is rolling out “Xfinity xFi” to deter customers from swapping out the broadband gateways they rent from Comcast for $10 per month. It will also introduce mesh-like “xFi pods” later this year to increase the Wi-Fi coverage its gateways deliver.

Comcast describes Xfinity xFi as a “digital dashboard” that customers can use to set up and manage their home Wi-Fi network. It will run on the company’s existing broadband gateways and in the cloud, and customers will interact with it via a smartphone app, web portal, or on their TV screens using Comcast’s X1 remote—including voice control.

In a briefing last week, Comcast Chief Product Officer Chris Satchell said Comcast’s focus is on making the home network easier to use as consumers bring more smart devices into their homes. “Surveys tell us there will be 20 billion internet-of-things (IoT) devices by 2020. In the U.S., consumers will go from having three, four, or five smart things in their home to having 10, 20, to 40 to 50. The adoption rate for smart devices is rapidly accelerating. Our key is how do we make this easy for our customers without having to make them into their own chief information officers?”

xfinity xfi voice remote Comcast

If you subscribe to both Comcast’s broadband and its cable-TV services, you’ll be able to manage your home network with voice commands using the X1 remote.

A mix of familiar and new capabilities

Many of the features Comcast is touting will be familiar to anyone who’s used one of the many Wi-Fi systems on the market (Netgear Orbi, Linksys Velop, or TP-Link Deco M5, to name a few). There are parental controls that can prevent underage users from visiting inappropriate websites, you’ll receive alerts when new devices join your Wi-Fi network, you can schedule when client devices are allowed access to the internet, and you can pause any client device—or your entire network—from connecting to the internet. You’ll also be able to manage your home network from anywhere you have internet access, so that if an unknown device joins your network while you’re away from home, you can respond to the alert by “pausing” that device’s ability to reach the internet until you can determine what it is.

Satchell also described several other less-common features, including the ability to automatically diagnose and report why a client device is having trouble connecting to the internet and offer suggestions how you might fix the problem. The gateway can also automatically block network client devices from visiting malware sites, including IoT devices that don’t have displays that you can monitor to see what they’re connecting to. And Comcast customers who also subscribe to the company’s cable TV service will be able to manage their home network using the Xfinity X1 set-top box. “It’s really important to be able to interact with our services from the comfort of your couch,” Satchell said, “looking at the biggest screen in your house, [and] using voice commands to give you that singular experience.”

The problem with parental controls

Satchell admitted, however, that Comcast’s new gateways won’t be any more sophisticated than other routers when it comes to how parental controls work. As is typical in the industry, parents will establish profiles for each user in the house. Each profile includes rules for what that user can do on the network, where they can go on the internet, the time periods they’re allowed to be online, and so forth. The next step is to assign devices to those profiles.

xfinity xfi x1 overview Comcast

User profiles form the basis of Comcast’s parental controls feature.

That’s fine for families that can afford to give each person their own computer, tablet, smartphone, or what have you. The problem is that most families share a family computer or tablet. So if you want to restrict what the kids can do while they’re using that PC, you’ll need to assign it to one of the kids’ profiles. And when you want to use that computer, you’ll be subject to the very same restrictions. What’s more, Comcast’s current parental controls will be more restrictive than most because the current profiles are focused on children aged 12 and under. Satchell said the company will add a teen-oriented category later.

“Yeah, if you’re an adult and you’ve assigned the device to your kid’s profile that has a parental control,” Satchell said, “that device will have that parental control.” He went on to say that you could temporarily move that device from that restricted profile to regain the freedom an adult user would want, but then you’d have to remember to change it back before you let the child use it again. To be fair to Comcast, this is how all router-based parental controls work, and it’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan.

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