Comcast begins using subscribers’ home service as public hotspots

Comcast has begun a program where they are turning their home subscribers into public hotspots. The program has begun in Houston and has already been rolled out on 50,000 home subscriber circuits. What this means, in practice, is that every home that subscribes to Comcast and has one of their wireless routers handling the connection now broadcasts another wireless SSID called “xfinitywifi.” Now, any Comcast customer who has connected a device to xfinitywifi anywhere in the past will automatically connect to the wifi being broadcast from someone else’s home as soon as they come within range of the wireless router. This is extending the wireless connectivity of Comcast customers into neighborhoods and residential areas where, previously, wifi was likely unavailable.

While this is all well and good for the roaming Comcast customer, I’m less convinced that it’s good for the home user. Dwight Silverman, writing at the linked Houston Chronicle TechBlog tells us:

Comcast says the hotspot – which appears as “xfinitywifi” to those searching for a Wi-Fi connection – is completely separate from the home network. Someone accessing the Net through the hotspot can’t get to the computers, printers, mobile devices, streaming boxes and more sitting on the host network.

Comcast officials also say that people using the Internet via the hotspot won’t slow down Internet access on the home network. Additional capacity is allotted to handle the bandwidth.

I’m sure that’s the corporate line and there’s likely a lot of effort put into keeping this from impacting the customer that’s paying for the connection. There are ramifications to this move, however, that won’t be easily understood by the average user and appears to be left undiscussed. First let me say that it’s certainly feasible to make a second wireless SSID on a given router. In this case, the home user would be using one SSID (let’s call it “home”) while the roaming users will connect to the other one (in this case, “xfinitywifi”). But does that create a “completely separate” network? By itself, no. When a given wireless router broadcasts 2 SSID’s, this is the electronic equivalent of having 2 houses on the same street with different house numbers. Letters going to house #1 will (if the post office is on the ball) get directed properly and won’t be delivered house #2. The critical part of keeping the networks separate, however, is whether the router is using the same radio frequency to handle the traffic. In our letters on the street metaphor, while the letters for house 1 will get delivered to house 1 and not 2, they are visible to house 2 as they pass by and house 2 can gather information about the letters. Depending on the type of encryption being used on the wireless links and how complex the password is, it’s possible to crack a password within minutes. (And yes, I do know that because I’ve seen it done.)

If Comcast is truly wanting to make sure that they’re separated, that means the public part of the wifi needs to be using a completely different channel than the home part. Which means that every subscriber out there is going to be using 2 channels instead of one. That’s going to become less of a problem as 802.11n gets more widely adopted but it’s still an issue today. In densely-populated residential units like apartments and condos, that can mean a lot of radio overlap and interference, reducing the range and apparent throughput of the wifi. That’s already a problem without making every home double its radio footprint.

The second issue is the idea that this won’t affect a subscriber’s Internet access speed. As I’ve shown, above, this move will almost certainly cause more congestion in the radio spectrum that handles the wifi signals. The “additional capacity” being allotted by Comcast is discussing capacity from the router to the Internet, not from the router to the wireless devices. There’s nothing they can do about the radio spectrum – it’s a public frequency spread. And even restricting that claim to the “wired” side of this equation – by which I mean the connection from the router to the Internet – that implies that the existing connections are capable of carrying more traffic than is currently being allowed. I have no way of knowing whether that’s true and I would imagine Comcast is counting on that.

For Comcast customers, I would simply say that you should run some baseline tests using an online tool, like Speedtest.net.  Get a couple of readings on different days and different times so you can compare what you have today against what you have after they roll this out in your neighborhood. Comcast, you see, isn’t asking whether it’s OK to make your home a public hotspot. They’re just doing it. They offer you the chance to opt out but they’re not announcing that ability. If you’d like to know how to opt out, follow the link to the blog entry above and you can get details.

Quarantine Procedures: Who Should Be Deciding and Doing?

Ebola is a serious, deadly disease and we currently have no cure for it. That simple statement of fact is something that’s being pretty much derided in our media and, at least until recently, by the current federal Administration. After multiple assurances that there were safeguards in place and that screening at the originating airports in Africa would do the job, we got to see a medical professional – a doctor with Doctors Without Borders, no less – enter the country and spend a few days mixing it up with the populace of New York City before being diagnosed with Ebola. The prompted state officials in New York, New Jersey and Illinois to act, announcing a mandatory 21-day quarantine period for travelers who have been in areas exposed to the disease. The details of how they’re handling that quarantine aren’t too well publicized, yet, but the first person getting to run that gauntlet isn’t happy about it.

The story says that there’s a wide gap to be crossed between having a quarantine policy and a quarantine protocol. I happen to agree with that. I also agree with the policy in general. Too many people have been making too big a deal about, apparently, how difficult it is to contract the disease and they make noises about not worrying about people until they’re showing symptoms. My response to that is that there were medical professionals in a hospital that knew full well what they were dealing with and two of them contracted the disease in spite of that. Yes, I know all about the equipment problems and the lack of proper training in this kind of high-risk disease. That doesn’t mitigate the fact that the hospital staff was in far, far better position to control the spread of a disease than the average subway commuter in New York and they still contracted Ebola. Personally, I think we don’t know enough, yet, to say for certain just how easy it is to contract the disease. Until we know then we should be taking whatever measures are necessary to halt the spread of Ebola in the US, even if that means implementing a 21-day quarantine for any people who could, reasonably, have come in contact with it.

However, my question isn’t about whether we should or shouldn’t. It’s about who should be driving this. The nurse in the story I linked above is upset at being treated like she’s a criminal; that the protocol they’re following isn’t well thought out or well equipped. Fair enough. Why, then, isn’t Doctors Without Borders setting up the protocol on their own? Again, I point out the doctor in New York as clear evidence that whatever process they’re relying upon isn’t doing the job. They need to step it up and why shouldn’t they be the ones setting up the quarantine? There have been examples in the rest of the country of people going into a self-quarantine because they understand that they could have contracted the disease and just not know it yet. Where will they be when they become symptomatic? And how many will they expose while they’re in the process of realizing it and then getting to somewhere they can be isolated?

Far better for everyone if these people will take the disease as seriously as they claim its lethality suggests. I applaud the efforts of these health organizations who are stepping in to try to halt the disease and to save as many lives as they can. That’s a good deed beyond measure. Now they need to finish that out by assuring themselves and rest of us that they aren’t going to spread the disease themselves. The returning medical professionals should know enough to know that a self-quarantine is the only way to be sure and it’s the only way to prove to the rest of us that they are taking our concerns as seriously as they suggest we should be taking theirs.

Democrat playbook of repeated lying starting to wear thin

I’ve said the Democrat Party of Virginia should finally own up to the notion that “DPV” is more accurately rendered as the “Deceiver Party of Virginia.” They’ve been at it for years, deliberately misrepresenting the positions of their Republican opponents, assuring we Virginians that they’ll “never support” legislation that would “take away health care that you’ve got right now,” and just outright lying about some ridiculous effort to ban birth control or some such. When I wrote that article in 2013 they were saying that Delegate Barbara Comstock was trying to ban birth control, for instance, a claim that I showed was patently false. Well, if you’ve been watching any TV for longer than 15 minutes in the northern Virginia 10th Congressional District, then you know they’re making that same ludicrous claim today.

And, apparently, it ain’t just in VA and regarding Barbara Comstock:

UPDATE: And now… the Denver Post endorses Gardner, and is brutal in its assessment of Udall:

“Rather than run on his record, Udall’s campaign has devoted a shocking amount of energy and money trying to convince voters that Gardner seeks to outlaw birth control despite the congressman’s call for over-the-counter sales of contraceptives. Udall is trying to frighten voters rather than inspire them with a hopeful vision. His obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince.”

Emphasis mine. And just so you know, read up on Comstock’s stance here, from CBS 6 in Richmond:

Comstock, in her third term representing parts of Loudon and Fairfax counties in Virginia’s House of Delegates, takes conservative stands on many issues, from business regulations to gun control. She opposes abortion rights, but advocates making birth-control pills easier to obtain.

She absolutely does not, as the Dem ad claims, wish to outlaw birth control. They know this and still they make the claim to you. There’s a word for that: lie. And if they’re lying to you about something this easy to confirm, what are they lying to you about that they know they can hide from you?

What’s particularly illuminating, here, is that the Dems are trying the same “scare-all-the-ladies” approach right across the board and they are expecting that it will work. I have to say, ladies, I don’t see that the Democrats think very highly of your intelligence and, clearly, they think sex is pretty much all that concerns you.

Barbara Comstock and Ed Gillespie hold you in higher regard. Barbara’s record on pushing for economic development for everyone and on halting human trafficking, which primarily affects women and children, is exemplary. Ed Gillespie thinks you’re concerned with much more than birth control when it comes to health care and you’re also interested in better job opportunities, more affordable energy, and in having representation that puts Virginians’ interests – your interests – ahead of whatever agenda some national party wants to push.

Don’t be fooled. Get the facts. When you do, I’m sure you’ll see the wisdom in voting for Barbara Comstock for Congress and Ed Gillespie for Senate.

CDC Chief says travel bans would only make Ebola outbreak worse.

There are those who are saying that the reaction to the spread of Ebola – the overreaction, actually – is a bunch of fear-mongered hype. To one degree, there’s some truth to that. A pretty wide-spread lack of knowledge about the specifics of the disease has led people to believe that it’s far more contagious than it really is. And, yes, the actual rate of infection is pretty low when you compare it to other diseases. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge something pretty basic that a number of people who are dismissive of the grave concern being shown by the public seem to discount. There’s more to the fear of Ebola than the rate of infection. It’s the consequences that come with infection that raise the level of concern, here. The fact of the matter is that it’s also extremely, extremely rare for a child to be abducted. As the years have passed and our awareness of even small, local events has increased due to the rise of the always-connected society, most of us have become acquainted, through the news, with some family, somewhere, who has suffered this trauma and had it displayed directly before us. We imagine ourselves in that situation and find it to be so terrible that we become determined to take actions to reduce that risk to as close to zero as is humanly possible. It’s not a matter of the statistical risk of having one’s child abducted that drives us. It’s the gravity of the consequences that will accrue should it occur.

So it is with Ebola.

Faced with an outbreak in West Africa that has gone on far longer than most and, then, with a case of a man who got around the measures designed to keep someone from bringing the disease here to the US, the Obama Administration did… nothing at all to bolster any defenses. The concept of quarantine isn’t new. The idea of simply not allowing people from areas where plaque has flared up to travel into areas where it has not is something the Romans did millennia ago. Obama could have availed himself of procedures set forth by his predecessor in office and implemented stronger travel quarantine measures, if he hadn’t quietly revoked them back in 2010. Not that anyone in the current administration would ever admit that. In fact, Obama’s CDC chief, Tom Frieden, says that such measures would make the outbreak worse:

The first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States has caused some to call on the United States to ban travel for anyone from the countries in West Africa facing the worst of the Ebola epidemic.

That response is understandable. It’s only human to want to protect ourselves and our families. We want to defend ourselves, so isn’t the fastest, easiest solution to put up a wall around the problem?

But, as has been said, for every complex problem, there’s a solution that’s quick, simple, and wrong.

A travel ban is not the right answer.  It’s simply not feasible to build a wall – virtual or real – around a community, city, or country. A travel ban would essentially quarantine the more than 22 million people that make up the combined populations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Interesting notion, that it’s not “feasible” to “build a wall” around populations that are showing an outbreak of a disease or that quarantine is, somehow, ineffective. Studies performed by the CDC, thank you, have concluded that this very technique was what made the difference during the Spanish Fly1 Flu Epidemic between a community recovering versus several thousand body bags. The part about CDC Chief Frieden’s opinion piece that leapt off the page to me, however, was this:

When a wildfire breaks out we don’t fence it off. We go in to extinguish it before one of the random sparks sets off another outbreak somewhere else.

Actually, we do both, and the creation of firebreaks is considered key to keeping the wildfire from spreading out of control. In other words, we take measures explicitly to limit the travel of the flames.

Mr. Frieden’s commentary and approach seem, to me, to be more about defending the actions (or, rather, inaction) of the President than about advancing all possible measures to defending this nation’s citizens from the spread of a disease that, while thankfully rare, is devastating to those afflicted and difficult to treat. I appreciate his suggestion that we need to get over there and meet that threat – I wholeheartedly concur – but we don’t need airlines to be carrying ordinary passenger traffic back and forth to get the assets over there that we need.

1 Whoops.

Motives do matter: Obama finally engaged but why, really?

Howard Kurtz writes a piece in which he describes a more serious media covering a war president. He mentions Republican Peter King’s comment basically saying that we should all get together and support Obama. “What’s past is behind us,” he said. While I most certainly approve of taking the needed actions to eliminate a threat to peaceful people, I can’t simply dismiss the actions of the President leading up to this engagement nor ignore the obvious motives.

President Obama simply couldn’t be bothered to take any of this seriously. Until, that is, his polling numbers started falling like a brick knocked off the Washington Monument. Am I to believe that a man who casually dismissed the enemy as the “JV team” barely a month ago suddenly reassessed the threat all on his own? Sorry, don’t think so.

Obama may be doing the right thing, now, and I support the strikes against the Islamic State terrorists wholeheartedly, but he’s only doing it because he and his fellow Demand in office are trying to forestall the impending electoral damage heading their way. And as soon as that’s handled, they’ll go weak-kneed again.

NASA’s Maven to reach Mars tonight

NASA’s Maven spacecraft, a probe set to examine Mars’ upper atmosphere, is set to make its orbital insertion later today.

NASA’s Maven spacecraft is on track to reach the red planet late Sunday night following a journey spanning 10 months and 442 million miles.

If all goes well, the robotic explorer will slip into Martian orbit for a year or more of atmospheric study. It’s designed to circle the planet, not land.

Maven’s mission involves studying the effects of the solar wind on Mars’ atmosphere and to determine the rate at which key elements of the atmosphere effectively “leak out” into space. The idea is to figure out the process by which Mars went from a warmer, wetter planet millennia ago to the cold and dry world it is today. I certainly wish the team at NASA well and I hope this probe continues the stellar performance of NASA’s other Mars missions, particularly Spirit and Opportunity.

Healthcare.gov site still a security nightmare and a hacker’s dream

Almost a year after the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov, the Obamacare web site that cost millions to stand up and, yet, was still a staggering failure, the site remains a barely-functional, vulnerability-ridden mess. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is according to the Obama Administration’s own Government Accountability Office (GAO):

Despite efforts to protect patient information on the HealthCare.gov website, a new government watchdog report scheduled to be released Thursday says security issues are still a concern.

According to the Government Accountability Office report, “weaknesses remained in the security and privacy protections applied to HealthCare.gov and its supporting systems.”

According to the report, the GAO made 6 specific recommendations to HHS to fix security and privacy vulnerabilities and 22 recommendations to fix technical security weaknesses in those security and privacy controls mechanisms that they did actually deploy. HHS, I would like to note, has agreed to 3 of those specific implementation recommendations and all 22 of the technical fixes on what’s actually there. That means that HHS is fully aware that those weaknesses are present in what they’ve deployed and that 3 of the 6 things the GAO wants implemented are things HHS agrees ought to be there. Speaking as a professional in this field, that ain’t a good position to be sitting in and claiming to be running a good program.

The media has allowed the Obama administration to sweep a lot of the Healthcare.gov mess under the rug in the last year so let me remind everyone that the critical back-end systems – the specifically mandated-by-law requirements to check immigration status and income records, and to do so before an individual is allowed to apply subsidies to their insurance plan – aren’t finished and functioning even now. Years into this program and several tens of millions of dollars and they still don’t have a web site that does even remotely close to what was promised and what the law requires.

As a result of those deficiencies, the personal information of millions of citizens has been placed at risk and lots of it has already been compromised by hackers. The systems that were supposed to keep people who don’t qualify for subsidies from getting them in the first place aren’t implemented, meaning that people are likely going to have to repay some of the funding they’re already received. That lack of income checking has placed as many as 360,000 people in danger of losing their subsidies, making that “affordable” insurance plan anything but. Obama’s people take turns sounding tough and claiming that they’ll enforce that repayment if those people identified don’t provide income documentation. On the other hand, there’s talk from some in the Obama Administration that they will simply waive the repayment in order to garner votes, thus putting the taxpayers on the hook for even more and making this law – already completely unable to meet the “pays for itself” criteria so touted when it was being rammed through Congress – even more expensive than thought.

There gets to be a point at which serious people who are really interested in addressing the actual issues of the day must, if they wish to be ethically forthright, question whether the entire concept needs to be re-thought and perhaps a new course charted. I’d like to think there are people in the needed positions who will think that way, but with this current Administration, I know better.