As temperatures plunged far below zero across Minnesota amid last week’s polar vortex, Xfinity announced Wednesday that it would provide free wireless internet access to anyone within range of thousands of the Comcast-owned company’s Wi-Fi hotspots scattered around its Twin Cities coverage area until Friday, Feb. 1. 

I decided to test an available hotspot Thursday near my northeast Minneapolis apartment. I found Xfinity’s instructions for taking advantage of the service confusing and inadequate, making it difficult to successfully access a free network. My experience also raised questions about how practical it might be for someone to follow those instructions to log on to a free hotspot while experiencing an emergency.

In fact, the hotspot available near my apartment worked exactly like it would during normal weather, when non-Xfinity customers are prompted to pay for the service after one hour. Those who appeared to follow the company’s instructions could easily have unwittingly logged on to the wrong kind of hotspot  Xfinity’s communications made no reference to multiple types  and they could have been left out in the cold in an emergency without Wi-Fi service. In these cases, the user may not even realize they logged on to a hotspot requiring payment until after the free hour expired.

It wasn’t the first time the internet provider said it was making its hotspots free to the public. The company made similar announcements last year during Hurricane Florence, after a gas explosion in Massachusetts, and during northern California’s wildfires, generating positive headlines on every occasion.

On Wednesday, Xfinity announced its Minnesota hotspots would be open to the public until Friday, Feb. 1, in a post on Comcast’s Twin Cities region website, as well as an e-mail and text messages to customers. The company touted the service as a way for customers and non-customers alike to “stay connected in emergencies or if they lose service as a result of the weather.” Users were instructed to “simply select ‘xfinitywifi’ from the list of available networks” in their Wi-Fi settings and “follow the prompts.” All of Xfinity’s communications directed people to a map of area hotspots.

But Comcast later confirmed to the Star Tribune that only a portion of its “xfinitywifi” networks were actually made free to the public — and a spokesperson did not dispute that Xfinity’s communications and instructions to use its hotspots lacked critical information to help users distinguish between free hotspots and those that were not.

With several hotspots located very close to my apartment, according to Xfinity’s map, on the evening of Jan. 31, I selected the lone “xfinitywifi” option from the list of available networks on my iPad and was prompted to create an Xfinity account. I then logged on to the hotspot and activated a complimentary one-hour pass. But when that hour expired at 10:30 p.m., so did the service. I was logged off and received prompts to purchase a new “On Demand” pass with prices starting at $2.95 per hour. No free options were offered.

Dave Nyberg, Comcast’s senior manager for external communications based in the Twin Cities, said only Xfinity’s “public” hotspots, which include those outdoors or business-based, were made free to the public, but its “residential” hotspots — additional “xfinitywifi” networks created by modems in the homes of its Xfinity customers — were not. 

Residential networks are normally available for use by Xfinity subscribers anytime as part of their service. Non-subscribers may access them with a complimentary, one-hour pass every 30 days, Nyberg said, but when the hour is up, a new pass must be purchased.

“You were most likely connecting to a residential Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot in your neighborhood,” Nyberg explained, noting that approximately 38,000 public hotspots were made free to the public across Xfinity’s Twin Cities coverage area from Wednesday evening until Friday afternoon. He declined to say how many residential hotspots in the same area were not opened to the public, but said they were not included "in an effort to protect the privacy of our customers." Nyberg directed me to check the map included in Xfinity’s instructions, which he said displayed only public hotspots. So I did.

As seen in the screengrab below, there are several public hotspots immediately surrounding my apartment, marked by a yellow pin — one directly across the street, one next door to that and one directly behind my building. Yet only one “xfinitywifi” network appeared in my available networks list, and that one required payment after one hour.

Nyberg explained that, in order to locate a public hotspot, users must check Xfinity’s hotspot map either online or in Xfinity’s Wi-Fi app, and go to the hotspot’s listed address before logging on. But that might be a lot to ask of someone dealing with an emergency and who may not have internet access. And as the network available at my apartment demonstrated, residential "xfinitywifi" networks may exist in very close proximity to public "xfinitywifi" hotspots — potentially even in the same building. 

None of Xfinity’s communications announcing the free hotspots nor its instructions for how to access them made any distinction between public or residential hotspots, however. Because the two types of hotspots share the same network name, it’s virtually impossible for a user to tell which type of hotspot they are accessing. Chicagoans experienced similar confusion in determining which hotspots were free and which were not when Xfinity opened part of its network there last week, the Chicago Tribune reported.

“The process might not be as straightforward as it could be,” Nyberg said. “If they’re at the specific address — that would really be a key piece of this, in terms of utilizing the finder tool that we make available for customers or for anybody: Finding the specific address, getting to that specific address and then looking for that hotspot at that specific address.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison confirmed he is continuing to pursue a lawsuit against Comcast launched by his predecessor, Lori Swanson, alleging the company misled customers about the costs of some of its products. Ellison encouraged Minnesotans with concerns about Comcast's practices to file a complaint with his office. In a statement, Comcast's director of external communications Jill Hornbacher disputed the state's claims and said "the facts simply do not support the Minnesota AG’s allegations."

I asked Nyberg if the brief web page of instructions Xfinity provided was adequate to guide someone through the process of finding and accessing a public hotspot while confronting an emergency situation in extreme cold weather.

“We made the public hotspots available as a public service in a weather emergency and we were proud and glad that we were able to do so,” Nyberg said. “We feel that we tried to make things as clear as we possibly could. Could we make improvements in that? We’ll certainly take the feedback that we received from customers and discuss that and put that into any subsequent opportunities that come up to offer free Wi-Fi, as we did last week.”

Staff writer John Ewoldt contributed to this report.