News Column

Cable giant Comcast to deploy next-generation TV for Twin Cities customers

July 30, 2013


July 30--Twin Cities TV viewers using iPhones, Android tablets, Roku video-streaming gizmos and other digital video-watching devices have come to expect elegant on-screen controls.

Yet, when they fire up their Comcast cable boxes, they're working with an interface that has changed little in years and is awkward to manipulate.

Don't think Comcast doesn't know this.

The cable giant this week plans to deploy next-generation television gear that will give thousands of its Twin Cities customers modernized screen controls, increased storage for recorded shows, a redesigned remote and a smartphone app that responds to voice commands.

For Comcast, the technology boost serves two almost symbiotic purposes: It's designed to keep the customers happy; and the customers keep Comcast in business as a cable company.

And that second part is no small problem, as existential threats to Comcast's business model are growing with every new technology rollout.

So in response, the Philadelphia-based company, which is the Twin Cities' dominant cable and Internet provider, has been slowly deploying its "X1 Platform" gear across the country. It has about half of its U.S. footprint covered and expects to nearly finish the job by the end of this year.

The catch: Not every Twin Cities customer can snag X1, which Comcast has trumpeted as "the world's first entertainment operating system." Only "triple-play" subscribers who bundle the company's television, telephone and broadband Internet services are eligible at the moment.

New triple-play customers get the gear automatically and existing triple-play customers can ask for a free-of-charge upgrade. Other Comcast users are out of luck for now.

But Comcast already is diluting the X1 excitement a bit by discussing X2, it's next television technology. Local customers might be forgiven for wondering why they should sign on to X1 if X2 sounds so much better.

All in good time, the company says.

X2, which was trumpeted at a television-industry trade show this year, will be available to only a tiny percentage of Comcast users later this year in a test capacity, said Charlie Herrin, Comcast's senior vice president of product design and development.

Its key features, including a miniaturized living-room terminal and Internet-stored recorded shows, remain in development.

X1, meanwhile, still represents a sea change for Comcast's clientele. A radically upgraded interface will lead users to scads of improvements.

Live TV and on-demand shows are in the same place. Movies and TV shows can be located by typing in a program's name, as well as by conventional means. A "back" button now shows the nine previous items (TV shows, on-demand movies and so on) users accessed. Users can record four shows at once while watching a fifth.

Comcast has even joined the app revolution, albeit modestly, with options to access Facebook and the Pandora music-streaming service.

Customers get augmented smartphone capabilities, too, via an iPhone app that conducts voice searches for show titles, movie genres, sports teams and more.

Comcast's upgrade comes none too soon. TV viewers are being besieged with alternatives for accessing traditional shows and movies along with Web-based content.

The latest entry, Google's Chromecast device, lets users stream content from tablets, handsets, computers or the Web, yet it fits in the palm of your hand, plugs easily into an HDMI port on your TV and costs $35 with no Comcast-like recurring fees.

Liberating oneself of cable fees -- also known as "cutting the cord" -- has been getting more common in recent years. Services such as Netflix and offer streaming, on-demand movies, network and original programming to anyone with a Web-enabled TV and a high-speed Internet connection. Google's Chromecast would only make this access easier.

Again, don't think Comcast doesn't know this.

Comcast's key advantage is its wealth of readily accessible programming, Herrin said.

"A fantastic content library that is integrated with a simple user experience is compelling TV," he said. "TV shouldn't be work."

Yet Robert Thanh Parker said he does not believe Comcast's content library compares to Web-based video services such as Netflix.

Parker, a Florida-based tech-company chief executive and a self-professed cord cutter, argues that the wealth of Web-accessible documentaries, foreign films and live-news feeds from exotic locales "will cause more and more people to cancel or reduce their cable television.

"My children have adapted very quickly and don't feel a loss of programming whatsoever," said Parker, and they're allowed "to select something to watch that's the best and most enjoyable use of their time."

David Bakke of the Money Crashers personal-finance website said X1 is a compelling technology that "is almost like Google for your TV."

But Bakke said X1's cost is prohibitive.

Exact pricing varies, but it is typically $99 per month for the first year, $120 for the second and $145 for the third. Show recording is free for the first six months but costs $10 for months seven through 12, and $20 after that.

"I'd rather work on watching less TV and eliminating this monthly bill, rather than buying devices or paying for services that may entice me to start watching more," he said.


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