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Comcast’s 2008 Vision: On Demand Video is King

Microsoft opened the Consumer Electronics Show with the boast that their Xbox Live on-demand platform would soon offer more than double the number of titles available on demand from Cable and Satellite providers.  Not to be out done, Comcast, the nation’s largest cable TV provider (and 2nd largest broadband service provider) used the trade show stage as opportunity to issue a reply.

During another keynote, CEO Brian Roberts unveiled several content initiatives Comcast has planned for 2008.  The starting point is an ambitious move to expand their on-demand library to include more than 6,000 on-demand movies a month by 2009.  At least 3,000 of them are pledged to be available in high-definition.  Comcast is calling the expansion Project Infinity.   It will be supported by their existing fiber network along with an eventual network of library servers geographically distributed to speed delivery. 

The plan, according to Robert’s is to “give consumers the best and most content they will find On-Demand anywhere.”  Emphasis seems to be on the “The Most” … a similar clam to Microsoft’s.

Comcast’s plan also seems an effort to declare itself as much a contender in the battle for our living rooms as anyone else and notice they won’t back down without a fight. 

Comcast’s beleaguered stock price (near 52 week lows) is prime facie evidence of growing competition the cable industry is facing from both phone providers entering the video market as well as software/gaming/Internet companies looking to take advantage of increase PC/TV convergence.  

On one front Comcast has a fight with Microsoft (Xbox Live and Media Room).   Then there are the other Internet connected console makers (Nintendo and Sony).  On another front they’ve got Tel-Co’s.  (In November, Verizon announced they would offer 150 HD channels and expanded programming in 2008).   Then there are satellite TV services.  Or, movie rental services like Netflix which recently launched a streaming service. Or an expected iTunes expansion which promises to bring rentals that could be streamed straight to the TV with Apple TV.  There are also set-top box makers like Vudu and Building B.  Or online TV services like Joost.  They’re all  trying to grab a share of time shifted, on-demand audiences.  It’s a crowded field.

Extending the Infinity project, and representing the second part of their announcement: Robert’s revealed Comcast’s increased content  will also be made  available online via, a video Web site that the company officially launch at CES too.  (Fancast has been in beta for about five months).   The site, similar to many other sites hosting professional video will host about 3,000 hours of video footage and 10,000 movie trailers to start.  Celebrity watcher’s will be able to gawk at about 50,000 celebrity photos and play "six degree of separation" style games too. 

Comcast expects Fancast to expand over the year in content and features.  Additional functionality to be added will include a feature that allows Comcast subscribers to program their DVRs and set video on-demand bookmarks from their computers.   It’s a nice novelty though not new (TiVo has offered similar with partners for a while now).

The3rd initiative revealed in the keynote is probably Comcast’s most interesting.  It’s also their most complex.  Apparently, the company is experimenting with Wideband Internet services using a transmission standard developed by CableLabs named DOCSIS 3.0.  This high speed connectivity service, if successfully implemented, could allow network transmission speeds at rates of about 8x their current offering.  (In tech-speak, that’s Internet access at peak speeds of 100mb/sec instead of 12 to 16).  In practicality, and plainer English,  that kind of Wideband speed means a movie that might take 5 hrs to download over a DSL connection could be downloaded via Comcast’s cable internet service in under 5 minutes. 

Robert’s said they expect to have the service in “millions of homes” by the end of this year. We’ll see if they meet that goal as the year wears on.


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