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Comcast shows off next-generation broadband, TV

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts shows off a 1Gbps connection and cloud-based channel surfing as part of a demonstration for Comcast's next-generation broadband and TV services.

Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, at the NCTA's Cable Show 2011.
Marguerite Reardon/CNET

CHICAGO--Comcast showed off 1 gigabit-per-second downloads and cloud-based channel surfing here today as it demonstrated features for its next-generation broadband and TV services.

CEO Brian Roberts took the stage at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's Cable Show, where he showed how the company's hybrid-coaxial infrastructure is capable of delivering a 1GB connection to the home. Using an 11-mile demonstration cable network, he showed how an entire season of the hit show "30 Rock" in HD could be downloaded in just 1 minute and 39 seconds. Roberts commented that with slower, older connections, this download could have taken hours.

Roberts said consumers have told Comcast that if the company builds faster networks they will come. And they have indeed come. As Comcast increases speeds on its network, subscriptions for broadband service have risen.

"In 2020, we will want more bits in and out of our homes and we will build that," he said. "I'm not sure what they will use it for, but I am confident that once we built it they will come."

Roberts also showed off the next generation of its Xfinity TV service, which leverages cloud-based computing to provide an enhanced program guide and applications for the TV. The look and feel of the new interface is similar to a Web experience, which Roberts said is intentional, since the brains behind the guide and the set-top functionality will be in the Internet "cloud" instead on the set-top box at home.

"It's not cloud storage as much as it is cloud computing," he said as he flipped through the art of the various movies on demand. It provides more content, faster and over more screens than the previous way Comcast has handled this data. This means subscribers will be able to watch TV and surf the Net from anywhere in the house or outside the home using whatever Internet device they like, such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop.

The new enhancements will also make it easier and faster to search for content on the cable service. Subscribers will be able to personalize the TV experience with the MyTV tab that allows DVR recordings, favorite shows, and recommendations to be pooled together.

As part of this cloud-based initiative, Comcast also announced partnerships with Facebook and Skype this week, which will put these apps directly into the TV experience for Comcast subscribers. Comcast added other widgets to the TV service, too, such as weather and traffic updates.

Comcast is testing the new features in Augusta, Ga. But Roberts didn't detail an official plan for network roll-out.

Horse race
Comcast and other cable companies have been facing stiff competition from fiber-based broadband and TV services from rivals AT&T and Verizon Communications. Verizon in particular has introduced many of these same features and functionality in its products already.

For example, interactive Facebook and Twitter apps were integrated into the Verizon Fios service in July 2009. And Verizon also introduced more personalization in its Fios TV service in February 2010. Verizon has also offered a TV app for the iPad since December, and it's added several other features and functionality not yet available from Comcast, such as embedded chaptering in recorded DVR content.

Verizon is also pushing the envelope when it comes to broadband network speeds. The company has been testing a 10Gbps download service in Taunton, Mass. It's also been working on a field trial of a 100Gbps service. Today, Verizon's fastest speed broadband service offered is 150Mbps.

While cable has not built an entirely fiber-based network like the one Verizon has built for its Fios service, Comcast and others have a significant amount of fiber in their infrastructure. And they're using the latest versions of the DOCSIS cable technology to get faster speeds. Comcast has been at the forefront, upgrading its network to these new technologies.

Another advantage that Comcast has over Verizon and AT&T in areas where they compete, is that Comcast is able to cover a much larger percentage of its customers with the increased speeds and additional functionality. Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon have not upgraded and deployed fiber throughout their entire service footprint. So in areas where AT&T U-Verse or Verizon Fios is not available, the only competition to Comcast and its faster speeds and enhanced TV offering is DSL.

In those areas of the country where AT&T and Verizon have not upgraded their networks, cable is dominating with much higher speeds and increased functionality. In areas where the networks are upgraded, the horse race is on. And it looks like the competition between cable and the telcos is resulting in a lot of interesting innovation.