Comcast tries to stay relevant in online world

Cable giant plans to offer online video-on-demand and Web-based applications on set-top boxes as it tries to give subscribers a more interactive experience.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

As more entertainment content makes it way online, Comcast is looking for new ways to remain relevant to its subscribers.

Specifically, the cable giant is launching a bunch of new initiatives to bring more interactive content to its services and keep its subscribers hooked on cable. First on the list is the company's proposed free online video-on-demand service. The service, which will be offered as part of Comcast's Fancast video site, has been discussed publicly for the past couple of months. But the company has kept the details, such as when it will launch and what content will be offered, under wraps.

What is known is that Comcast expects to offer the service free of charge to its existing cable TV customers. In a recent interview with PC World, Karin Gilford, the Comcast Interactive executive in charge of the cable provider's Fancast video site, said with a user name and password, subscribers will be able to access any standard or premium cable content that their cable subscription entitles them to watch.

The service will let users watch TV on their laptops or computers, and eventually it might even be available on cell phones. What will make the service different from other online video sites, such as Hulu.com or TV.com (which is owned by CBS, publisher of CNET News), is that it will feature premium cable content from sources like HBO, ESPN, and CNN. This content has largely been off-limits to free online video aggregators.

But because Fancast online video-on-demand viewers must subscribe to cable TV, the new service won't act as cable replacement. In other words, it's simply an extension of Comcast's existing cable service. This is an important element of the service, because it ensures that Comcast doesn't cannibalize its own lucrative paid TV business.

Apps, to boot
In addition to online video, Comcast is also dipping its toe into online application waters. The company announced earlier this week that it is working with Adobe Systems to embed its Flash technology on set-top boxes used by its TV subscribers. Sree Kotay, senior vice president and chief software architect at Comcast, recently told the Web site Contentinople that the company plans to enable widgets and other Flash-based applications on its set-top box.

Kotay said he sees Flash as a software platform that could allow the company to quickly add new applications to the set-top box. And he said that these applications could be built by Comcast or they could also be built by third party developers. The company was showing off the new set-top box at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas this week.

Kotay hinted at potentially creating an application storefront akin to Apple's iPhone App Store. He said that the App Store was a good example of how companies can maintain control over applications to ensure quality and also easily distribute them to consumers.

But he stopped short of indicating whether Comcast would provide a monetization mechanism through its own customer relationship. This would be easy enough to do, considering that Comcast has a direct billing relationship with consumers and could easily provide one-click purchasing. But Kotay said it was still too early to discuss business models.

For now, Comcast is still in the exploratory phases of how it can keep pace with the online world. It will be interesting to see if subscribers use the Fancast video on demand site and what kinds of applications and widgets will be developed for the TV.