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Comcast beefs up X1 cloud-based cable in San Francisco

Comcast inches closer to box-free TV in the country's tech hub by adding streaming of live TV to mobile devices in the home and the ability to download anything recorded to its DVR onto a gadget.

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Joan E. Solsman
3 min read

X1 is Comcast's cable TV software that moves the brains of cable TV into the cloud rather than leaving them locked in a set-top box in the living room. James Bareham/Comcast

Comcast, the biggest cable provider in the US, is lighting up tech features of its cloud-based X1 TV system in the country's technology home base, San Francisco.

Starting Wednesday, X1 customers in the Bay Area will be able to access their full TV lineup on any connected screen in their home, and they can download any programs recorded on their DVR to a gadget to watch them outside the home too. The features are now available in eight cities, en route to being available to most X1 customers by the end of the year, the company said.

The progress -- which inches Comcast closer to its goal of cable services being beamed to customers from a server with only a tiny (or no) set-top box in the home --brings the company's cloud DVR to half of its footprint. By putting the brains behind cable TV in the cloud, Comcast has outstripped rivals with the sophistication of the X1 system -- smaller rival Cox is considering licensing it to be able to offer the same to its customers. With X1, Comcast frequently updates its services without technician visits, integrates search across different types of content, improves channel guide and can offer the streaming and download features introduced Wednesday.

Despite widespread admiration for the system, the prospect of expanding X1's reach through a proposed $45 billion merger with No. 2 cable company Time Warner Cable hasn't placated critics of Comcast's widening power. Consumer advocates, tech companies and -- more recently -- a major TV programmer, Discovery, have protested that the merger would dangerously increase Comcast's market influence by giving it a video presence in 19 of the 20 largest US metropolitan markets and passing the company through half of the country's broadband homes.

The rollout of X1's juiciest features has taken time to reach the bulk of subscribers, too.

"Think of it like an evolution, an evolution that is accelerating," said Matt Strauss, Comcast's senior vice president and general manager of video services. In select cities, it was first available to new triple-play customers (those who subscribe to TV, Internet and phone service through Comcast), then to existing triple-play customers, then double-play customers. He said the company is at a pace of about 20,000 to 30,000 new X1 box installations a day. "The goal is to do it as quickly as we can," he said. Comcast later said the rate is closer to 20,000.

The live TV streaming on any connected screen in the home means X1 customers can use their phone, tablet or other device to watch anything they'd watch on a typical television connected to a set-top box -- with the same guide and channels available. Downloading content recorded to the cloud DVR onto a device for out-of-home viewing is now easier to use -- customers can download prerecorded programs over any Internet connection like a library system -- customers can watch a program on one device but then they have to check the program back in to watch it elsewhere.

Strauss said that when his wife could watch her favorite show on a plane ride after downloading it from the cloud DVR to her device, he suddenly became something of a small-scale rock star. "Customers have come to expect that all their content is available time-shifted," he said. "It's the same with devices."

Correction, 11:05 a.m. PT: This story originally misstated a figure on Comcast's pace of change. Comcast is adding about 20,000 to 30,000 X1 box installations a day, not subscribers a day.