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A gander at the good, bad, and ugly for the largest cable MSO in the land

2008 Top Ten: Comcastic Moments

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner
12/29/2008
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As we've come to expect, 2008 was not a year of treading water for Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK). With a hand in everything from Internet "throttling" to Docsis 3.0, here are our picks for the Top 10 “Comcastic Moments” of the year:

10. Tuning adapter early adopter
Comcast has been the least aggressive with switched digital video (SDV), but it was among the first MSOs to deploy tuning adapters when it introduced the devices in its Cherry Hill, N.J. market. (See Comcast Tunes Up SDV Tuning Adapters .)

Tuning adapters allow inherently one-way CableCARD capable digital TVs, and some stand-alone TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) DVRs, to carry on two-way communication with the cable operator network. The devices make sure only the necessary information and channels are sent and they conserve MSO bandwidth.

Tuning adapters aren’t expected to become a mass market item but they are a big hit with the boisterous TiVo crowd. But using them should breathe some life into those stodgy one-way CableCARD devices and help Comcast avoid some SDV-related FCC fines that have already hit the respective bows of Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Cox Communications Inc. . (See FCC Levies More SDV-Related Fines and FCC Dings TWC Over SDV .)

9. Waiver denied, denied, denied!
After the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) denied Comcast’s request for a special waiver on low-end digital boxes with integrated security multiple times, it was the court’s decision to turn a deaf ear on the purported plight of nation’s largest MSO. (See Comcast Denied Set-Top Waiver (Again).)

Those repeated denials have since put Comcast on a collision course with simple (and somewhat controversial) security-free, one-way Digital Terminal Adapters… and you’ll read more about that a bit further down.

8. Comcast does CES
After the cable industry complained bitterly that it had not been well represented at the annual gadgetfest in Vegas, it finally had its opportunity when Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts took center stage as cable's first CES keynoter. (See CES: Roberts Declares Open Season.)

As expected, he spent much of his time talking up tru2way, the new name for the OpenCable Platform, but Comcast also came to the show bearing some real CE-related news, led by a new “portable” DVR/set-top combo it’s offering in conjunction with Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC), a big “Project Infinity” content initiative, and an Web-fed video hub called Fancast. (See Comcast, Panasonic Unveil Portable DVR and Comcast Launches 'Project Infinity'.)

7. A TiVo tilt
Although the reviews have been less than stellar, Comcast and TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) at long last introduced a Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)-made box with the TiVo service on board in the MSO’s New England division. (See Comcast to Kick Off Boston TiVo Party.)

So it only took about three and a half years from that deal to go from paper to deployment. Who said working in the U.S. cable set-top environment is difficult?

But now that the hard part is out of the way (on the Moto platform, anyway), deployments should start to expand next year, with Chicago evidently on deck. (See TiVo Still Seeking Cable Payoff and Chi-Town Bound?)

6. Get yer tru2way TVs!
Comcast customers in Denver and Chicago become the first to get their mitts on new tru2way-powered digital televisions from Panasonic that can pump in interactive digital cable services, including VoD, without a separate set-top box. (See Denver, Chicago First to Get Tru2way TVs and Tru2way TVs Hit Denver.)

The debut of tru2way TVs marked a huge step forward in a cable retail project that has been years in the making and full of enough controversy and head-butting with the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) to fill the innards of a Circuit City store -- one that is still open, that is. (See Two-Way Battle Reaches FCC.)

Panasonic and Comcast showed the world it can be done. But will consumers care?

5. Doing DTAs
For months, Comcast had been talking about its plans to reclaim valuable analog spectrum using simple digital terminal adapters (DTAs) and redeploying that newfound spectrum toward Docsis 3.0, HDTV, and other advanced services.

This fall, Comcast introduced that strategy in portions of Oregon, the first of a massive number of Comcast markets that are expected to make similar transitions over the next 12 to 18 months. (See Comcast IDs First DTA Market and Comcast Seeds Digital Shift With Free Boxes.)

But, looking ahead, we’ll be keeping close tabs on how well those DTAs, which are being deployed sans security but could support content protection later via a firmware download, will continue to sidestep FCC set-tops requirements. What’s a Comcast-related story without a dose of regulatory controversy? (See Comcast's DTAs: Security Optional .)

4. Pivoting away, then waxing WiMax
Comcast was the first to sever ties with “Pivot,” the failed wireless joint venture with Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), citing massive operational and intercompany complexities. (See MSOs Pivoting Away From Sprint JV.)

But Pivot's failure didn't stop Comcast from its pursuit of mobile wireless services. It, along with some of cable’s usual suspects later hooked up with Sprint again, this time through the Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR) WiMax partnership. (See Cable Plays Clearwire Card.)

3. Ouch! My wrist hurts!
There was no fine, but the FCC, in a close 3-2 vote, ordered Comcast to cease the use of its existing bandwidth management platform by the year's end -- something the MSO had pledged it would do even before the vote took place. (See FCC Throttles Comcast, FCC Details Comcast Order , and FCC Puts Comcast on the Clock .)

Comcast made the decision under fire from pressure groups such as Free Press that claimed the MSO’s network management practices were discriminatory toward peer-to-peer applications. There are some vague penalties Comcast could face if it does not comply with the order (nothing has suggested otherwise to this point), but the FCC basically told Comcast to go ahead and continue doing what was already doing. Nice.

That teed up the next Comcast Internet service controversy: Should a cable MSO apply a public ceiling to its so-called “invisible” consumption cap?

Comcast CTO Tony Werner explained his company's approach to traffic limiting in this LRTV interview from June:



2. Wrapping up wideband
No one expects customers to pound the door down for top-tier Internet service, particularly in this economy, but Comcast’s deployments in 2008 showed a solid commitment to a technology that will give super-speedy fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP)-based services a run for their money – at least until cable operators start pulling fiber all the way to the home themselves in any scale. (See Comcast Wraps Up '08 Wideband Rollout .) Comcast subs in Baltimore; Chicago; Atlanta; Ft. Wayne, Ind.; Minneapolis/St. Paul; and portions of Oregon and Washington are all enjoying wideband bragging rights, and they're paying a premium, too.

1. Donning a byte-sized cap
Comcast announced what everyone already seemed to know: that the MSO would apply a 250-gigabyte threshold on “excessive” users. It wasn’t a metered service in the new tradition of MSOs such as Rogers Communications Inc. (NYSE: RG; Toronto: RCI), but it sure enraged a lot of people who viewed the new policy as a veiled attempt by the operator to keep Internet-fed video services in check. (See Comcast Draws the Line at 250GB and Rogers Takes Internet Meter to the Masses.)

Comcast, which runs an Internet video hub of its own called Fancast, insisted that the cap will apply to less than 1 percent of its high-speed Internet sub base, noting that median residential usage is 2 gigabytes to 3 gigabytes per month.

No, that didn’t calm people down either. But they’ve been partially comforted by news that the MSO is working on a Web-based meter that shows customers how much capacity they’ve consumed at any given time during the month.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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