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Chasing Voldemort ... er, Xcalibur

Jeff Baumgartner

8:30 AM -- For the better part of two years, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)'s Xcalibur project has been the cable industry's Voldemort -- the project that shall-not-be-named. Utter that word in a crowded room, and you'll never see cable industry folks scatter for the exits so quickly.

My personal toxicity level jumped a few notches when I reported the first story on it in late 2009. No one in the industry wanted to get within fifteen feet of me until the spring of 2010. It was a frosty, lonely winter.

Well, the sun is shining again, because Comcast finally yanked Xcalibur from the stone and flashed it for the first time Wednesday via this blog post from Sam Schwartz, the president of Comcast Converged Products.

Check it out. It's pretty interesting. It's all about Comcast's use of cloud to bring its TV navigation systems up to snuff and make them look and act like the more personal and intuitive systems it has created for tablets, smartphones and other IP-connected devices, including a souped-up Xfinity Spectrum HD-DVR being tested in Augusta, Ga. Schwartz also mentions connected TVs and gaming consoles among the kind of devices Xcalibur is targeting with the pointy end of its blade.

Comcast doesn't say as much, but the way we hear it, Xcalibur feeds into the MSO's over-arching IP video migration strategy.

News about Xcalibur has trickled out since 2009. Here's a timeline to get you up to speed on what's happened and what might be ahead:

  • October 2009 -- Comcast Forges 'Excalibur' for IPTV
    Word about "Excalibur" (this was before Comcast went all Xfinity on us) starts to spread at The Cable Show in Denver. Much of what's being said is highly speculative, but at least we peg that Schwartz is the guy in charge, that they're hiring like mad, and that it all has something to do with service convergence.

  • December 2010 -- Comcast Tests Broadband-Fed Xcalibur Service
    The trail went ice cold for a while after Comcast declared nuclear winter on the topic, but a sliver of sunshine creeps through when The Wall Street Journal finds out Comcast is testing the Spectrum box and Xcalibur system in Augusta, placing less emphasis on Web video and much more on a new, fancy guide and Web-sourced apps like Pandora.

  • December 2010 -- Rumor: Is This Comcast's 'Parker' Box?
    We get an exclusive on what the Xcalibur box -- at this point dubbed "Parker" -- looks like, and run it in our Rumors section. (Free registration required.)

  • December 2010 -- What's Inside Comcast's Parker Box?
    We learn a little bit more about the innards of the test box, discovering that it sports a user interface from Vividlogic (part of SeaChange International Inc. (Nasdaq: SEAC)), the Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) Qt application framework and widget engine, and an Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) chipset.

  • December 2010 -- Comcast's Internet + TV Set-Top Surfaces
    Wireless Goodness notices when that box makes it to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and everyone not only gets a good gander at what the box looks like, but also gets a better sense of what else is inside (a CableCARD slot, a USB 2.0 port), confirmation on who's making it (Pace plc ) and what sorts of things it supports thanks to a handy-dandy user's guide.

  • May 2011 -- Reviewer Sneaks A Peek at Comcast 'Xcalibur'
    Engadget publishes a sneak peek of the Spectrum DVR and new interface … and the reviewer/user likes it.

  • May 2011 -- Comcast Tees Up IP Video Tests
    The Journal gets the scoop that Comcast is going to test an IP video infrastructure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as the MSO looks to migrate off of QAM-delivered video and support a full array of IP-connected devices using Xcalibur's cloud-based approach to apps, navigation and services. Schwartz tells the paper that Spectrum should be reaching the deployment stage in 2012.

    — Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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    12/5/2012 | 5:04:01 PM
    re: Chasing Voldemort ... er, Xcalibur

    "The Journal gets the scoop that Comcast is going to test an IP video infrastructure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as the MSO looks to migrate off of QAM-delivered video"

    Comcast may be delivering more IP video, but as far as I can tell, they still tie it all to their QAM cable video delivery system. If you go to Comcast's website, you can watch Hulu videos (which you can also do without Comcast). They also have lots of online content from sources like HBO, but none of it is accessable unless you are also a QAM video subscriber. Membership into their IP video club requires subscription to a video cable box.

    I think that cable delivered video is such a part of their bloodstream, that I don't think they really understand or accept the concept of completely 'cutting the cord'. 

    Jeff Baumgartner
    Jeff Baumgartner
    12/5/2012 | 5:04:00 PM
    re: Chasing Voldemort ... er, Xcalibur

    The way I read that is Comcast is going to migrate to a managed IP video distribution system that complements the legacy QAM stuff... and give them the ability to distribute programming to IP set-tops and other IP-capable devices like the ipad, in the home to start (at least when it comes to linear TV programming).  They are already offering some on-demand content OTT using the Xfinity TV app.  So you'd still need to be a cable TV subscriber whether you were getting the linear lineup over IP or rf/QAM.  It would give Comcast a bunch more flexibility in terms of how it delivers programming and develops apps.

    I'd look for Comcast to create an IP simulcast akin to what TW Cable talked about recently. JB



    12/5/2012 | 5:03:59 PM
    re: Chasing Voldemort ... er, Xcalibur

    Duh.  Of course they still tie it to their subscription model: that's where they have content distribution rights and that's where they make money today.

    They understand extremely well the concept of cutting the cord and they know it's coming, but they need to figure out how to maintain revenues while they make the transition, and right now that means keeping subscribers on their traditional packages.

    If anything, content owners actually are even more reluctant than cable MSOs to embrace the switch to all IP because they have been burned by Internet distribution experiments that lost money, and still can't see how they will replace the revenue they get from cable and DBS subscriptions in an all-IP world.  The interests of MSOs and content owners in maintaining current subscription rates are extremely well aligned.

    Over time, once the IP distribution platform is scaled up, the device compatibility and viewing experience issues are ironed out and the content deals have been renegotiated to allow it, I believe Comcast will offer IP-only subscription plans (i.e. no cable set-top box required).  But until all those things are in place, making the experience good enough that customers will pay a significant monthly subscription charge for it, IP video service cannot stand on its own.

    Jeff Baumgartner
    Jeff Baumgartner
    12/5/2012 | 5:03:58 PM
    re: Chasing Voldemort ... er, Xcalibur

    They could have a big opportunity here if they are as open as they need to be, and should be. Comcast's CodeBig initiative sounds like a step in the right direction and could factor into Comcast's pursuit of third-party app development. JB

    12/5/2012 | 5:03:58 PM
    re: Chasing Voldemort ... er, Xcalibur

    With their customer base and access to content, seems like they could establish an extremely strong developer community that would develop apps for all sorts of devices. They could have them eating out of their hands!  Of course, that would require a more open approach than they have today.

    In addition to opening all sorts of new devices, it should give them more leverage with their current stable of STB vendors.

    12/5/2012 | 5:03:53 PM
    re: Chasing Voldemort ... er, Xcalibur

    People seem to be confusing IP delivery of content with how that content might be priced & packaged.  IP delivery is simply another format for content delivery (analog, SD digital, HD digital, 3D digital, IP, etc.) that enables content delivery to IP devices w/o the requirement of a traditional QAM based cable STB.

    Pricing and packaging of that content is a separate question - and IP delivery can be complementary to current packaging (i.e. extend TV viewing to a tablet) or a substitute for current packaging (a subscription that relies entirely on IP devices for content display).

    Either way, a transition to IP delivery does not imply that such content will be "free".  Creating professional content is expensive, and you can ask the broadcasters how well the model is working to rely solely on advertising revenues to offset that expense.

    12/5/2012 | 5:03:52 PM
    re: Chasing Voldemort ... er, Xcalibur

    Pricing and packaging of that content is a separate question - and IP delivery can be complementary to current packaging (i.e. extend TV viewing to a tablet) or a substitute for current packaging (a subscription that relies entirely on IP devices for content display).

    Either way, a transition to IP delivery does not imply that such content will be "free". 

    I don't think anyone is saying IP delivery is free, just that one of the options you mention--a subscription to IP delivery that relies entirely on IP devices--simply does not exist. And if someone prefers to receive their content that way, and perhaps doesn't even own a television, then being forced to get a cable box is pretty silly.

    And actually that does bring up your other point. The people who are in this position are also the people most likely to seek alternative (Netflix/Amazon Video, or even free and illegal) methods to get this content. As has been shown with music and iTunes, many such people would prefer to pay the content providers directly, but they are not being offered this choice.

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