Further expanding the reach of its popular digital cable service, Comcast is introducing a beta version of a new Xfinity TV app for Roku media streaming devices throughout its 50-million-home footprint, with the aim of launching the service commercially sometime later this year.
Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), which has previously come out with Xfinity TV apps for mobile devices and plans to launch the service on smart TVs from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) later this year, said the new app will offer most of Xfinity TV's features, including access to live, on-demand and DVR programming and the X1 programming guide, on many of the latest Roku models. But features specific to the X1 IPTV set-top, such as the voice remote and sports app, will not be available to Roku users, at least not initially. While final pricing has not been set, Roku customers will not pay any extra fees for use of the Xfinity app during the beta phase.
The move by Comcast comes after years of lobbying efforts by Roku Inc. officials to persuade major pay-TV providers to put their TV apps on Roku devices. Although the former Time Warner Cable struck a deal with Roku to do that nearly four years ago, other service providers have been cautious about following suit because of concerns about moving their content to unmanaged devices and losing full control over the viewing experience.
But that attitude has been shifting dramatically over the past couple of years, thanks to the continuing explosion of smartphones and tablets and the proven staying power of media streaming devices in the market. In the US, for instance, Roku has signed up such other major service providers as Charter Communications Inc. and CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL), while Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH)'s Sling TV OTT service began beta testing a cloud DVT service on Roku devices two months ago. (See Sling TV Beta Tests Cloud DVR on Roku.)
"There's no question Time Warner Cable was way out in front on that one," said Steve Shannon, GM and SVP of content and services for Roku. "But we have a lot of operator relationships now."
The Xfinity TV beta launch with Roku Inc. comes about nine months after Comcast announced its Xfinity TV Partner Program to put Xfinity apps on other large viewing devices. At that time, with cable operators and other pay-TV providers under pressure from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to "unlock" their proprietary set-top boxes, Comcast said it would partner with both Samsung and Roku to put TV apps on their devices. (See Comcast answers the app call.)
Ironically enough, Comcast and Roku rolled out the beta trial today on the same day that new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai all but announced that the Republican-led Commission will drop its "Unlock the Box" proposal, which had been a major priority of former FCC chief Tom Wheeler. (See Pai Opposes Title II, FCC Alums Oppose Pai.)
Despite stiff competition from such heavyweights as Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), Roku continues to lead the market for OTT streaming media devices. In a study conducted by comScore Inc. last June, for example, Roku devices commanded 49% of the US market, easily beating Google's Chromecast entries, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV. ComScore estimates that about 40% of US homes now have some kind of online streaming device hooked up to their TV sets.
Shannon said Roku now has about 13 million active user accounts globally, with most of those in the US. Given that Comcast has nearly a quarter of all US broadband subscribers, that means up to 3 million Comcast customers may have Roku devices in their homes.
With pay-TV apps for third-party set-tops and other video devices proliferating, are conventional cable, telco and satellite TV set-tops headed out the door? If so, Roku certainly wouldn't mind.
"We do root for the success of pay-TV," Shannon said. "We just want it to be on Roku."
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading