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Comcast has a new IP set top say reports - But what it does is a mystery

The surprise with which the Wall Street Journal blew the scoop on the fact that Comcast was up to something with internet connected set tops, was itse

By PETER WHITE

Published: 16 December, 2010

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The surprise with which the Wall Street Journal blew the scoop on the fact that Comcast was up to something with internet connected set tops, was itself a surprise. The Comcast Excalibur (or Xcalibur) box has been talked about for over a year as an internal project which is supposed to challenge things like Google TV, if it ever takes off.

If Comcast did NOT have an over the internet connected box THEN we’d be surprised, but Xcalibur has been in the press (under the name Excalibur) since November 2009, although no-one has quite worked out what it does yet.

But reading between the lines we don’t think that it does anything similar to Google TV and if you think for even a moment about it, there are a lot of reasons that Comcast might put in an IP return route into a set top, and if we list all of those reasons, we are likely to reach the design spec for Xcalibur.

Does Comcast want internet video to be viewed on its TV sets? Well no, that would signal its own demise, anything but that. But it might want internet connected video, in other words its own VoD and TV Everywhere services, to be viewed on the big screen. IP delivery of VoD is a simplification and as far as the Comcast architecture goes, it just shifts it from a tuned TV channel, or from a Switched Digital Video channel, to the more than capable DOCSIS 3.0 channel.

But it simplifies the infrastructure and therefore its VoD costs, so it’s something that Comcast would want, a walled garden over the internet, which cuts its costs.

It would also want a return channel. Putting a return channel into cable has been notoriously difficult in the past, especially integrating it to external servers, for instance to create interactive advertising. Of course this can be done on cable and there are technologies for it, but they are complicated, and proprietary and therefore they are too expensive to deploy across its whole footprint.

But we have to remember that Comcast is not just a TV service. It also offers broadband and VoIP, so while the IPTV rival suppliers such as AT&T are quietly producing new services based around the ALL IP nature of its offering, time and time again, even something as simple as showing the phone number of an incoming call on your TV set, or shifting phone audio to the TV speakers, are always denied Comcast, or cost too much.

Taking this one step further, how much easier would it be to add services to Comcast customers, whether from outsider partners, or from Comcast itself, if it had an IP based APP Store deliver mechanism. Once again it might not want this to be open and out of its control, but it would want it to look like Google TV once it has access to Android Market, even if it only has 25 apps on it all approved by Comcast.

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