As expected, Comcast will officially offer a paid television service over the Internet. For now, the new service will only allow Roku and Samsung Smart TV owners to purchase access to the cable giant’s broadcast offerings. The program likely will be expanded over time.
As Ars reported two months ago, the Federal Communications Commission approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would force pay-TV companies to provide content and programming information to makers of third-party hardware and applications. This would create a software-based replacement for CableCard, allowing other companies to build set-top boxes or mobile applications that display a pay-TV subscriber's channels without a physical CableCard. (That vote has gotten support from the White House as recently as last week.)
Comcast’s new "Xfinity TV Partner Program" appears to be in direct response to that FCC move, although the company stated earlier this year in an FAQ that such a service was coming in 2016.
On Wednesday, Comcast elaborated on its offering and said the company plans to expand this offer to other device makers soon. As Mark Hess, a Comcast vice president, wrote in a blog post:
The Xfinity TV Partner App can be easily implemented by any company whose consumer electronics device supports HTML5 and other compatibility requirements. While many TV and other device manufacturers already support HTML5, for those that do not, we’re open to working together to explore customized versions of the app for their platforms as well. We have already developed award-winning app experiences on iOS and Android devices, and today we also announced a partner app agreement with Roku. This customized app will enable our customers to access their Xfinity TV cable service on their TVs via a Roku streaming player or directly on a Roku TV.
Hess continued and dubbed the new FCC proposal as "unnecessary."
The FCC’s proposed set-top box mandate threatens to undermine this highly-dynamic marketplace, create substantial costs and consumer harms, and will take years to develop—only to be likely outdated by the time it reaches the marketplace—all in an effort to achieve what apps are already delivering for consumers.
Last year, Comcast created a bit of an industry controversy when it revealed a potentially similar service called Stream TV in Boston and Chicago. That offering allowed Comcast's Internet-only customers in specific cities to stream live TV channels to computers, tablets, and phones. Comcast set up Stream TV so that it did not count against customer data caps, and it's currently unclear if the Xfinity TV Partner Program will follow suit.
While there are no rules preventing an Internet service provider from exempting its own streaming video from data caps, such a practice could disadvantage competing services that deliver video to customers over the Internet. Thus, the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules allow for complaints against so-called zero-rating schemes, with the commission judging on a case-by-case basis whether a practice "unreasonably interferes" with the ability of consumers to reach content or the ability of content providers to reach consumers. Comcast has argued Stream TV is a cable service and not an Internet service (meaning this FCC complaint opportunity does not apply), but consumer groups have disagreed.