Comcast eyes global markets for its smart home service

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The Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month did not turn out to be the stage for a battle to the death between Amazon, Google, and Apple in the smart home. There was a plethora of product announcements in this area, each a little victory for one of the big three consumer brands, but no one dealt a knock-out blow.

And working in the background, cable TV giant Comcast prepared an opening salvo in its fight to sew up the Smart Home as a Service (SHaaS) market. Comcast has been developing its Xfinity Home platform for a few years now, and has just opened the doors for third-party integrations – setting the stage for a licensing business that could go global, if it pulls the trigger.

There’s an inherent tension between the new bring your own device (BYOD) approach and the existing bundled package method. With the bundles, Comcast can generate a margin on the devices it buys from suppliers and then sells on to customers, either via one-off upfront fees or through monthly repayments. However, letting its customers bring their own devices into the ecosystem would bypass this opportunity for Comcast.

Its customers should get a better experience, and Comcast should be able to enjoy the same stickiness of this more open offering as it would with its own bundles – people will be less likely to churn away from the Xfinity ecosystem if it means breaking their smart home into pieces and trying to reassemble it (such is the nature of smart home hubs, currently). Comcast will need to determine the balance of lost potential revenue versus in-creased customer retention.

To this end, in the run up to CES, Comcast announced that all of its Xfinity internet customers, around 15m of them (out of an apparent total of 23.5m residential internet customers), would now be able to add smart home devices to their X1 set-tops – and control them using the X1’s voice-capable remote control, the xFi smartphone application (which began life as a way of managing a home’s WiFi network) or the Xfinity Home app.

“What we do see is that people who use Xfinity in the home tend to have more devices,” said Chris Satchell, Comcast’s chief product officer, speaking to TechCrunch. “It’s not about, ‘can we sell you more IoT devices.’ Although we do produce cameras and so on, but one thing I like to think is that we’re adding value for the consumer. You’ve already got three cellphones connected, so this gives you another use for them.”

Satchell went on to say that Comcast would be working on adding the digital assistant capabilities to its platform, so that users can tell it to perform functions – set scenes, lock doors, activate security systems, etc. Whether that’s through the smartphone app (seems most likely) or potentially through an integration with something like the Echo or Home, Comcast needs a hands-free input method for these voice controls.

Comcast has made two recent acquisitions in the smart home space, buying up a large chunk of Icontrol Networks in June 2016, (Alarm.com got the rest) to secure software that Comcast was already paying for, and then buying Stringify in September 2017, a provider of IFTTT-like programming frameworks for smart home devices. They built on the 2014 purchase of PowerCloud, a software house that provided the basis of Comcast’s device monitoring tech.

Cumulatively, Comcast is very close to having a complete platform that it could license to other pay TV companies or ISPs – in a similar way that it licenses the current X1 platform system to Shaw, Videotron, soon Rogers in Canada, and Cox in the US, where it has also been rumored to be licensing X1 to Charter.

Comcast will also be looking to work out how to integrate its LoRa project, MachineQ, into its core businesses. With its home-based WiFi footprints, Comcast can sell access to these WiFi access to other network providers, who in turn can provide their customers with access. While it seems unlikely that Comcast is going to start requesting LoRa radios inside its next-gen X1 set top RFPs, we think LoRa is going to start cropping up more in the smart home – especially if Comcast can set an example to developers on the potential scope of such an integration. Access to utilities might be the most convincing argument, as well as telehealth and patient tracking.

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Caroline has been analyzing and reporting in the hi-tech industries since 1986 and has a huge wealth of experience of technology trends and how they impact on business models. She started her career as a journalist, specializing in enterprise and carrier networks and in silicon technologies. She spent much of her journalistic career at VNU Business Publishing, then Europe’s largest producer of technology publications and information services . She was publishing director for the launch of VNU’s pan-European online content services, and then European editorial director. She then made the move from publishing into technology market analysis and consulting, and in 2002 co-founded Rethink Technology Research with Peter White. Rethink specializes in trends and business models for wireless, converged and quad play operators round the world and the technologies that support them. Caroline’s role is to head up the wireless side of the business, leading the creation of research, newsletters and consulting services focused on mobile platforms and operator models. In this role, she has become a highly recognized authority on 4G systems such as LTE and WiMAX, and a prolific speaker at industry events. Consulting and research clients come from major mobile operators, the wireless supply chain and financial institutions.

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