Video takes backseat to wi-fi, cross-platform tools

If there were any lingering doubts that the cable industry sees a future for itself beyond serving only the biggest screen in the home, the first day of its annual confab should put any second-guessing to rest.

Five of the country’s biggest cable operators kicked off the Cable Show in Boston with a joint announcement on an expansion of the interconnection of their Wi-Fi capabilities, enabling a broadband subscriber venturing outside the geographic footprint of one MSO to access wireless from another. Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Cablevision and Bright House Networks are the participating distributors.

In addition, Comcast alone introduced a cross-platform dashboard that integrates control of voice, video and data services with additional in-home functionality ranging from the alarm system to the thermostat. The nation’s largest video distributor also unveiled a user experience for its video offering that utilizes both IP

delivery and other wireless devices.

All together, the new products are a reflection of the cable biz’s determination to diversify its offerings as video sales flatten, broadband sales pick up the slack, wireless device usage grows and bundling becomes ever more important in driving average revenue per user (ARPU). Then there’s persistent subscription price increases to justify and satellite and telco competition to fend off.

“In our view, the Internet pipe into the home is becoming increasingly more important than the video pipe,” said Wells Fargo analyst Marci Ryvicker in a preview to the Cable Show. “We think investors need to see how MSOs can better monetize their HSD offerings.”

The Wi-Fi expansion should help drive added value to broadband subscriptions, where Big Cable topped the telcos by commanding over 75% of net adds in the first quarter of 2012, according to ISI Group. The five MSOs are pooling over 50,000 Wi-Fi hot spots under the collective network name of CableWifi primarily in the Northeast but also in Los Angeles and parts of Florida. More areas will be added in the next few months.

The Wi-Fi announcement should be of interest to the FCC, which sought clarity on what cable operators were doing in this space as part of its review of a megadeal struck last year between Verizon Wireless and cable MSOs. They agreed to cross-market each other’s services as part of the telco’s $3.6 billion purchase of wireless spectrum.

Wi-Fi will also help bundled cable subs access video programming made available outside the home by the growing number of TV Everywhere deals unshackling content once restricted to the living room.

Comcast, TW Cable and Cablevision already struck a Wi-Fi sharing agreement in 2010; Cablevison spent $300 million on a Wi-Fi network covering the tristate area but offers it to subs for free.

In keeping with Comcast’s tradition of showcasing new technology at the Cable Show, the MSO gave a sneak peek of Project Dayview, a cloud-based tool that lets subscribers essentially manage their lives across devices. In addition to control of core functionality like DVR recording and voicemail, Dayview would be capable of adjusting lights, temperature and security in the home. Deployment isn’t expected until later this year.

For Comcast, it’s an ambitious bid to become the starting point of its subs’ multiscreen existence. As with the Wi-Fi initiative, Comcast is repositioning itself as a utility both inside and outside the home.

Appropriate for the Cable Show’s home base this year, Comcast announced Boston as the first city for deployment of Xfinity TV on X1, a cloud-based revamp of the TV user interface. The rollout will occur in the coming weeks, followed by additional unspecified markets later in the year.

X1, which was being tested in Augusta, Ga., since last year under the name XCalibur, allows for what Comcast calls “unified search,” giving viewers one access point to content whether it’s on linear channels, Xfinity’s massive VOD cache or their own DVRs. The technology is only available to triple-play subs with an HD DVR, enabling IP delivery.

A companion X1 app will also turn iPod or iTouch devices into remote controls with gesture control, with functionality including the ability to shake the device to pause the screen. Both X1 and Dayview also incorporate social media.

X1 and Dayview also reflect Comcast’s continued push to pack the triple-play with as many value-adds as possible to drive ARPU. In February, the MSO launched Streampix, a SVOD movie service seen as a countering move to Netflix that was made free to its triple-play subs.

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