Comcast Rolls Out "Xfinity" Nationwide

Authentication product available to customers that subscribe to high speed data and cable
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As it promised earlier this year, Comcast is rolling out its authentication product, Fancast Xfinity TV, nationwide starting Tuesday (Dec. 15).

Originally called OnDemand Online during its trial phase, the MSO decided to brand the service under the Xfinity name, a play on what Brian Roberts called "Project Infinity" at the 2008 CES.

The service will be a free add-on to the company's cable service, and is still considered to be in beta, with the company looking to fix bugs and add content and content partners. Comcast customers that subscribe to a high speed data plan and a cable programming plan will automatically get access to Fancast Xfinity.

After a user has downloaded the Comcast client and verified they are a customer, they can log on to Fancast.com to access the video content. The content will be tiered based on what package the customer has, so if you subscribe to a basic plan, programming from the basic channels will be available, and if you subscribe to HBO or Starz, programming from those networks will be available.

The launch is just the first step in Comcast's rollout of the Xfinity product. The company says it hopes to expand the service to all of its cable subscribers-even those that do not have high speed internet plans- within the next six months. It also plans to roll out the ability to access content on programmers' sites in that same timeframe. Other projects in the works include mobile applications, a music video portal and expanded Spanish-language programming.

Advertising will be inconsistent on the service, at least at first, as programmers experiment with different ad loads. Some programs, such as those from TNT and TBS, will have full 2-3 minute commercial pods, while others may have the more common (at least on the web) 15 or 30 second individual spots.

"I think there is a lot of experimentation taking place with advertising online, says Matt Bond, executive VP of content acquisition for Comcast, who added that the MSO was not requiring any "hard and fast rules" for programmers to abide by.

A major sticking point in the process of launching authentication platforms, for Comcast and the other carriers, has been where the value comes from. Comcast is launching Xfinity as a free service, a bonus to existing customers, with advertising supporting some of the programs.

Some programmers disagree, and are asking the MSOs where their upside is in the authentication model. One cable programming chief told B&C that unless Comcast struck a deal for higher carriage fees, a separate fee (ala ESPN360.com) or returned commercial time, their network would be reluctant to participate in the service.

Of course, Nielsen is working to measure online viewing as part of C3 numbers, and if programmers are able to include a full ad load through the service and Nielsen counts it, it might be enough to keep them on the service.

"Most programmers see this as a mechanism to offer more content than they have today," Bond said. "Without authentication there wouldn't be an ability for us or programmers to make that content available.

I would say that there are a lot of pieces that go into the discussion, and [asking for an additional fee] is not the main talking point," he added, saying that they were focused on ensuring that "the advertising model can grow with the user experience."

User experience is key for the service, with sites like Hulu.com setting the bar for ease of use.

Comcast President of Interactive Media Amy Banse says that internal research shows that customers in the OnDemand Online beta watched 2-3 times more online video than a typical Fancast user, and that it was additive to both TV and DVR viewing. She also said user feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Banse also says that Hulu and Fancast Xfinity can co-exist in the online space, noting that Hulu has a large selection of broadcast content, with limited cable content, while Xfinity will have mostly cable content.

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