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Comcast’s mesh Wi-Fi system, xFi Pods, launches nationwide

Comcast today is officially launching its own Wi-Fi extender devices called xFi Pods that help to address problems with weak Wi-Fi signals in parts of a customer’s home due to things like the use of building materials that disrupt signals, or even just the home’s design. The launch follows Comcast’s announcement last year that it was investing in the mesh router maker Plume, which offers plug-in “pods” that help extend Wi-Fi signals.

The company said that it would launch its own xFi pods that pair with Comcast’s gateways to its own customers as a result of that deal.

Those pods were initially available in select markets, including Boston, Chicago and Denver, ahead of today’s nationwide launch.

The pods themselves are hexagon-shopped devices that plug in to any electrical outlet in the home, and then pair with Comcast’s xFi Wireless Gateway or the xFi Advanced Gateway to help Wi-Fi signals extend to the hard-to-reach areas of the home.

The pods work with the Comcast Gateways to continuously monitor and optimize the Wi-Fi connections, Comcast explains, while its cloud-based management service evaluates the home’s Wi-Fi environment to make sure all the connected devices are using the best signal bands and Wi-Fi channels. Plus, the devices are smart enough to self-monitor their own performance, diagnose issues and “heal” themselves, as needed, says Comcast.

However, early reviews of Plume’s pods were mixed. CNET said the system was slow and the pods were too expensive, for example. But Engadget found the system had the lowest latency, compared with competitors, and helped devices roam more easily and accurately.

Comcast has addressed some of the earlier complaints. The pods are now much more affordable, for starters. While they’ve been selling on the Plume website for $329 for a six-pack, Comcast’s six-pack is $199. A three-pack is also available for $119, instead of the $179 when bought directly from Plume.

More importantly, perhaps, is that Comcast’s system is different from the pods featured in earlier reviews.

While Plume technology is a component of the new pods, they are not Plume devices, Comcast tells TechCrunch. Instead, Comcast licensed the Plume technology, then reconfigured some aspects of it in order to integrate xFi. It also designed its own pods in-house.

In addition, Comcast’s engineers developed new firmware and new software in-house to make it easy to pair the pods with a Comcast Gateway.

The Comcast xFi pods can be bought from its own website, the xFi app and in some Xfinity retail stores.

The xFi app (for iOS and Android) is also how customers can manage and view the connection status of the pods.

Comcast says it will make buying pods even easier later this year by offering a monthly payment plan.

The company has been upgrading its Wi-Fi offering in recent months as a means of staying competitive. Last year it launched the Xfinity xFi platform to help customers better manage their home Wi-Fi network with features like device monitoring, troubleshooting, “bedtime” schedules for families, internet pause and other parental controls.

Comcast declined to say how many pods were sold in its first trial markets, only that the response so far has been positive and boosted the company’s Net Promoter Score as a result.

Image credits: Comcast

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Tile and Comcast team up to help you find lost items with your TV’s voice remote

Lost device finder Tile today is making good on its previously announced partnership with Comcast by introducing a way for Comcast Xfinity customers to locate their Tiles using Comcast’s TV remote, the Xfinity X1 Voice Remote. This is also the first video and voice partnership with Tile, which has been steadily expanding its integrations with third parties, including most recently Bose, Samsonite, Boosted Boards, and others.

The company has said its goal is to “blanket the world” in smart location through its partnerships, which have also included those with access points and airport Wi-Fi.

With the Comcast partnership in particular, Tile users can speak into their voice remote and ask for the location of one of their Tiles – the small dongles that can be attached to things like bags, purses, keys, wallets and more.

To use this feature, you have to say “Xfinity Home,” (yes, this is how you talk to your remote), “where are my keys?” or “Sam’s backpack?” or whatever other label you’ve assigned your Tile device.

The last known location and the address of the missing Tile will then appear on the TV screen.

To use the feature, Xfinity customers will have to download the Xfinity Home app on their iOS or Android device to add their Tiles following the instructions in the app.

The companies say that, later this year, the feature will become available to all Xfinity Internet customers, too.

Though there are a number of lost item finders on the market, Tile has become one of the biggest in the space, having sold 13 million Tiles to date, as of this January. It hasn’t provided an update on revenue in recent months, but said it had earned $100 million in 2016.

One the company’s bigger efforts lately has been on expanding its network. Tiles work beyond their Bluetooth connections by creating a community where all users with the Tile app on their phone can share information back to the network about nearby Tiles, including those from other users. That means it’s to Tile’s advantage to integrate its technology in as many places and products as possible – as this brings on more customers, and more places where nearby Tiles can be found.

Comcast was one of several new partnerships announced this year, but it was one of the bigger names. The other notable brand working with Tile now is Bose, whose SoundSport Wireless and QuietControl 30 headphones will ship with Tile’s technology embedded inside.

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Comcast appeals to ‘cord nevers’ with launch of Xfinity Instant TV service

Comcast’s own streaming service aimed at cord cutters and more so the ‘cord nevers’ who never sign up for cable, has now launched. The service, Xfinity Instant TV, is only available to Comcast’s broadband subscribers, where it aims to take on other over-the-top offerings like Sling TV, YouTube TV, Hulu Live TV and others, by offering a cheaper “skinny bundle” of local broadcast networks, starting at $18 per month. The service also includes a video-on-demand library, and DVR with 20 hours of storage.

The differentiator between Xfinity Instant TV and some of its streaming rivals is that it packages all the major broadcast networks into its core offering, including ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, NBC, PBS, Telemundo, Unimas, and Univision, plus all public, education and governmental channels. But access to top cable networks like ESPN, AMC, A&E, and Disney Channel aren’t in the introductory package.

This should appeal to those consumers hesitant to cut the cord because they would otherwise be missing live, local sports and news. But it also largely appeals to those who don’t yet pay for cable TV – only broadband – but struggle to find ways to watch live, local programming. (A digital antenna can offer this, of course, but not everyone gets all the channels clearly, nor do they like the aesthetics of mounting an antenna in their home.)

“Cord nevers” may also avoid traditional cable because they don’t want to pay for larger packages with channels they don’t need. That’s led to the rise of “skinny bundles” from traditional pay TV providers and over-the-top streaming service alike.

However, Comcast’s is different from the skinny bundle Sling TV offers, which makes cheap access (it starts at $20 per month) to several cable channels – like ESPN – a key selling point for its base package.

Meanwhile, Xfinity Instant TV subscribers get broadcast channels to start, then can opt to upgrade their bundle to include the networks they want by buying from a mix of add-ons.

To give you an idea: a $15 per month “entertainment” add-on will bring A&E, AMC, Comedy Central, Discovery, Food Network, TBS, TNT and USA; the $10 “kids and family” add-on offers Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, and TLC. (See bundle charts below).

Premium cable networks HBO ($15 per month) and Starz ($12 per month) are also available as optional upgrades.

The service is largely a rebranding of Comcast’s existing Stream service, which has been in testing in select U.S. markets, including Boston and Chicago.

When Comcast’s top video exec Matt Strauss confirmed the new service’s name and a few details earlier this year, he had said that the entry-level pricing would be $15 per month. But Comcast execs later noted that the pricing was still in flux. As it turned out, the company decided to inch up the starting price a little more.

Like many of the other live TV streaming services on the market, Xfinity Instant TV will also offer subscribers the ability to watch video-on-demand programming for the channels they pay for, and it lets them record programs to a cloud DVR. Pay-per-view and the ability to rent or purchase movies and TV shows is not available at launch.

The service supports up to two simultaneous streams, and unlike Hulu, there’s no way to pay to add more streams for an additional fee. But with two streams, you can record two shows at the same time, or watch one while recording another.

Unfortunately, not all channels will stream when you’re out of the home – a limitation that most live TV services don’t have. That’s due to the way Comcast has negotiated the rights for its streaming TV service. (Comcast TV Everywhere rights apply here). Instead, when you’re not connected to your home wi-fi, you can only watch DVR recordings and TV Go content.

Again, the service is something Comcast is hoping to upsell to its broadband-only customers, rather than market more broadly. Nor is it likely to lure many customers away from rivals like Sling TV, Vue, AT&T’s DirecTV Now, Hulu Live TV, or YouTube TV.

At launch, viewers watch Xfinity Instant TV via a computer, smartphone or Roku player, the website says, though the supported device lineup should improve in time.

The service is currently in beta, but will roll out across Comcast’s nationwide footprint over the next two weeks.

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Comcast’s X1 cable boxes now serve up YouTube videos alongside traditional TV

Comcast’s cable boxes are getting YouTube. The cable TV company and Google today announced the addition of a YouTube app across Comcast’s Xfinity X1 service nationwide, which will allow customers to watch YouTube content alongside traditional TV programming. YouTube videos will also be featured in Xfinity on Demand, and will be accessible via the X1 voice remote.

The ability to voice control TV and video content is something a number of streaming media players favored by cord cutters offer, including Amazon’s Fire TV and Stick (via Alexa), Android TV (via Google Assistant), Roku, and Apple TV (via Siri), for example. More recently, traditional pay TV operators have been getting into the game as well, as Dish did earlier this year when it announced the ability to integrate with Amazon Alexa for hands-free TV.

Like its rivals, Comcast has been leveraging its voice remote to offer traditional TV viewers similar voice control capabilities. Last year, it added Netflix to its Xfinity X1 devices, also with voice control, and today also offers apps for other popular services, like Pandora, Instagram, and Facebook.

With the addition of YouTube to its lineup, X1 customers can launch the video app just by saying “YouTube” to their voice remote. They can also then search the billions of videos on YouTube’s service by asking for content using natural speech. For example, you can say things like “YouTube, show me make-up tutorials,” or “Find party dip recipes on YouTube,” says Comcast.

More specific videos can be called up, as well, by referencing them by name. The idea here is that YouTube often serves as a source of supplemental content related to what TV viewers are watching – that is, it can serve up things like trailers, teasers, clips, interviews, and other content. For instance, Comcast suggests you could say something like “Show me clips from ‘Empire’ on YouTube.”

The cable operator also cheekily suggests you can ask to “watch ‘Carpool Karaoke’ on YouTube” – a funny example, given that the Carpool Karaoke spinoff is one of Apple Music’s flagship shows. The point here being: why bother with a streaming music and video subscription from Apple, when you can just access all this content via YouTube instead, right from your cable TV box?

Related to that, Comcast notes that the YouTube app can serve up live streams, like those from concerts and big music events like Coachella, or other notable events, like the 2017 Grammy’s. Music videos and live streams will be in Xfinity’s On Demand section, too, as will eSports, other entertainment clips, local news, interviews, and more.

By adding YouTube to the On Demand section, content from YouTube creators gets equal footing alongside traditional TV programming – something that points to how much of people’s “TV time” today includes watching videos that didn’t air on TV. For instance, Google said in February that people were now watching 1 billion hours of YouTube videos per day.

“Giving our customers seamless access to live, on demand and internet content in one place continues to be a key part of our strategy and we are excited to now add YouTube to the X1 experience,” said Matt Strauss, Executive Vice President, Xfinity Services, Comcast Cable, in a statement. “By adding billions of YouTube videos to our video platform, we are taking our role as the aggregator of aggregators to a new level and reaffirming that X1 is the best place to easily discover and access all types of entertainment with the sound of your voice,” he said.

The move comes at a time when many consumers are giving up on cable TV, opting for their own mix of streaming services instead. Comcast, in particular, is heavily affected by this trend. Just last week, its stock dropped following another announcement from Strauss, who said the company will lose between 100,000 and 150,000 video subscribers during its 2017 fiscal third quarter.

Strauss blamed both increased competition in the U.S. and Hurricane Harvey for the expected losses.

Comcast has 21.48 million residential video subscribers as of its last earnings announcement in June.

In addition to accessing YouTube through voice and On Demand, X1 customers can also launch the new YouTube app located in the Apps and Networks sections of X1 starting today.

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