Roku, Comcast Kick Off Xfinity TV App Beta Trial

Roku has begun to release a beta version of the Xfinity TV app for select Roku models that feature an X1-style guide along with support for most elements of Comcast’s in-home pay TV service, including live TV, VOD, and cloud DVR recordings.

The beta, only for Comcast customers, debut arrives nearly nine months after Comcast introduced the Xfinity TV Partner Program. At the time, Comcast announced that Samsung was its first smart TV partner for the program and that an app for the Roku platform was under development. Comcast is working on integrating its HTML5 app for Samsung TVs, with a goal to launch a beta app for that platform later this year. Those will be the first TV-connected version of the app from Comcast, complementing earlier versions developed for smartphones, tablets and Web browsers.

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Early on, the Xfinity TV beta app will be supported on Roku TV models and all Roku players released in the “last couple of years,” Andrew Ferrone, VP of pay TV at Roku, and Michael DelCiello, VP of strategic partnerships and business development at Comcast, explained in a joint statement. That batch of eligible models includes the Roku Express, Roku Express+, Roku Streaming Stick (model 3600), Roku Premiere, Roku Premiere+, Roku Ultra, Roku 4 (model 4400), Roku 3 (model 4230 and 4200), and Roku 2 (model 4210).

To access Comcast’s video service on the Roku, which will also include Public Educational and Governmental (PEG) channels, customers will need to download the Xfinity TV app from the Roku channel store, install it, and input their service credentials. Per the description of the app, it will support many but not all features offered with X1 on traditional boxes: "Not all X1 features will be available in the XFINITY TV Beta app, but we are working diligently to implement additional functionality in future releases," it reads. "Some content restrictions apply."

Update: Transactional content (rental or digital purchases) will not be available via the app during the beta, Comcast confirmed. Because it’s an in-home cable service, blackouts and other mobile content restrictions would not apply, the company added. That restriction is also reflected in this just-posted FAQ about the beta, which also noted that "SAP [secondary audio programming] may experience intermittent availability in the XFINITY TV Beta app." Comcast allows customers to stream their cable service to as many as five devices simultaneously (i.e. a mix of Roku devices and mobile devices and PCs) in the home.  

Ferrone and DelCiello added that Comcast and Roku expect to expand support to more Roku player models throughout the beta period and as part of the app’s official/commercial launch, expected to occur later this year.

Notably, data delivered via the Xfinity TV app to Roku boxes will be exempt from Comcast’s usage-based Internet policies because it’s not an OTT service, but rather a “Title VI” cable service that is delivered into the home via a separately managed, private IP video path that does not mingle with public Internet traffic shipped on Comcast’s network. For the app to work, the  Roku must be connected to the customer's in-home Xfinity WiFi network. 

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During the trial phase, users of the app will need to have at least one Comcast-provided set-top box and a compatible Xfinity IP gateway in their home. And while Roku boxes aren’t supported as a primary outlet during the beta period, customers will be able to use the app on supported Roku devices as their primary outlet once the app is formally launched.

But customers will still need a compatible IP gateway to utilize the app on Roku. Current Comcast high-speed Internet customers won’t require any additional equipment because their gateways can also be used as a cable service gateway for the Xfinity TV app for Roku. However, for Comcast video subs who don’t take a high-speed Internet service from the MSO, Comcast is also working to make the required cable-only gateway equipment available soon, but has not announced a release date for that.

Update:According to Bloomberg, Comcast subs who use a Roku as their primary device (rather than a regular set-top) will get a $2.50 monthly credit. 

Comcast has not announced other CE companies that have hopped aboard the Xfinity TV Partner Program, though Comcast demonstrated the Xfinity TV app running on the Android TV-powered Nvidia Shield console at last year’s INTX show in Boston. Last April, Comcast Cable president and CEO Neil Smit said more than 40 companies had inquired about the program.

Though Comcast has not identified any other partners by name, the operator said there continues to be much interest in the Xfinity TV Partner Program and that it is actively engaged with many companies and expects to have more announcements later this year.

Like its new app for the Roku platform, Comcast is using a similar non-OTT approach for Stream, a skinny-bundle IPTV offering for mobile devices that’s selling for about $15 per month in markets such as Chicago and Boston. Comcast said the current plan is to roll out that product across its footprint sometime in 2017.

Comcast’s app integration on Roku marks a step toward broader use of retail devices that remove the need for pay TV subs to rent set-tops from their MVPDs, and an effort that stems back to the old CableCARD regime.

The cable industry has been adamant in its stance that market forces, rather than more government mandates, should pave the path forward for retail video devices.

The FCC, under former chairman Tom Wheeler, pushed hard for a new set of set-top rules, but new Ajit Pai, the new FCC chairman, announced today that the set-top rules proposal has been pulled, a decision that is considered a victory for the cable industry.