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Update: Comcast's Xfinity online video plan, a toe in Internet waters

Update with public interest group concerns about Xfinity plan.

Comcast said that starting today thousands of shows will be available through a Web browser to its customers who subscribe to both cable and broadband service. It's a move to dip a toe into the online video market while keeping customers from cutting the cord on cable services.

The plan, called Fancast XFinityTV, is part of an industry-wide effort to address demand for online video while also maintaining the cash cow -- subscriber fees from cable and Internet. Competitors Time Warner and Cox have said they will launch similar efforts, known in the industry as TV Everywhere plans. Comcast has been testing XFinity on 5,000 customers for the past year. Post Tech has written extensively about the burgeoning online video market and questions about how TV Everywhere fits in.

"Online viewing is additive. It is additive to your DVR use. It is additive to straight-up television watching," said Amy Banse, Comcast's head of interactive media, in a conference call.

Comcast is the first in the industry to launch a TV Everywhere product. It will be available free to its broadband and cable subscribers, known as "dual play" customers, according to Banse. And a customer will be able to watch shows like HBO's "Entourage" and "True Blood" by logging onto the company's Web site and putting in a password. That authentification process can be done on up to three devices or computers in the home and all of those screens can run Comcast shows at the same time. Comcast said it will draw content from about 30 cable networks for about 20,000 hours of online programming.

Xfinity will be placed under the microscope as federal regulators review Comcast's merger with NBC Universal. In a still young but fast-growing market for online video, Comcast will have control over 1 in 5 television viewing hours through the merger. And by tying online video use to cable and broadband subscriptions, public interest groups say they will push for the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether that model benefits consumers and competition in the online video market.

"The launch of the TV Everywhere model indicates that Comcast wants competition nowhere," said Marvin Ammori, a professor of law at University of Nebrasky at Lincoln and a senior advisor to Free Press. "These are transparent efforts to preserve the cable cartel that gouges consumers. Comcast wants to be the gatekeeper to the video programming world. This service is a threat to innovative online video and an attempt by the industry to impose the cable-TV model onto the Internet."

When asked how Xfinity would affect Hulu, the online partnership by broadcasters (which will be 30 percent owned by Comcast after the merger), Banse reiterated the company's position that it would be complementary to its own online video products.

By Cecilia Kang  |  December 15, 2009; 2:09 PM ET
Categories:  Comcast , Online Video  
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