Keep an eye on Comcast.
Usually I’d say this with a bit of doomy foreshadowing in my voice and I’d go on to share its latest depredations on network neutrality. When it comes to the smart home, however, Comcast is worth watching for friendlier reasons.
The cable giant is building a technology platform that offers a lot of customer-friendly services that it plans to bring to other cable companies as part of a tech platform. That means Comcast’s Xfinity products may find their way into your home even if you aren’t in a Comcast area.
This week Comcast rolled some big improvements to its Wi-Fi network with the launch of a software based control panel for users that lets them set parental controls, prioritize traffic, and see what’s on their network and how it’s behaving.
It also announced the known investment in Wi-Fi startup Plume and said it would make and resell the Plume hardware to its customers. Plume makes plug-in network extenders that act somewhat like a mesh, except they are actually optimizing the path data takes in your home from a cloud service. I wrote about Plume here.
Chris Satchel, chief product officer and EVP with Comcast, says that the software for xFi plus the investment in Plume means that Comcast can now tell customers where their Wi-Fi sucks and then offer them an easy-to-install product that will help fix it.
This only works if you have Comcast’s modem and router. If you’re using another router like Eero or Google Wi-Fi with your Comcast modem, then none of these options are available. This means that you’ll be paying Comcast’s $10 modem rental fee if you want any of this.
Still, plenty of people pay the fee and the software should help Comcast solve a big problem for its users–namely that Wi-Fi is highly variable depending on your home’s layout and construction materials. The biggest problem that folks have with their broadband is that the Wi-Fi doesn’t work.
The second biggest challenge for consumers who are buying connected devices is that they can’t get them connected to their network. Comcast is trying to solve this through a deal with a company called Cirrent that puts its software on manufacturers’ devices and then connects those devices automatically to participating networks. If you bring home a device with Cirrent’s software and you have a Comcast home network then the device should find the network and authenticate almost automatically.
Comcast will offer both the Plume devices and its xFi software to other cable companies, which means that even if you aren’t in Comcast’s service area you may soon get better Wi-Fi from your cable company…if you’re willing to pay the modem rental fee.
This will expand Comcast’s business and revenue-generation beyond its established geographic area. This isn’t the only line of business where Comcast is seeking to become a platform for other cable companies. When it closed the deal to buy part of iControl in March, it also scored the smart home and security platform that is used by smaller cable companies. The iControl software is what underlies Xfinity Home.
Given that bad Wi-Fi, difficult provisioning and the underlying integration platform are some of the toughest problems facing the consumer smart home, Comcast is now in a position to grow the category for itself and others.
As a communications company, finding ways to expand beyond providing just the pipe into the home is an essential strategy. But so far, most ISPs have had trouble moving beyond the bundle of voice, entertainment and broadband. With its improvements in Wi-Fi and a credible security and automation platform, Comcast seeks a new source of revenue.
So far, Comcast has 1 million subscribers to its home automation and security platform.
New sources of revenue could get Comcast to back off some of its more egregious broadband practices, but it’s also good for consumers that a company with such a huge market presence is focused on taming some of the challenges of implementing connected home devices.