Comcast's New Rented Streaming Box Is A Flimsy Attempt To Remain Relevant
from the beautiful-walled-gardens dept
Like countless other cable giants, Comcast continues to bleed cable TV subscribers at an alarming rate. These users, tired of sky-high prices, continue to flee to more competitive streaming alternatives and better customer service. That’s not great news for Comcast, which has spent decades enjoying a stranglehold over traditional TV, thanks in part to the industry’s walled gardens and monopoly over the cable box. And while cable giants could counter the streaming threat by competing on price, they instead continue to double down on ideas that don’t make a whole lot of sense.
Case in point: in a bid to try and keep users from “cutting the cord,” Comcast last week introduced Xfinity Flex. According to the Comcast press release, this new Flex streaming box will be made available to existing Comcast broadband customers for a $5 monthly rental fee, providing access to a limited number of streaming services (sans live streaming services like Playstation Vue, SlingTV, or DirecTV Now that directly compete with Comcast’s own offerings):
“Xfinity Flex will deepen our relationship with a certain segment of our Internet customers and provide them with real value,? said Matt Strauss, Executive Vice President, Xfinity Services for Comcast Cable. ?For just five dollars a month, we can offer these customers an affordable, flexible, and differentiated platform that includes thousands of free movies and shows for online streaming, an integrated guide for accessing their favorite apps and connected home devices, and the ease of navigating and managing all of it with our voice remote.”
Except the “value” provided by Comcast’s latest effort is dubious at best. For one, Comcast’s new hardware will only allow users to view a handful of curated streaming services and apps chosen and approved by Comcast. Why, exactly, would users, who could pay a one-time flat fee for Roku or build a media center PC (with an endless roster of apps and services), want to instead pay the least liked company in America an additional $5 per month for a box that’s highly restricted?
Another caveat: this being the cable company, that $5 isn’t actually $5. While Comcast rather buries this fact, the company’s ads make it clear that to order get Flex, you can’t have your own router, but have to also rent Comcast’s XFi Gateway for an additional $10-13 per month:
In short, Comcast’s $5 rental box is actually closer to a $15 rented box that doesn’t provide access to the full litany of streaming services. But as is usually the case, the mainstream tech press kind of missed all of that. Comcast-owned CNBC, for example, was quick to claim in a write up of the device that Comcast was somehow “making it easier” for the company’s subscribers:
“Comcast is making it easier for its broadband-only customers to access streaming video without an outside set-top box…”
Except that’s not at all what Comcast is doing here. The entire affair is Comcast desperately trying to seem innovative, when in reality it’s just attempting to erect barriers and keep customers inside its increasingly-irrelevant walled gardens. Customers don’t want to rent another Comcast-requested cable box, and given the wide variety of streaming hardware for sale, they shouldn’t.
Trying to keep customers on Comcast-approved hardware is going to prove to be a fool’s errand. Comcast’s real ace in the hole in terms of battling cord cutting won’t be hardware, but the company’s growing monopoly over broadband in many markets. This dwindling competition is letting Comcast erect arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps and overage fees. Fees that will apply to competing services but not to Comcast’s own TV content, giving it a wonderful way to not just raise rates, but to use its power as network operator to disadvantage streaming providers in the absence of net neutrality rules.