• More on Comcast's "Excalibur" Project

    Last week's piece in Cable Digital News, "Comcast Forges Excalibur for IPTV" generated a number of emails to my inbox. Despite an oddly misleading title using the primarily telco-oriented term "IPTV," the substance of the article caught lots of people's attention. It explained that Comcast, America's largest cable operator, has set up a new division, "Comcast Converged Products" (CCP) and that Comcast "...would put all IP services, including video, into a common provisioning and management system."

    VideoNuze readers who contacted me interpreted Excalibur as being the basis for a potential out-of-market, over-the-top (OTT) plan by Comcast. These folks were referencing a post I wrote in September, "How TV Everywhere Could Turn Cable Operators and Telcos Into Over-the-Top's Biggest Players," in which I asserted that the next phase of TV Everywhere - "TVE 2.0" as I called it - could well find incumbent service providers invading each others' geographical turf with an IP/broadband-only service. While this type of move would represent a major break from traditional industry norms, I suggested that it may be irresistible for growth reasons and inevitable for competitive reasons.

    I talked to a Comcast spokesperson yesterday to learn more about Excalibur and to ferret out any indications that it could indeed be the basis for a Comcast OTT play. According to the spokesperson, Excalibur's mission is to "use IP to deliver cross-platform interactive services." The spokesperson noted that it would be a mistake to think of these as solely video-oriented. Comcast already uses IP technology extensively in its network and Excalibur is meant to find ways to "improve the consumer experience across platforms." One example cited was a feature like checking your voicemail from the Comcast.net portal.

    When pressed for specifics on CCP deployments, new products or timelines, the spokesperson said there are no specific plans at this time. The spokesperson did confirm that Sam Schwartz (formerly the head of Comcast Interactive Capital) has been appointed president of CCP, but said the "core Excalibur team" is smaller than the 100 people that CDN reported. I referenced my recent OTT post and the spokesperson had no comment on my speculation Comcast would go out of footprint.

    Admittedly that doesn't add a lot of new detail about Excalibur. From my perspective, I'm dubious that the company would reassign Schwartz to anything that wasn't highly strategic. While using IP to enhance the customer experience is worthwhile, Comcast has major competitive battles brewing that are critical to focus on. Yesterday's news that Apple is floating a $30 subscription offering is a reminder that the Steve Jobs lion will pounce at some point. Similarly, Netflix, which just reported superb Q3 results, broad usage of its streaming feature, an integration with PS3 (and a rumored one with the Wii) is looking more and more like a national cable competitor, leveraging myriad CE devices. Others to be mindful of include YouTube, Hulu and Amazon. These are of course in addition to fierce satellite and telco rivals.

    Given all of this, Comcast's smartest move would in fact be to reassign its savviest tech-oriented executive, given him/her a large team and task him/her with ensuring the company's competitiveness in the face of new entrants. In particular, gaming how to compete with Apple should be near the top of the list. Apple has shown an uncanny ability to reinvent markets with its easy-to-use, ultracool devices. While gaining access to cable programming is far from a slam-dunk, Apple's ability to innovate is unmatched, potentially making it a totally new kind of cable competitor.

    Last week, coming out of the CTAM Summit, I expressed concern that the cable industry was not fully recognizing online video as a bona fide new medium, which it needs to embrace and capitalize on. For now Excalibur's real agenda is murky; time will tell how aggressive it is.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.