Comcast’s Impressive Evolution

It was not long ago that Comcast was being regularly and quite publicly lambasted for poor customer service, high prices, and outdated technology, vulnerable to the growing wave of OTT options. But the company deserves a lot of credit for what I think is a successful turnaround of its Xfinity TV-Internet-Phone business (this column mainly pertains to Xfinity – rather than Comcast’s broader business that includes NBC Universal, Sky, etc.)

Now, most tech reviews are focused on new gadgets, such as the latest iPhones, or innovative new services, such as 5G. But every once in a while, it’s useful to check in on an established service provider, especially when the market is changing so much around them. As an industry analyst and consultant, I follow Comcast as a company, and have done some work with them in the past. But my recent personal experience as a returning Xfinity customer provides a window into a company that has improved on numerous fronts, and also made some smart strategic moves.

Two years ago, after many years as a modestly dissatisfied subscriber, I ditched Comcast in the Boston market for a competitor called RCN. They offered a classic Triple Play service — competitive channel lineup, Showtime and HBO thrown in to hook me, TiVo interface, and 150 MB internet — for an attractive initial price of $119 per month, all in. Well, as these things do, the promotion period ended, random fees kicked in, $119 became $209, customer service deteriorated, and the technology platform felt increasingly antiquated. So, time to re-evaluate.

I really thought I’d end up with a Millennial-esque broadband-plus-OTT package. Options have massively multiplied and improved, right? So I went through the usual time-consuming evaluation of “these guys offer this but not that” matrix that one must painfully and time consumingly subject oneself to when evaluating OTT (sorry, vMPVD) options. Will I be able to watch the baseball playoffs? Will my spouse get her beloved [Comcast-owned] New England Cable News? Etc., etc. Well, it turns out that the yawning gaps and compromises of OTT Phase I have shored up considerably over the past couple of years, with DirecTV Now and YouTube TV being the best of the bunch, in my view. But yet, these services are in the $40-50 per month range, added to the now unbundled $70-80 Broadband Internet (where are you Starry?), plus Netflix plus HBO, plus, plus…and all of the sudden you’re in $160-170 per month territory. And you still have to sort of piece things together, the UI isn’t great, and things tend to glitch out periodically.

So where did I land after this several-week ‘research’ process? Comcast! (sorry, Xfinity). Huhh?

It was striking to me how these guys have upped their game, in a relatively short period of time, across many aspects of the customer experience, while becoming more competitive on price. It started with customer service.  I spoke several times with a very knowledgeable rep, at a call center not just in the good ‘ol U.S. of A, but in New England! He knows what NESN and NECN are! I could leave him a voicemail…and he would call me back! He was super-knowledgeable about the landscape, liked working at Comcast, and was really impressed with the company. How much shock will be registered when I say that my recent customer service experience has been way better with Comcast than with Apple?

On price, Comcast has adjusted their Pay TV offers in order to be more competitive with vMPVDs. One can more easily change services without wacky fees. And there is more flexibility vis a vis contracts – one can pay $10 more a month for no contract, or within contract there is more flexibility to switch services/plans. And with the rise of Smart TVs, one can save on the $10 per month cable box rental by downloading the Xfinity app (although it’s still a bit rough and one loses some of the benefits of the X1 interface). So, my all-in price: $156 – for 400 MB internet, phone, plus all major TV channels, including Showtime and Netflix. Now, maybe that’s $10-20 more than OTT land, but for many it’s worth the modest premium for some other benefits such as better technology, UI, and less hassle factor than vMPVDs. There are some additional benefits, such as the Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots, and the opportunity to buy discounted wireless service through their MVNO with Verizon.

But what strikes me most is that this has become more of an ecosystem play. Xfinity is moving closer to resembling the Apple model than it is the cable/telco model. Their X1 interface is, bar none, the best overall UI. Theirs is the real TV OS, not Apple’s.  So much so that cable companies worldwide are licensing it. It is intuitive, features cloud DVR, and an excellent search capability, integrating content across platforms into a single view. The customer increasingly gets the sense that is a premium service — from the X1 interface to advanced DVR, to some of the most advanced router/modem products available. In my mind, it’s worth the extra $20-ish a month for the UI and technology.

I’m also impressed with how Comcast has recognized the new world they’re in with regard to OTT. They’ve done a great job of integrating Netflix and other OTT services (Hulu, YouTube, and, soon Amazon) into X1, which vastly improves search and provides the most straightforward approach for a customer to wade through the vast TV content landscape. Heck, Netflix is even included in some bundles. They’re also playing the other side, offering Xfinity as an app for those with smart TVs. The idea is, Comcast wants you as a customer, and is more flexible about how that actually happens.

Now, cable still finds ways to sorta piss you off. Like the ridiculous ‘surcharges’ for Broadcast TV, Entertainment, and Sports. Umm…isn’t that what I’m buying? Does one incur a ‘baseball playing’ surcharge when at a ball game, or a ‘movie content’ fee when attending a film? Why don’t they just bundle it in?  Other random, fees, or the need to buy ‘X plus’ something in order to just get ‘X’ remind you that these guys still can’t, upon occasion, help themselves. Or little gotchas, such as the need to have Xfinity internet in order to access their streaming service on platforms such as Roku.

So, it still isn’t perfect. But after a few years on hiatus as a customer, it was impressive to see how much has changed. Leading-edge, technically. Better customer service. More competitive on price. Embraced and leveraged OTT rather than fought it. Saw the writing on the wall with Pay TV and made it more about the customer experience and the ecosystem. Overall, some impressive moves in an industry that’s experiencing a lot of changes.

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Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.

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