Comcast Launching Xfinity App For Roku, But Not Ditching Set-Top Box Just Yet

Image courtesy of Comcast

With the FCC officially dropping set-top box reform from its agenda, the best we can hope for is a gradual shift toward app-based access to pay-TV programming. Comcast and Roku helped nudge things an inch in that direction today, announcing an Xfinity TV app that comes with as many questions as it does benefits.

The app has just launched in a beta test, the companies announced today. Among other things, that means it may not yet contain its full functionality, may not always work quite right, and is still subject to change in both look and function.

The app is also not yet going to be available for every Roku device owner; the initial list of devices on which it will work for now includes the Roku Express, Roku Express+, Roku Streaming Stick, Roku Premiere, Roku Premiere+, Roku Ultra, Roku 4, Roku 3, and Roku 2.

Here’s the big catch, though: For now the app will only be available to customers who “currently subscribe to Xfinity TV and Xfinity Internet service, have at least one Comcast-provided TV box, and have a compatible Xfinity IP gateway in your home.”

Rather than being a set-top box replacement, it’s basically another way you can log in to your existing Comcast cable account and view content, just like the website or mobile device apps.

There’s another big catch: The app is free for now, but may not always be.

“Customers will not pay equipment charges with respect to their use of Roku devices,” Comcast writes in its FAQ, “during the Beta trial, additional outlet charges for services to outlets connected to Roku devices are being waived. On conclusion of the trial, you will be informed of the charges that will apply for connecting this device with your XFINITY TV service and will have the opportunity to opt in.”

This arrangement may sound familiar to you. It’s almost exactly what the FCC proposed as an alternative to subscribers having to rent set-top boxes monthly from their cable providers.

Comcast, however, stood adamantly against that proposed rule, claiming before it was finalized that it would hurt innovation, raise prices, and somehow lessen consumer privacy protections. Later, while the FCC was still developing a final rule, Comcast claimed it would be impossible to comply with a regulation requiring its service to be made available as a third-party app.

After the finalized rule was announced, Comcast immediately issued a fiery statement saying that mandating cable companies make content available through apps would “stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks by imposing… heavy-handed regulation in a fast-moving technological space.”

That statement came in September; the FCC was supposed to vote to adopt the rule later that month but scrapped it from the agenda for the September meeting. Now, with the change of administration, new chairman Ajit Pai has been able to kill it off entirely.

Given the timelines of corporate partnerships and app development, it seems plausible at least that Roku and Comcast were already in talks regarding this app through 2016. And that certainly casts Comcast’s objections in a different light: perhaps it wanted not to guarantee constant revenue from X1 rentals, but rather to be allowed to charge for this Roku app and other future apps like it — something the FCC rule would have prohibited.

Meanwhile, getting the app successfully tested and launched does open up a future possibility: Why not install it on any Roku, or other similar device, in the country? Doing so would let Comcast turn broadband subscribers in any part of the country where it isn’t — like, say, Charter customers — into Comcast cable customers, even if it runs no wires anywhere near there at all.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.