Comcast Loves Integrators: Atmos, IP Control, High-Level Support, Remote Access
The brand that integrators love to hate -- Xfinity by Comcast -- is coming around with a strong commitment to the home-tech installation channel on both the product and service fronts.
Julie Jacobson · May 9, 2016
If Comcast told you they care about custom installers and their clients … would you believe them? It happens to be true, judging by the new integrator-friendly products they’re launching, along with programs that give dealers much of the access and support that Comcast’s own techs enjoy.
At CEDIA Expo 2015 last October, Xfinity by Comcast demonstrated new features for the X1 DVR platform that integrators will love: rack-mount form factor, IP control and an architecture that is “100 percent ready for Dolby Atmos,” said Neal Roberts, director of Comcast Special Operations, back then.
Roberts is a former integrator who leads a team that includes other integrators to support the channel through a program called Custom Xfinity Integration (CXI). Launched in 2014, the CXI dealer program has upped its game, providing support that goes beyond hand-holding.
Nowadays, the group holds sway over product development, in addition to dealer services, pushing solutions that help integrators help their clients … and themselves.
Roberts works in the engineering group at Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia, while a team of about 80 people provide additional support through the company’s Denver office.
“When I say we’re committed,” Roberts says, “we’re committed.”
Integrator-Centric Product Improvements
Recently, Roberts told CE Pro that Atmos support for the X1 box is nigh: “I have tested it on live-production and on-demand content, so it works. Anyone in Philly who wants to try it, come on in.”
Roberts explains that Comcast has not yet announced Atmos-enabled content (“Why would they do that if there’s not a box and the infrastructure?”) but the cable provider does include two Atmos clips in its On Demand lineup, “with more coming soon.”
The Atmos feature was no small feat, according to Roberts. Comcast had to accommodate the service on the back-end and make changes to the X1 user interface.
For example, there’s an “Advanced Audio” tab on the menu to enable bitstream pass-through to the receiver.
The cable provider claims to be the first MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor) to incorporate Atmos into the entertainment experience.
Forget that it took this long … Comcast now has IP control for the X1, meaning a home automation system can control the box and the TV service just as well as Comcast’s own app, if not better. Savant is first out of the gate, but Roberts expects all major control systems manufacturers to take advantage of the new API.
“No more IR emitters, no more RS-232,” he proclaims. “The set-top boxes have Ethernet.”
Custom Xfinity Integration (CXI)
There are discrete power commands and all DVR buttons can be mapped to a home-control system. There are “deeper links” to commands that could not be accessed before through a third-party automation system.
For example, users can get right to the DVR with a single button press on the home automation system. Better yet, pressing the DVR button might turn on the TV, dim the lights and get you straight to the DVR menu.
Here’s the catch: The IP communications is only one-way, so don’t expect to view a programming guide or Comcast content through your home-automation interface … at least not today.
“Our system is built in the cloud,” Roberts explains. “We need to protect that two-way stream.”
And, by the way, since recorded content resides in the ether, no massive hard drives are required on the set-top box, which consumes just 1U of rack space.
The new rack-mountable X1 DVR (known as Arris XG1v1-RM, AX11RANM or simply Rackmount XG1 v.1) is now shipping.
The kicker is this: The box is only available to CXI partners. If you’re not a CXI partner, you can’t get the rack-mount version of the XG1 DVR.
4K with HDR Support?
No HDR support yet, according Roberts: "Right now, Comcast does not have a publicly available set-top that supports HDR, but we’re working hard on it!"
CXI Dealer Program: Unfathomable Service from Comcast
Remember when dealers had to jump through hoops to be able to act on their client’s behalf?
That and other exasperating cable experiences are a thing of the past, Roberts says.
He explains that each employee of a CXI dealer gets a unique ID. The installer simply calls a dedicated 800-number with a few bits of information about the client to become authorized to speak for that client. Then there is a “completely seamless transfer” to new-customer set-up … and away you go.
That same 800 number gets dealers “right into tier 3 support,” Roberts says. “Those are the same techs that our techs call.”
In fact, the folks that now supports CXI dealers through Roberts’ group “were the best tier 3, tier 4 and now tier 5 techs,” he says. “Hands down they’re the best people in the company.”
They are prepared for “even weird integration questions,” Roberts adds. “We’re ready for that call.”
In addition, three former integrators are available for more advanced support.
If all else fails, “They just look over the glass of the cubicle and ask me,” Roberts says. “We want to make sure that the integrator gets out of the house as soon as possible.”
A Better Platform for Remote Diagnostics
The tech-support team is bolstered by a platform that enables remote access to the customers’ networks to diagnose problems and fix them from afar. And that access is not limited to cable boxes and routers.
“If it touches our network, we see it,” Roberts says, noting that the X1 box, modems, smart home hubs and other black boxes – plus anything connected to them – can be viewed remotely.
Comcast can check out the ZigBee mesh, Wi-Fi signal strength, MoCA (coax) devices and more.
The Comcast “Einstein” dashboard displays at-a-glance the overall health of the account, and a separate “Watch Tower” tab provides an overall view of the neighborhood.
“We can even check for errors on any single channel,” Roberts says.
Comcast plans to expose many of these tools to integrators themselves so they can determine if cable service is down in the neighborhood, if the customer’s modem is offline, if Wi-Fi signal strength is weak at certain times of the day, if the ZigBee mesh network goes offline, and more.
Like Comcast can do today, integrators too will be able to reboot ZigBee and IP devices, among other things.
“We have heavy, heavy diagnostics,” Roberts says. “It’s never been better.”
So why all this love for integrators? "Comcast cares because they want to make sure we do right by the customers," Roberts says. "Their [integrators'] customers are sticky customers. They're influencers."
Integrators can sign up at CXIcentral.
Custom Xfinity Integration (CXI)
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Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at email@example.com
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