On my recent visit to Comcast in downtown Philadelphia, I admit it felt a little bit like I was re-living the scary scene from the “Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy and her crew get to enter the giant green doors where the wizard lives. After all, the mega-company’s Comcast Center headquarters is an intimidating 58-story high-rise that dominates the Philly skyline, and just getting to the multiple elevator banks in the lobby required security guards to make a photo ID for me. And, I mean, Comcast is one of those giant cable companies that everyone “loves to hate”… isn’t that true?
Turns out, there is nothing to fear. Indeed, on the contrary integrators should be looking to embrace Comcast as a valued partner for their custom installation services. Because just like in the classic movie, Comcast is actually a “benevolent wizard” whose Custom Xfinity Integration (CXI) team is dedicated to helping integrators seamlessly blend cable TV services with HDR, 4K, Dolby Atmos and control/automation solutions. Ultimately, the goal is not just happy CE pros, but happy end-user customers.
In the CXI program, integrators, among other things, get:
- Access to a dedicated tech support number only for CXI members staffed by former integrators both in the Philly headquarters as well as in the company’s Denver office.
- Influence on new product development, including firmware updates.
“We ‘get’ the custom industry … we understand. That’s why we are 100 percent dedicated to this channel,” says Neal Roberts, director of Comcast Special Operations.
Each employee, whether that is a technician or salesperson inside every one of the 800-plus integration companies in the CXI program gets his or her own tech ID number to use when they call in. That identification allows tech support, nicknamed the Tiger Team, to isolate the history of that particular technician to better assist them on the phone.
Building the CXI Team
The CXI unit, which was launched back in 2013, is much more than just a dedicated tech support team for integrators, the group is more or less a giant test lab with engineering “wizards” working in test facilities on multiple floors throughout the structure. It’s in those labs where Comcast engineers are configuring systems to mimic in-the-field installations with every conceivable coupling of its X1 set-top box (STB) with various displays, control systems, transmission methods, loudspeakers, and receivers. The idea is that if an integrator calls in with a problem, a Comcast professional — alone or collaborating as a team if necessary — can find the answer.
“We test the X1 with every device we can with a dedicated engineering group,” says Roberts. “That includes with surround sound, IR controls and all the home automation systems.”
That support structure enables Comcast to be on the cutting-edge of bringing technologies like High Dynamic Range (HDR), 4K and even live Dolby Atmos to its customers. In an age when “cutting the cord” is all the rage and Millennials are mesmerized by their smartphones that rely on cellular networks, if the company didn’t push the envelope in terms of cable TV and Internet technology, it could quickly be left behind.
For example, the 11-person “Special Ops” field team is the upper tier of Comcast tech support. This group handles all the incoming tech support calls from not only the 800-plus CXI dealers, but also the “escalated” consumer escalations that get fed up the line from general tech support via the customer relations team. Special Ops is also the “technical backstop,” working hand in hand with the company’s Digital Care Team, when an angry customer posts something akin to “this is your last chance to fix my problem Comcast,” says Roberts.
“A lot of the subscriber tech problems these days revolve around surround sound problems,” says Roberts, noting the group monitors its own forum, as well as sites like avsforum.com, and dslreports.org. Advanced technical issues from Facebook, Twitter, and others are sent from the Digital Care Team for assistance with resolution.
CXI integrators can also send “Bug Reports” that are monitored internally at Comcast specifying details about problems they find in the field. Special Ops can then send early firmware versions and receive feedback from the CXI community for solutions. In many cases, that firmware is pushed out within 24 hours of first detection of a problem.
Within the Special Ops Field Team is the “Hot Box,” a cavern-like room where the group’s top engineers are doing nothing but testing various system configurations of every type of control system, speaker, receiver and display. Using software aptly named Einstein and X-ray, the group can obtain insight into the system design of a client’s home. They can check the components, the MoCA transmission rates, the Wi-Fi, the number of STBs, HDCP encryption and more.
“This is the most useful tool we have for troubleshooting a MoCA network,” says team member Nick Meo.
“We often discover equipment problems even before the actual manufacturer knows about it,” says Roberts. He recalled a recent problem with audio dropouts that the Hot Box team found and created a fix before the audio manufacturer even knew.
The Hot Box setup is also where Special Ops works closely with various Comcast product owners to test integration with Atmos, HDR and other technologies. Roberts proudly showed off how Comcast has now added three pieces of Atmos demo content for homeowners and integrators to playback via the X1 platform.
“If a content provider gives us the Atmos version of a program, then we can play it,” notes Roberts, who played Atmos clips of Starz’ “Black Sails” for me.
Technology Cloud-based Xi5
Speaking of showing off new technology, CE Pro got a glimpse of the new Comcast Wi-Fi STB that pulls content from the cloud. This tiny little PoE-powered unit will sit behind every display and allow subscribers to cast away the bulkier on-site hard drive. For now, a subscriber must maintain a single hard drive recorder on site with a Wi-Fi gateway (in addition to in the cloud), but down the road when all recording moves to the cloud (in certain markets) even that unit can be jettisoned.
“This is what we do,” says Mark Francisco, Fellow Engineer, Comcast Innovation Labs, in reference to the innovative technologies on which the team is working.
The cutting-edge research work is not just limited to helping out integrators. In the Comcast Labs facility, the company tests its equipment for accessibility for those who are blind or deaf. That doesn’t just mean Closed Captioning, but also audible descriptions of what is happening on the screen during a TV program and testing voice-controlled remotes like for the X1.
Down the hallway is a giant, very-well-air-conditioned room containing the equivalent of eight headends. From there, the company can transmit signals via fiber to anywhere in the world without interfering with the infrastructure that supports Comcast's 22.4 million video customers, 23.8 million Internet customers, and 11.6 million phone customers across 39 states and Washington, D.C. Roberts hinted that Comcast customers are going to amazed at the company’s programming this summer during the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The amazing thing is that despite having an impressive skyscraper HQ, Comcast is bursting at the seams. The company has literally run out of space. Arris STBs are stacked in hallways in one spot, and down the aisle there are Cisco STBs waiting to be shipped out.
That’s why right next door, the company is constructing a new 60-story technology and innovation center due to be completed in early 2018.