Comcast looms large at highly connected, highly crowded CES

CES show
I kept running into Comcast at this year's CES show, even when I wasn’t really looking for them
Editor's Corner Dan Frankel

LAS VEGAS—Talking to a Las Vegas Uber driver during CES is a bit like chatting to a patient in the doctor’s office lobby who is waiting to get a colonoscopy. Sure, he knows this is all good. But boy, does the traffic suck in the here and now.

Yeah, it's a safe bet to say that this year's event will beat the record-177,393 attendees of last year—especially when the Whirlpool guys go to a show that used to just be about TVs and boom boxes because they want to show you their latest connected washing machine.

The big CES tent continues to expand around connectivity, with new device categories entering every year. 

As it has for the last several CES events, the connected car occupied hundreds of square feet of booth space and dozens of talking points. Noteworthy was FierceWireless’ Friday breakfast panel, in which Kia Motors product chief Henry Bzeih said that 5G is being baked into plans for fully autonomous vehicles to hit the roads by 2030. 

Never mind that going back from LTE to wireless time immemorial, every major advance in mobile network technology has found myriad profitable applications and markets that have grown the market exponentially. But the wireless guys seem committed to do their existential, navel-gazing due diligence as to whether doctors in Century City, California, might use 5G to operate remotely and robotically on patients in Calcutta. 

In the meantime, moving to football analogies in time for Monday night's NCAA champion game, technology executives from T-Mobile and Sprint were on hand with Bzeih to ponder deep throws with 5G in the year 2030. Comcast is completing short out routes in front of the defense, and is driving for a real business in the connected home market over the next couple of months. 

I kept running into Comcast at the show, even when I wasn’t really looking for them.

On Wednesday, I talked to the MSO about the latest evolution of its Wi-Fi service. For the first time, users of the cable company’s new RDK-designed gateways will be able to easily set up and configure their networks, using the voice remote they received as part of their X1 video platform.

They’ll be able to optimize their Wi-Fi, positioning their extenders in the right locations. They’ll be able to configure their kids’ devices and shut them down during dinner, homework, bedtime … or whenever they want to flex their restored parental power.

Indeed, for no extra charge—well, if you’re not counting those yearly rate increases—Comcast is making set-up and control of a home Wi-Fi network something that can be handled on an iPhone within the singular Xfinity app.

Having an ambitious and curious mind, I next headed across the street to Caesar’s Palace to a tech event that I knew served great free martinis and jalapeño poppers. I was mid-bite when the Comcast home automation guys tapped me on the shoulder. They were eagerly hawking the latest device integration into the MSO’s home security portfolio—Zen connected thermostats. 

Indeed, for just $40 a month on top of the gazillions you’re already paying for TV, internet and phone, Comcast will not only help you set up and run a pretty advanced home network, it’ll connect cameras, garage door openers, lighting, thermostats and myriad other devices to a singular Xfinity app.

Next to cars that use 5G to fully drive themselves, it’s not that sexy or cutting-edge. It’s just connected thermostats, after all. But the ability to have a truly connected home is available. Today. For less than 50 bucks. 

Meanwhile, Comcast isn’t converting this easy first down only in its own footprint. Once it closes on its acquisition of Icontrol, it will license its home security and automation service to Charter, Cox, Rogers and other cable operators who have contracts with Icontrol.

It’s going license its connected home service in the same way it licenses the X1 platform.

The next day, I caught an Uber ride with an irritable Eastern European woman who loves dogs but hates people. She dropped me off at the Cosmopolitan to meet with the folks at TiVo. Over Red Bulls, they showed me how they’re putting the finishing touches on “Project Hydra,” an impressive cloud-based video system that—TiVo hopes—will soon power the video systems of its small and mid-sized cable operator clients. The service will also be marketed direct-to-consumer at retail. 

It sounds a little like X1, I told the TiVo executive giving me the demo. He looked at me and smiled. 

Later, back at the crowded Las Vegas Convention Center, someone close to the newly merged Rovi and TiVo told me the company just lost the lucrative business of serving metadata to Comcast’s X1 platform. Seems its patent suit against Comcast sent the MSO into the waiting arms of Gracenote

My head growing heavy, my sight growing dim, I decided to head back to the dump I was staying in, Harrah’s.

Once inside the dingy, stained walls of my dilapidated room, the phone rang. It was my wife. She wondered if, in the new Los Angeles home we’re now renovating, we could install a connected video doorbell and Nest thermostat. And could we better control our Wi-Fi to keep our 11-year-old from sneaking his iPad into bed and playing "NBA 2K 17" until 1 in the morning?

After all, our service provider, AT&T, only has DSL service in the neighborhood we’re moving back into. Maybe we’ll all be using 5G in 10 years. But Reece will be 21 by then, and already flunked out of college. 

“I know a guy,” I told her.