Cable Show 2011: Comcast Skypes Up HDTVs

Publish date:

Click here for more Cable Show 2011 coverage.

Comcast will test out high-definition video calling on the TV in partnership with Internet-telephony firm Skype, touting the service as a compelling "immersive" application.

With the service, Comcast customers will be able to make and receive Skype video calls from their television to any other Skype user -- on TVs, PCs, compatible smartphones or tablets -- as well as send instant messages while watching TV at the same time.

Comcast said customer trials for the Skype service will begin in the next few months. The company did not announce expected pricing or commercial availability; it said further product details will be made available later this year.

Last month, Microsoft paid $8.5 billion in cash to acquire Luxembourg-based Skype from an investor group led by Silver Lake. Previously Skype was owned by eBay, which bought the company for $2.6 billion in 2005.

For Comcast, Skype on TV promises to be a source of incremental revenue on the telephony front as the growth of its Digital Voice business slows down. Comcast -- the third-largest phone company in the U.S. -- had 8.87 million voice subscribers as of the end of March.

"TV has evolved into a social experience, and Comcast and Skype will be delivering a product that personalizes the TV experience even more, and brings friends and family together through the biggest screen in their homes," Comcast Cable president Neil Smit said in a statement.

Comcast will deliver the service through an adapter box -- which provides an Internet connection the TV -- an HD-quality video camera, and a specially designed remote control with a QWERTY keyboard on the back that lets customers chat via Skype as well as control their television. The other calling party does not need any special equipment beyond what is needed to use Skype.

"I believe we will be able to offer the best video quality for Skype," said Cathy Avgiris, Comcast's senior vice president and general manager of communications a data services. "I think we can provide the best value to customers who buy the triple-play from us."

Comcast has not determined pricing but the Skype kit will be available for a "low monthly fee," Avgiris said, rather than requiring customers to purchase hardware up front.

The Skype service should work with all of Comcast's digital set-top boxes, she added. The only requirement is customers need an HDMI-compatible television that supports 720p for HD calling.

"We have considered other options [for video calling]," Avgiris said. Comcast decided to partner with Skype because "we want this to be easy for customers and we wanted to have a compelling offer with not a lot of upfront hardware a customer needs to buy."

What's more, there are millions of Skype users who will be able to participate with Comcast's Skype-on-TV users, Avgiris pointed out. Skype has 170 million users worldwide, and the company delivered more than 207 billion minutes of voice and video conversations in 2010.

Comcast Digital Voice customers will be able to accept incoming calls while they're watching TV with Caller ID pop-up messages.

At the Cable Show, Comcast is demonstrating Skype service with a separate Caller ID on TV app, but the operator's goal is to integrate Skye into its EBIF app that provides Caller ID on TV, Avgiris said.

In addition, Comcast customers will be able to access mobile features of Skype through the Xfinity Mobile app, which will offer the ability to switch a conversation among multiple compatible devices (e.g., smartphone, tablet or television).

The service will let Comcast customers import friends to their address book from Facebook, Microsoft Outlook, Gmail and smartphone contact lists, as well as find them on Skype and see when they are online and available to talk.

Skype CEO Tony Bates said in a statement, "We are pleased to announce this partnership with Comcast. By combining Comcast's broad living room reach with Skype's innovative communications platform and worldwide community of users, we can bring video calling into the heart of the home allowing people to share life's experiences both big and small."

Separately, Skype has agreements with Panasonic and Samsung
Electronics. Both manufacturers have embedded Skype software in their
premium Internet-connected HDTVs and sell camera add-ons for them.