It’s easy to think of all of the big ISPs in the industry as roughly equivalent in terms of services, technology, and customer experience. But Comcast has invested in Comcast Labs, a research and development branch of the company that is starting to distinguish Comcast from the rest of the industry.
Comcast Labs has branches in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Philadelphia, Denver and Washington D.C. The Lab employs 40 PhDs, 10 Distinguished Fellows and hundreds of engineers and active inventors, all very focused on telecommunications and product research.
The lab is different than the more familiar Bell Labs, which has always done a lot of pure research and not just telecom research. Comcast Labs is very focused on developing specific products for the company as well as looking for ways to improve the Comcast networks.
The impact from Comcast labs is pretty easy to see. They developed the X1 settop box platform which is regarded as the most innovative box in the industry. The platform includes an easy to use navigation system and cloud-based DVR and can be used to control up to five TVs in a home. They are constantly developing new features and during the recent Olympics they rolled out a remote with voice control (you talk to the remote).
They have also developed a fully integrated set of home automation features marketed at Xfinity Home. Comcast Labs developed a custom hub, rather than relying on a hub made by somebody else. The company so far has integrated a number of home automation features into the platform which includes security, thermostat, water sensors, cameras, door locks, etc., all controlled from a smartphone or from a TV.
Comcast Labs doesn’t only develop consumer devices and you can read about some of their other research on their blog. The company has adopted the concept of moving network control to open source software and is heavily invested in OpenStack and GitHub development. They are also researching a future migration to IP video, which would free up more of the network for delivery of data.
The company and the Labs are also researching areas that will have a long-term benefit to the company such as finding network solutions that use less energy and moving towards a software defined network to be more flexible and to more quickly implement solutions nationwide.
A high-level Comcast executive recently bragged that the company through Comcast Labs could solve problems and deliver solutions within weeks that would take other companies in the industry many months or years.
I find it interesting that the company doesn’t talk a lot about Comcast Labs. There are very few articles on the organization outside of the Comcast websites and I assume that they dissuade those at the Labs giving interviews to outsiders.
But it’s clear that Comcast Labs provides the company with a lot of solutions that would not come from off-the-shelf electronics and solutions. This puts the company on par with Google, Facebook and AT&T as companies that have largely withdrawn from the normal industry vendors and taken their own path by developing their own equipment and solutions.
Of course, the company doesn’t operate in a vacuum. For instance, the FCC is currently strongly considering a requirement that the industry develop a standard solution to allow customers to buy off-the-shelf settop boxes. The custom X1 box that Comcast Labs has developed goes in the exact opposite direction of what the FCC is looking at and the company would probably have a hard time complying with such an order.
But overall Comcast Labs provides the company with a resource that other telcos can’t match. The company is constantly rolling out new features and products that companies without a research arm will not be able to match. I’m sure the reason for this research is to create more loyal customers by providing features and services that they can’t get elsewhere. I guess time will tell how good this strategy is, but it’s hard to argue with success, and as much as people like to complain about the company they are growing faster than anybody else in the industry in terms of new customers.