CHICAGO–Cable giant Comcast is teaming up with Skype to offer its subscribers video calling on their TVs, in a move that could bring more affordable video conferencing to the home.
On the eve of the Cable Show here, the companies today announced that Comcast will be offering the Skype service through the TV to its broadband subscribers. The companies are still working out all the details of the service, and they’re expected to begin testing it in the next few months. The Cable Show is an annual conference and trade show, where cable operators from around the country gather. It’s sponsored by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the industry’s lobby group.
What is known so far about the new service is that it will allow Comcast customers to make and receive Skype video calls from their televisions. The service will be delivered via an adapter box that is connected to the customer’s HDTV TV. Comcast will also provide customers with a high-quality video camera and specially designed remote control that will allow customers to type messages via Skype’s instant-messaging service, as well as control their TVs.
The service is expected to be integrated with Comcast’s high-speed broadband communications and entertainment services. Customers will be required to subscribe to the Xfinity broadband service, but it’s unclear if customers will also be required to subscribe to the Comcast TV service as well.
Subscribers will be able to receive Skype video and voice calls or send and receive IMs while they’re watching TV. When someone calls, the system will display a caller ID message right on the TV. Subscribers will also be able to interact with the home video conferencing system through compatible mobile phone and tablet apps.
Subscribers will also be able to make Skype calls through the Comcast Xfinity Mobile app. They’ll be able to transfer calls from a mobile device to the TV and vice versa. And customers will be able to sync the service with their Xfinity address book as well as import contacts from Facebook, Gmail, and other communications platforms.
The Skype service on Comcast doesn’t require the person on the other end of the call to have the Comcast/Skype setup. Users will be able to IM, video cha,t or voice chat with anyone who has a Skype client, regardless of whether it’s loaded on another TV, computer, mobile phone, or tablet.
Skype has already made a play for the living room. Some Internet-enabled TVs from Panasonic and Samsung already offer Skype as a feature. But using the Skype service on a TV also requires that people buy compatible video cameras, which can cost between $130 and $170. Still, the Skype video chat and voice chat service is free for people talking to someone else using the Skype software.
Comcast plans to charge a small monthly fee to offer the Skype service, but the company wouldn’t say how much. Given that the Skype service itself is free on other platforms, the cost will likely have to be minimal. Still, Comcast will be providing the hardware, which eliminates the upfront cost of the equipment. And a spokesman said the video quality will be better through the Comcast service versus using Skype via some other devices and services.
Other companies have also tried to tap this market. Cisco Systems introduced the Umi Telepresence products and service last year. The equipment costs $399 to $499. And customers are required to sign up for the Umi service, which is $99 for the year or $9.95 a month.
Microsoft is also expected to add Skype’s video chat service into its existing products. Last month, Microsoft offered to buy Skype for $8.5 billion. The Skype service will eventually be integrated into the Xbox Kinect video chat service.
For Comcast the partnership is yet another way the company is trying to differentiate itself from the competition. Last week, Comcast announced it also plans to offer a home security service through its broadband network.
Comcast said it expects to start trials of the Skype service in the next few months. And the service will be available more widely later this year.