Comcast integrates phone, web, TV features

July 24, 2008 5:03:45 PM PDT
Comcast Corp., a cable operator that has become the nation's fourth-largest phone company in less than three years, said Wednesday it soon will offer such new features as visual voicemail integrated with its Internet and television services. As AT&T Inc. and other phone companies report steep landline losses, Comcast and other cable providers are grabbing a share of the market for voice services. Comcast's phone service, which has 5.15 million subscribers, is growing by double digits as the company's basic cable TV business matures.

Cable phone plans have become popular because of their set monthly price - generally for unlimited local and long-distance calling - and because they're usually bundled at a discount into a TV and Internet plan.

Already the nation's largest cable TV provider, Philadelphia-based Comcast has been testing new features such as a universal address book, visual voicemail and caller ID for TV. It will start rolling out these services nationwide in August, and they'll be available in most Comcast markets by the end of 2008.

"Phone becomes the product that links the two services together," said Cathy Avgiris, senior vice president and general manager for Comcast's voice business.

Comcast has promised these features before but until now has only tested them. It still has no timeframe for rolling out the ability to program a digital video recorder from a remote location, which it now says is not easy to implement.

Comcast also plans to introduce a cordless phone for the home with a screen that can access weather, sports scores, e-mail (but not attachments), a local directory and contacts, among other features.

Aside from Embarq Corp., which in April unveiled a home smart phone, traditional phone companies are behind cable companies in deploying integrated smart features.

Neil Begley, a cable analyst at Moody's Investors Service, said former Baby Bells Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T will be forced to match it.

Phone companies "will have to offer those services through their U-verse and FiOS packages," Begley said. "They may not be ready for it now."

Comcast's digital enhanced cordless phone, which retails for about $200, may be free for high-end subscribers.

Next month, customers will start to see callers' information on their TV screens when the phone rings, and they'll be able to change settings using the TV remote control.

Though it's ahead of phone providers, Begley said, Comcast is playing catch-up to peers such as Cablevision Systems Corp. in New York.

"In fairly short order, certainly after seeing some of the success of Cablevision, they switched gears and followed the rest of the pack," Begley said.

Comcast also unveiled new international calling plans this month. Avgiris said the most popular is the plan for calling landlines in Mexico, at $5 for 100 minutes. In some cases, it has caused customers to switch to Comcast voice service.