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Comcast now lets you watch cable on your Roku

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Comcast Roku app.

Comcast is letting you ditch your cable box for a Roku.You can finally dump your cable box thanks to a surprising source: your cable company.

The assist comes from Comcast (CMCSA), which on Tuesday launched an app for Roku streaming-media players and Roku-enabled TVs that duplicates just about all of the functions normally found on the company’s cable boxes ranging from on-demand video to its cloud DVR service.

The news is both overdue — the underlying streaming-to-apps technology has been in tests by cable operators since at least 2012 — and timely, since Tuesday also formally ends the Federal Communications Commission’s attempt to require subscription-TV providers to ship apps that would allow fee-free viewing of their channel bundles.

Unfortunately, other TV providers don’t seem interested in following its example — and although the app is free, the actual savings look like they’ll turn out to be less than you’d hope.

Comcast’s new app deal: warning, math required

The new, free-to-download Xfinity Beta app isn’t Comcast’s only offering that allows you to stream cable. It is, however, the first that lets you stream your service on an actual TV instead of forcing you to use a smartphone or tablet. The Philadelphia company’s iPad app, though, still blocks AirPlay output to an Apple TV.

Like the cable provider’s others apps, the Xfinity offering doesn’t rely on Comcast’s traditional TV cable lines. Instead, it streams channels over a separate portion of your broadband internet connection to ensure buffering-free viewing.

The Roku app will work on all Roku TVs and devices shipped in the last couple of years including the Roku Express, Roku Express+, Roku Streaming Stick, Roku Premiere, Roku Premiere+, Roku Ultra, Roku 2, Roku 3 and Roku 4.

You get the same interactive programming grid found on Comcast’s X1 cable boxes, including access to on-demand video and the ability to record and watch shows using its cloud DVR service. All you give up in terms of your TV-watching experience, according to Comcast, is the voice control capabilities available through the X1 remote.

But while the app is free, you won’t save as much as you’d think. Comcast normally refunds $2.50 a month if you use your own cable box, but it won’t offer that during the beta-test period. Its usual $10 monthly fee for cloud DVR service will still apply too.

Comcast’s Roku app will let you watch your on-demand video.

After the beta trial, though, you will start collecting that $2.50 monthly credit. What if you have a second screen? You’ll get a second $2.50 credit for using the app instead of a box, and Comcast’s FAQ says you’ll dodge the provider’s $9.95 monthly fee for a second outlet.

That’s not the case with another fee, the $9.95 a month you pay for HD service for that second outlet (even though it’s free on the first). The FAQ also reports that you’ll have to pay that second-line charge post-beta, leaving your savings over time just $2.50 a month per Roku app used to replace a Comcast box.

A Roku Streaming Stick, our current favorite among streaming-media playback options, costs only $50, so those $2.50 credits will help recoup its cost somewhat quickly. But this Kafka-esque pricing — Comcast’s site doesn’t provide a simple list of these fees — does help explain why Comcast hasn’t exactly been America’s most-loved TV service.

Who’s left out: most other subscribers

Comcast announced its app initiative last year at a cable-industry convention in Boston, when it showed off an early but mostly-decorative version of the Xfinity app running on a Samsung smart TV. The company says it plans to ship a beta for Samsung sets later this year.

The rest of the industry, however, is not proceeding at the same speed even after lining up behind a “Ditch the Box” initiative last year that would have them ship similar apps. Subscribers to Charter (CHTR), the second-biggest cable operator in the country, can use a Roku app to replace a secondary box, but other pay-TV operators like AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) either fail to offer a full section of channels with their TV-linked apps or have stopped experiments in box-free viewing.

Comcast’s Roku app will save you money, but not as much as you might think.

Under President Obama, the FCC had set out to force action. Then-chairman Tom Wheeler had initially proposed requiring both cable and satellite providers to allow third parties to develop apps and boxes compatible with their services and their security systems, then amended that to require only that TV providers ship apps for major software platforms like Roku, iOS, Android, Windows and the Mac.

Wheeler’s proposal ran out of time — and with Wheeler now replaced by his fellow commissioner Ajit Pai, a longtime opponent of that plan, promoted by President Trump to run the agency last week, it’s officially dead.

If you have Comcast as an option in an area, the new app arrival should rate as an upgrade. Otherwise, you’re stuck with the same radical option as before: If you can’t bargain your way to a lower bill by threatening to cancel service entirely, you’re better off dropping your service in favor of streaming media over the Internet and, if you have sufficient reception, over-the-air programming from local stations. And if you do that on every TV, you’ll be in line to save a lot more money than this Comcast initiative ever could deliver.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.