What You Need to Know about Comcast Stream: Cord-Cutting, Kinda

(Photo: Comcast)

Comcast’s announcement Sunday of a new Web-based TV-streaming service—called (imaginatively) Stream—was missing one thing we’re accustomed to seeing in sales pitches from the cable giant: the fine-print note that advertised prices exclude equipment fees.

That’s because this upcoming, $15/month bundle of broadcast stations and HBO—available in Boston at the end of this summer, Chicago and Seattle after that, and all other Comcast markets sometime early next year—doesn’t require the usual proprietary, mandatory cable box. In fact, it doesn’t even require a traditional cable-TV subscription.

In other words, Stream is pitched at people who want to cut the cable-TV cord. But there are still some gotchas that potential subscribers should be aware of.

What you get, where you get it

Stream will bring you your local stations—the big four networks plus PBS, the CW, Univision and Telemundo—and HBO. You can watch them via Comcast’s Xfinity TV Go apps (for iOS and Android) and Comcast’s Xfinity TV Go site. You also get 20 hours of recording capacity on Comcast’s cloud-DVR service.

But you can only watch live in those apps or on that site while on your own home’s Comcast Internet connection. (One possible workaround: If you use a TV channel’s own app or site to watch outside the house, your Comcast login should work as a TV Everywhere credential to unlock access.)

Time-shifted viewing is more place-tolerant: You can watch cloud DVR recordings and catch up via On Demand from anybody’s Internet service.

The hardware options

Stream also limits you to viewing on a computer or mobile device: Comcast’s iOS and Android apps don’t support AirPlay or Chromecast wireless screening to a TV.

This doesn’t necessarily deprive you of big-screen viewing options: If you have a sufficiently fast laptop, you could route video from Google’s Chrome browser to a Chromecast plugged into a TV. That option has been available since last June; it would make sense for Comcast to add the same feature to its mobile apps.

But remember, this is the company that has for years lagged behind other cable providers in letting its subscribers watch HBO on gadgets like Roku players and PlayStation consoles. So don’t sign up for Stream hoping that the new service will support a bunch of other devices any time soon.

(Photo: Comcast)

The alternatives

Let’s compare Stream to Comcast’s other main offering for cord-cutters—its Internet Plus combo of Internet access, broadcast TV, and HBO via the Xfinity TV Go app.

in my Virginia neighborhood, the $44.99 advertised monthly rate for Internet Plus inflates by $9.95 if you want those channels in high definition. There’s also a Broadcast TV Fee of $3.50 or so. And after the first 12 months the $44.99 base rate increases to $64.99. Boom: you’re looking at a pre-tax bill in month 13 of $78.44 or so.

Stream, by contrast, costs just $15, without any asterisks or extras, and that includes DVR service that isn’t even an option with Internet Plus.

But to get Stream, you do need to get your Internet access from Comcast. And that won’t be cheap: For the same 25 Mbps download speeds of Internet Plus, you’d have to pay $66.95 for standalone broadband service. That rate doesn’t inflate in a year. But the combination of that and Stream still bumps you to $81.95.

Your next-cheapest Internet-only option—$49.95 a month for 6 Mbps access—might not be fast enough for reliable streaming.

(In both of these broadband scenarios, you could also pay $10 more a month to rent a modem from Comcast. Don’t: You should instead just buy one yourself.)

Has Comcast changed?

Considering that you can get local TV stations for free with an antenna, the basic value here doesn’t seem to match Sling TV’s $20 bundle of ESPN, AMC and other big-name cable channels.

At the same time, this offer does appear to acknowledge the eroding popularity of ever-more-expensive cable-TV bundles. And the single biggest restriction of Stream—its ties to Comcast Internet—is something that Comcast can’t change without new carriage agreements with the networks.

The single biggest obstacle to Stream, in turn, may be another thing that Comcast can’t change quickly or easily: an extraordinary level of unpopularity that seems to have many of you expecting the worst from the company.

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