With Comcast targeting colleges for TV-over-Wi-Fi, should Philo be worried?


Comcast, the nation’s largest cable TV service, has its sights set on the college market — taking direct aim at a former Cambridge startup.

Starting this fall, students at Brandeis, Dartmouth, and Regis College will be able to stream cable channels to their laptops and record shows to watch later, courtesy of deals between their schools and the cable provider. The service is remarkably similar to that offered by Philo, a startup born in a Harvard dorm room in 2009 that moved from Cambridge to San Francisco over the summer.

The Comcast service, called Xfinity on Campus, was available at several New England schools — including Emerson, MIT, and the University of New Hampshire — last fall. It will allow students to watch a package of dozens of cable and network channels on their laptops and wireless devices, such as  tablets, and save shows to watch later. Although schools pay for the service, individual students also can pay to add channels that their school doesn’t cover, and more than 15 percent do, according to Maurcien Jenckes, the company’s executive vice president for consumer services.

Jeremy Andreoli, Comcast’s executive director for video services, said 78 percent of college student viewing was sports programming.

The new schools are part of a nationwide expansion that will boost its reach to 27 campuses, up from seven last fall. But in a call with reporters, Jenckes said Comcast plans to grow even faster, and said the days of so-called IPTV startups like Philo are numbered.

“The way I’d describe it is, they historically filled holes in the marketplace, when cable companies did not acknowledge changing behavior in students at universities,” said Jenckes. With Comcast seeking to fill those holes, he said, “there isn’t neccesarily a need for that type of service.”

One of the new schools to sign on to Xfinity on Campus this year is Yale University in New Haven, which introduced Philo two years ago. According to an e-mail sent to on-campus students last week, Comcast’s service will replace Philo “effective immediately.” Philo still counts Harvard, Brown, the University of Alabama, Texas A&M, and the University of Washington among its customers.

More broadly, Philo said it’s not worried by Comcast’s incursion. The company raised $10 million earlier this year from investors including HBO, it serves “dozens” of schools, and it will be announcing its back-to-school offerings later this week, according to spokeswoman Alana Davis. She added that many universities specifically requested Philo in their bid solicitations for TV providers, and said viewers liked its user interface.

“There’s a large market out there to be serviced by multiple providers and the fact that Comcast is in this space shows it’s a strong market to be in,” Davis said. “We’re happy to be succeeding in that marketplace.”