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Summary:

Last week, I lambasted Virgin Media for taking two years to launch its iPad TV guide for its TiVo (NSDQ: TIVO) set-top box.

I have since le…

Netflix on TV in Living Room
photo: Netflix

Last week, I lambasted Virgin Media for taking two years to launch its iPad TV guide for its TiVo (NSDQ: TIVO) set-top box.

I have since learned the app has been ready for months; it was submitted to and approved by Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) months ago. But Virgin Media is choosing to sit on it as it considers how to tackle a problem that will soon be shared by fellow connected TV operators…

For Virgin’s iPad app – which lets users switch channels and record shows from their sofa – to work, customers’ set-top box and iPad must be on the same home network. The problem – unlike iPad, Virgin Media’s TiVo is not WiFi-enabled.

That means customers keen to use the new wave of second screen controllers must run cable from their WiFi router to their set-top box. In many cases, like my own, consumers’ routers are not in the same room as their main TV.

And that poses a big challenge to operators – how can Virgin Media launch its fancy new app experience when it knows it will instantly disappoint thousands of consumers who can’t use it? And how does the company manage requests from customers who want its engineers to relocate their WiFi router or run extra cabling?

I discovered this issue first-hand last week. The social TV startup Zeebox’s app also includes an EPG and controller that already works with internet TVs and Virgin’s own TiVo box. But, for weeks, I tried and failed to get the two talking.

It was only in conversation with Zeebox product head Morten Eidal that I realised a cable must be run from router to set-top box. Zeebox has since improved its user documentation to make the fact more clear. And Virgin Media itself will need to approach the same challenge.

This is an issue that will become more prominent as more TV services launch on wireless gadgets and as more electronics manufacturers ship internet-connectable TVs…

I have been hearing actual connections of connectable TVs range from only five percent to 20 percent, compared with Xbox connection rates of up to 60 percent. Some say the problem may be unedifying internet content, but connection confusion may also be to blame. If the new wave of customers buying 2012 internet TVs gets home to realise further wiring is necessary, they will feel disappointed.

The problem can be solved either by manufacturers WiFi-enabling their devices or by offering bolt-on WiFi-enabling dongles separately.

For example, Samsung sells a dongle for its WiFi-less internet TVs, and BSkyB (NYSE: BSY) offers a dongle for its Sky+ boxes to customers who want its Anytime+ internet on-demand service. Zeebox’s Eidal suggested I use Homeplugs to direct my WiFi router through my home’s electricity loop and, from a wall socket, in to my TiVo via cable.

Each method could be a way for Virgin and others to finally launch its TiVo and other apps. But each also adds extra expense to this new wave of products and services. And that could blunt initial adoption, at least until WiFi becomes more commonplace in them from the start.

  1. So if some virgin customers have there router next to the TV why are Virgin withholding the app? surely they could release the app and make it clear in the app download that cabling is required.. its idiotic to make it, then sit on it, when at least some customers could benefit.

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  2. I suspect that there is more to it than this – for a few reasons.

    I expect that a large number of Virgin TiVo customers also have Virgin broadband.
    Virgin supply a single port cable modem and a 4 port wifi router as part of the deal. I would expect that a lot of the cable modems are installed close to the TV and the router connected locally to it – with wifi then spreading the signal through the house.
    Sure – it is quite possible that the savvy customer asked the installed to run a different cable for the modem/router and put in somewhere else in the house – but I wonder how many do that (any stats from Virgin?).

    Second – the Xbox and Xbox360 do not have WiFi out of the box (unlike some other consoles). So the customer has to connect them via Ethernet or buy the extra dongle. This makes me think that quite a lot of Xbox users are using Ethernet near their (gaming) TV.

    I suspect that there is something else going on.
    The US TiVo iPad App worked fine (provided you worked out the various tricks to get apps from a different country AppStore to install on your iOS device).
    There were quite a few early adopters who did just that.
    But – within a couple of weeks of the knowledge spreading around Virgin pushed a firmware update which seemed to stop it working.
    Why?
    There was a suggestion from Virgin that it was causing problems in their network.
    http://community.virginmedia.com/t5/TiVo/Latest-TiVo-update/td-p/1007115 

    My suspicion is that they were concerned that people would also find ways to enable some of the capabilities that are available to US TiVo customers – such as watching content recorded from one TiVo box on a TV that is not directly connected (HDMI/SCART) to the TiVo box or downloading content from the TiVo box and storing it on local LAN.

    However, reports are that current version of it (US TiVo) are working again with Virgin TiVo boxes.

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    1. Paul, thanks for the info.
      I recently saw a YouTube video from someone who got the US TiVo iPad app working on Virgin TiVo, with UK EPG shows etc. But presumably still needed on same home network.

      The new Xbox has integrated wifi.

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  3. Comcast/Xfinity’s app allows you to change channels on set top boxes that are not connected to your home network. I guess the app sends requests to their servers, which then send commands to the set top boxes via coax. 

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  4. Not having a TiVo I don’t know for sure, but I can confirm my Internet enabled TV, BlueRay player, PS3 and PVR work great with a Powerline adapter.

    If Virgin were keen, why not sell Ethernet over power solutions and not worry about WiFi.

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  5. Steve Hoffenberg Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    Is there some bandwidth requirement preventing use of a WiFi adapter into the Ethernet port?

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  6. I’ve been using WiPNETs to solve the networking issue for months (ethernet over coax – MoCA), and sometime around now (come on guys, get off your arses already!) they will release a WiFi version which could make this a no brainer.

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