Pondering Pre-Paid Cable TV
8:00 AM -- There's an interesting idea floating about that would give cable an opportunity to offer video services under a pre-paid model that's proved popular in the cellular phone world.
The notion is to sell a simple and inexpensive set-top box at outlets like Walmart, Target and Walgreens and pair them with pre-paid cards (or maybe codes of some sort) that would load services by the hour, week or month. Or maybe it could be taken a step further and let consumers also buy some services individually – for example, an HBO card that's good for a month.
The rumor is that at least one major U.S. MSO is currently exploring a pre-paid model, and, according to a source, would involve a low-cost, two-way box that has yet to be developed. Another source said Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) looked into this idea years ago, but didn't follow through with it. It's not known which major operator is the one that's looking at it in this go-round.
My first reaction to the idea is that it could let an operator market video services to lower-income households and remove the non-payment risk factor from the equation -- something that Dish Network Corp. (Nasdaq: DISH) has had to contend with over the years by tailoring some of its packages for the lower end of the market.
But some other potential usage scenarios were brought to my attention. It could give cable a form of a la carte or a more metered option in which the customer would only buy services during a particular season (i.e., for students and snowbirds that churn out in droves in the second quarter of every year), or long enough to catch a TV series or the NFL football season. Or perhaps it could be made into something that would be attractive to consumers who have never subscribed to cable. Maybe it would make a good Christmas gift for grandma or weird Uncle Charlie. Who knows? There are lots of directions a pre-paid cable TV service could go.
But it's not without risk. Regular, recurring customers that take a cable's full subscription TV packages might be encouraged to drop them in favor of a pre-paid model.
And a lot would need to happen to make this idea go. As I understand it, the discussion also involves a two-way set-top box (so it could support video-on-demand and an interactive guide, perhaps?) that's yet to be developed. And it's not known if just any manufacturer would be allowed to make these boxes, because it's apparent that the cable operator would still be the one pulling the strings. But if the box is to be low-cost, I don't see how that happens using a CableCARD slot and module, which would keep such a device prohibitively expensive.
Digital Transport Adapter (DTA) boxes are dirt cheap (less than $50 per unit for hi-def versions) and use integrated security (thanks to an Federal Communications Commission (FCC) waiver) but are inherently one-way and can't be sold at retail under the current rules. Perhaps a two-way cable device with "removable" downloadable security could be developed that also sidesteps the FCC's current ban on boxes with integrated security. Just a thought.
And cable's billing, provisioning and backoffice systems aren't really setup for this sort of thing yet. So there are still lots of questions about how this would be put together and what a pre-paid cable service might even look like.
But if this exploration turns into something real, it could give cable a new way to establish a retail model for video services and succeed in an area that tru2way did not, and give the industry a new way to target consumers with video services. (See Tru2way: Epic Fail at Retail.)
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable