Top Five Telco TV Threats

With TelcoTV 2008 just around the corner, here's a handful of things the Verizons, AT&Ts, Qwests, and SureWests of the world should worry about

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

October 21, 2008

7 Min Read
Top Five Telco TV Threats

TelcoTV 2008, where service providers and their suppliers will try to demonstrate to industry watchers and competitors alike that they mean business and are ready to rake in the customers, is just around the corner.

Not to pop that bubble before it all gets underway in Anaheim on Nov. 11, or anything, but we've taken a stab at five barriers that could slow down the telco TV train. We left the most obvious one -- traditional cable TV services -- off the list, but please take a gander at these, and let us know if there are any we missed or if there's an item you think doesn't belong here in the first place.

Docsis 3.0
With apologies to Maverick and Goose, let's make no mistake about it: Cable feels the need... the need for speed!

And most cable MSOs, some faster than others, are trying to meet or beat telcos with Docsis 3.0 (sometimes referred to as "D3"), a CableLabs platform/spec that uses IPv6 and bonds together multiple 6 MHz channels to produce (shared) speeds in excess of 100 Mbit/s -- enough to cross swords with fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) and more than enough to stick a dagger in the heart of DSL.

Domestically, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) is by far the most aggressive -- wiring up 20 percent of its systems with D3 this year, and everywhere by mid-2010. (See Comcast Enters the Wideband Era .) Others, like Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), are taking a more systematic approach, deploying it "surgically" where it needs it most (i.e., to match up with Verizon FiOS). (See 'Surgical' Strikes .)

But faster speeds and competitive pricing might only scratch the surface of D3's potential. Some new chipsets under development give cable an obvious path toward delivering IPTV (and even video sourced from the public Internet) directly to the set-top box, a move that could wipe away any real or perceived advantage that the telcos like to point to. (See TI Flexes Docsis 3.0 Muscle .)

tru2way momentum
OK, we are all aware that the cable industry, inspired by CableLabs president and CEO chief Dr. Richard Green, thinks there is no reason that telco TV service providers should not be able to adopt tru2way . (See Telcos: Climb Aboard the Tru2way Train.) This "open" set-top/headend platform, which uses common middleware and headend systems, promises to unleash the innovation of the consumer electronics (CE) industry and spur on a healthy retail market for digital TVs and set-tops.

So far (and perhaps to no one's surprise), there have been no takers from the telco TV world. Meanwhile, the six largest "incumbent" cable MSOs are installing tru2way in their headends now and are getting ready to buy gobs of boxes based on tru2way -- all but giving the CE guys the kind of "common reliance" they covet.

That has not only attracted former tru2way/OpenCable hater Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE), but other big names, including Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC), Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC), and LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) . (See Revealed: The Tru2way MOU, More Firms Go the Way of Tru2way, and tru2Way Tallies Two More.) Heck, even EchoStar Corp. LLC (Nasdaq: SATS) is on board, and it's apparently not just for show. (See EchoStar Blazing Way to Tru2way .) The momentum, Dear Friends, is on the side of tru2way.

But that hasn't been enough to make the telcos throw in with tru2way. Among them, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) claims tru2way isn't compatible with its FiOS TV system. (See Verizon Stokes a Tru2way Stalemate and NCTA Counters Verizon's Tru2way Claims .) While there's some debate about the technical merits of that argument, others believe that Verizon will do anything in its power to avoid being saddled by a technology and license scheme that's under the control of one of its biggest competitors. Instead, it's pushing "VueKey," a separable security system that looks and smells like the widely deployed CableCARD module and CableCARD "host" interface, but allows for IPTV flows, and isn't encumbered by the middleware component of tru2way. (See ATIS OKs CableCARD for IPTV.)

Verizon is making progress with that, and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) (which wants to remain a Verizon video supplier) and Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) (which would like to become a Verizon video supplier) will support it. But the big question is whether VueKey will gain further adoption from CE retailers. It's likely it won't, at least not until VueKey offers them a scalable consumer footprint to go after.

To Page 2

Remote storage DVR
Despite the specter of a possible Supreme Court case, Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) is moving ahead with the RS-DVR, a network-based service that centralizes recording and storage and looks to take advantage of copyright protections from the old Sony Betamax case. (See Court Resurrects Cablevision's Network DVR ). Provided this technology holds up to additional legal scrutiny, expect other cable MSOs to jump in and give it a shot. (See Time Warner Cable Eyeing Network DVR Case .)

And why not? It complements local, set-top-based DVRs, brings in some recurring revenues, and can take advantage of millions of older digital boxes that don't have hard drives on board.

Competitively, it gives cable a path to a whole-home DVR, an advantage now enjoyed by Verizon and, more recently, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T). (See AT&T Launches Whole-Home DVR.)

Although there are some questions about the streaming and transport costs the RS-DVR will require of Cablevision and other MSOs, its multi-room capability is viewed as a big benefit.

The RS-DVR "makes every converter [set-top] a DVR. It's the perfect whole-house strategy," Cablevision COO Tom Rutledge recently noted. (See RS-DVR Debut: 'Early Next Year' .)

Over-the-top video
If over-the-top (OTT) video services are considered one of cable TV's biggest potential threats, it should follow that such threats apply equally to telco TV service operators. OTT, after all, thanks to the emergence of Hulu LLC , Joost , and the Netflix-Roku combo -- among scads of other services that bring in high-value content at high-speed -- is giving some consumers reason to chuck their traditional video service subscriptions and see if they can fulfill their video needs using only their high-speed Internet connections.

It won't happen overnight, but faster speeds and better Internet-based content are causing some to experiment and take the "cable TV-free challenge," and begin to unbundle the bundle. There's no reason why that menacing situation shouldn't also extend to the telco TV world as well, particularly amid a new forecast from Forrester Research Inc. indicating that as much as half of about 117 million people over the age of 13 who watch video online will watch full-length shows by the end of 2008. That's up from 24 percent at the start of the year.

But that doesn't mean telco TV service providers are helpless in this plight. Some are even embracing OTT video, enabling their set-tops to explore and sample video from the wilds of the Internet, rather than confining everything to operator-established walled gardens. (See Verizon Tests Internet Video on FiOS.)

Satellite TV
Say what? Aren't DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) and Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) some of the best friends the telcos have? It all depends on who you are and whether you already have a co-marketing deal in place. (See Qwest Tuning Out ChoiceTV and DirecTV Wins AT&T Deal .)

Unless you're Qwest Communications International Inc. (NYSE: Q) and are phasing out older IPTV technology in favor of a system that ties together a telco high-speed service with a DBS (direct broadcast satellite) offering, don't be fooled: When given the choice, the satellite TV guys would much rather own 100 percent of their video subscribers rather than have to share a slice of those revenues with their telco partners. Most of these telco-DBS deals drip with opportunity and convenience, and, short of future merger potential, these arrangements certainly won't last forever.

In the meantime, the DBS guys are putting significant pressure on cable and telco TV providers alike with superior, linear, high-definition television (HDTV) offerings. In addition to causing competitors to evaluate their own video menus, continually raising the HD bar is likewise requiring land-base video foes to assess their bandwidth capacity and how they use it.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to TelcoTV 2008, a conference and expo that will examine the convergence of communications and entertainment, and its impact on service providers from across the globe, to be staged in Anaheim, Calif., November 11-13. For more information, or to register, click here.

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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