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Charlie in Charge?

Although my primary video service provider is Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), I woke up this morning to find out I was close to being a customer of EchoStar Satellite LLC as well, after Charlie Ergen's swashbuckling satellite TV giant put up $380 million to buy place-shifting pioneer Sling Media Inc. (See EchoStar to Buy Sling Media.)

I've been intrigued by Sling since it made a big splash at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show. The concept of place-shifting adds value to the video service I already get at home. Not having to pay a monthly fee for it is a nice plus.

I've had a silver, first-gen version of the Slingbox for a couple of years. It's been a fun novelty to show a friend or a colleague how I could remotely start a cable VOD session while I was on the road. But I have to admit that most of my usage involves "slinging" the signal to a PC on the home network.

So, what does this all mean? The first, obvious guess is that EchoStar will incorporate Sling's technology at the set-top level as a differentiator. As a friend suggested to me, perhaps it adds some dressing to help EchoStar get the longer-term satellite TV partnership deal it seeks with AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T). But does this deal also signal Sling's eventual exit from the retail business?

With Charlie in charge, it will also be a foregone conclusion that we shouldn't expect to see to many more deals between Sling and cable operators, though UPC Broadband is testing the technology in the Netherlands.

And that might not be a big deal, anyway. Cable, engineers have told me repeatedly, has the ability to multicast its video lineup via broadband without a specialized device like the Slingbox. Recall that Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) tested the idea in San Diego for a while in partnership with RealNetworks Inc. (Nasdaq: RNWK) but recently closed it down. (See Time Warner Starts Over on BBTV.)

The MSO kept that capability in-market, likely due in part to copyright and retransmission concerns, but if those business-related issues can get ironed out there doesn't appear to be any significant technical hurdles preventing such an offering.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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