Optical/IP Networks

Links 2006: What's Up With Content?

Focusing on the themes of media and content, speakers at last week's Heavy Reading Links 2006 conference explored how changes in broadband access and carrier services are starting to affect industries beyond telecom.

Telecom experts have clearly shifted their focus from the networks themselves to the applications they are carrying -- the new types of content and services being developed, and how they might spark changes in areas such as advertising and mass media. (See Media Stars in Links 2006 Conference.)

IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), for example, is doing studies on the "coming divide between media companies that have traditionally been partners on the distribution side and the content side," according to Dick Anderson, the company's general manager for media and entertainment. Illustrating that point in his talk, he noted that some of the broadcast networks have begun putting popular shows on the Web -- "to the consternation of their affiliates, their traditional distribution partners."

All of this is getting scary to anyone in the TV business, because advertisers are getting less predictable in their purchasing patterns. "They're more willing to move their advertising dollars around different alternatives," Anderson said.

Canadian cable/wireless/wireline operator Rogers Communications Inc. (NYSE: RG; Toronto: RCI) is trying to uncover what the new media-consuming patterns will be. Its research includes putting video-diary cameras in family's homes "to have them explain to us: What are you doing with all this stuff?" said Michael Lee, Rogers's chief strategy officer.

Among the trends Lee expects to find is a need for several tiers of IP service. Real-time games, for example, need to come across the network without delays, "and they're willing to pay a high premium for that low latency," he said. "So, not all IP will be created equal."

That comment sparked an audience question about net neutrality, a topic that didn't come up much during the morning sessions. Lee said the idea of providers blocking or sabotaging each other isn't the real concern there: "That's not an argument that happens anywhere," he said. More important is the way net neutrality might affect services that require some kind of premium delivery. Games would be one example; marketing could be another, as someone like The Coca-Cola Co. might want to create walled-garden content around some new product, he said.

Lee sounded wary that regulated net neutrality could accommodate those kinds of exceptions. Do it wrong, and the industry could "forego a lot of investment in the network," he said.

As for where the content is coming from, speakers throughout the day made repeated mentions of YouTube Inc. and user-generated content. Most believed this trend would continue, but also had doubts that it would overtake the familiar big-budget media. "An entire evening of six-minute videos with low production quality is a long evening," said Joseph Ambeault, director of interactive services with the Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) FiOS TV project. "The death of the brand in the value chain as we know it is definitely not going to happen."

Many of the changes being wrought can be put under the banner of mass customization, which was a central point in a keynote speech from Brian Levy, CTO of communications, media, and entertainment at HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ).

Levy, formerly part of the CTO office at BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), wants HP to ride that customization wave by developing what he called "service orchestration," getting devices, systems, and networks to operate as if they were a unified whole -- particularly in the case of services that consumers use both at home and on mobile devices.

"What we want is a world where it's focused on the individual, not on the device," he said, noting that this will open up new possibilities for the network to become an integration point for services, providing a "consistent identity" for consumers as they hop among devices and applications.

Given the vague nature of these types of discussions, and the grand assumptions about growth in mobile applications, user-provided content, and the like -- doesn't it all ring a bit like the dotcom bubble of the 90s? Rogers's Lee noted that operators are getting bombarded with ideas, and that part of his job is to discern "the difference between what's 'vision' and hallucination."

Still, he thinks all this new media talk has some substance. One difference from the bubble is that the customers are already paying for some of these services.

"We do believe that the size of the market is sufficiently large that the revenue will be enough coming in to sustain new development," Lee said.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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