Mobile Video

Deja Vu All Over Again

1:20 PM -- History has a funny way of repeating itself sometimes.

Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) made big headlines this week when it launched its app for the iPad, the first from a U.S. cable operator to let customers stream live linear networks. The caveat is that access to those channels is limited to in-house viewing and, for now, to just 32 channels of the MSO's TV lineup. (See High Demand Crashes TWC's iPad App and TWC's iPad App Launches With (Some) Live TV.)

Soon after launch, however, high demand swamped TW Cable's authentication system, causing a crash and spurring TW Cable to remedy the problem by temporarily reducing the number of channels on the app's lineup to 15. TW Cable has since fixed the problem.

The MSO did a good job here owning up to it while keeping a sense of humor ("It's not a good party unless you run out of beer," TWC wrote on its blog). But it did acknowledge that the surge in demand at the beginning came as somewhat of a surprise and that "this is a nice problem for us to have" because it shows that customers really want the app.

But I'm kind of surprised that the initial popularity caught the MSO off guard, and it wasn't prepared to handle a spike in usage. After all, anything new on the iPad from a major service provider is sure to see heavy usage early on just from the sheer novelty of it all. At last check, the MSO's iPad app was the 21st most popular free app on iTunes, so customers did indeed flock to it.

And maybe TW Cable should've seen this coming, anyway. What happened this week has a few parallels with another new service TW Cable started testing out almost 10 years ago, and the initial results weren't all that different.

The service, back then, was "subscription" video-on-demand (SVOD), which let users watch episodes of The Sopranos and Sex in the City to their hearts' content so long as they were paying the monthly nut to get HBO. A decade ago, SVOD represented "the future of cable." Today, it's as common as the nose on your face.

TW Cable, as this July 2001 column by Leslie Ellis explains, tested SVOD with 26,000 HBO subs in the Carolinas and, lo and behold, early and apparently unexpected demand -- wait for it! -- overwhelmed the system, causing the VoD session setup gear to curl up into a ball and start sucking its thumb.

Back then, TW Cable called this a "good problem to have" -- quickly becoming the go-to refrain when a new service buckles under the stress of heavy initial usage -- and then set about to fix the problem before doing more tests and, eventually, deploying the service wide.

It was a lesson that TW Cable learned a decade ago, but that must've gotten misplaced somewhere along the way. The big difference this time around was that the system got hammered during a product launch rather than a limited market trial.

Plus, the crash occurred on a cool device like the iPad rather than on a Scientific-Atlanta Explorer 2200, so consumers don't seem to be too up in arms about this week's hiccup. But they may not be so forgiving next time.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

Jeff Baumgartner 12/5/2012 | 5:10:10 PM
re: Deja Vu All Over Again

Amy Maclean (@MACcable) reminded me on Twitter that TWC tested a broadband TV service a few years ago in San Diego, so there's another good example of how TWC tried to deliver its basic cable lineup over broadband (75 channels, in that case) to PCs.

Guess the difference is that TWC shut down the 18-month trial after figuring that it wasn't all that popular, since less than 1 percent of the customers who had access to the trial offer opted to watch the shows on their computers... so perhaps TWC factored that into its thinking before launching the iPad app, beliving that it might not be wildly popular, either. But, once again, this week's launch shows that the iPad is trumping the PC as an entertainment consumption device.

Oh, and that TWC BBTV trial (with RealNetworks) proved expensive and not scalable... so it probably would've been overwhelmed too if more customers were interested.  JB



OldPOTS 12/5/2012 | 5:09:58 PM
re: Deja Vu All Over Again

Jeff I am experiencing the problem with the TW Cable's authentication system. It was so random I thought it was just full BW collisions, but it has been clear that it is authentication and URL look ups that are not going through because of overloads.

I called TWC but they wouldn't even write up a ticket, saying they see no problem in my area - just making subs frustrated. How do they know if they had a problem if they did't document it???

FIOS looking better.


PS I would suggest a Webinar on authentication systems as this will become as much a problem for carriers as TM congestion.

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