Is it Too Late to Save the Web?

Advocates of net neutrality say that we need to take a stand to protect the open web, and for those that have been using the web since its early days that sounds like a noble goal. But when I look at the trends, the statistics, and the news about the web, I have to wonder if it’s too late to save the web as we’ve known it.

The web was originally going to be a repository of human knowledge and people originally took the time to post all sorts of amazing content on the web. But nobody does that very much anymore and over time those old interesting web sites are dying. Mozilla says that people no longer web search much and that 60% of all non-video web traffic goes to a small handful of giant web companies like Facebook.

The average web user today seeks out a curated web experience like Facebook or other social platforms where content is brought to them instead of them searching the web. And within those platforms people create echo chambers by narrowing their focus over time until they only see content that supports their world view. People additionally use the web to do a few additional things like watching Netflix, paying bills, shopping at Amazon and searching on Google.

I don’t point out that trend as a criticism because this is clearly what people want from the web, and they vote by giant numbers to use the big platforms. It’s hard to argue that for the hundreds of millions of people who use the web in this manner that the web is even open for them any longer. People are choosing to use a restricted subset of the web, giving even more power to a handful of giant companies.

The trends are for the web to get even more restricted and condensed. Already today there are only two cellphone platforms – Android and iOS. People on cellphones visit even fewer places on the web than with landline connections. You don’t have to look very far into the future to see an even more restricted web. We are just now starting to talk to the web through Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri. The industry expects a large percentage of web interface to soon be accomplished though voice interface. And beyond that we are moving towards a world of wearables that will replace our cellphones. At some point most people’s web experience will be completely curated and the web we know today will largely become a thing of the quaint past.

It’s not hard to understand why people lean towards curated platforms. Many of them hear the constant news of hacking and ransomware and people don’t feel safe going to unknown websites. The echo chamber has been around as long as modern civilization has been around – people tend to do things they like with people that they know and trust. The echo chamber seems magnified by current social media because it can give the perception that people are part of something larger than themselves – but unless people take actions outside the web that’s largely an illusion.

There are those who don’t want to take part in the curated web. They don’t like the data gathering and the targeted marketing from the big companies. They tend towards platforms that are encrypted end-to-end like WhatsApp. They use browsers that don’t track them. And they stick as much as possible to websites using HTTPS. They are hopeful that the new TLS 1.3 protocol (transport layer security) is going to give them more anonymity than today. But it’s hard work to stay out of the sight of the big companies, and it’s going to get even harder now that the big ISPs are free again to gather and sell data on their customers’ usage.

Even though I’ve been on the web seemingly forever, I don’t necessarily regret the changes that are going on. I hate to see the big companies with such power and I’m one of the people that avoids them as much as I can. But I fully believe that within a few decades that the web as we know it will become a memory. Artificial intelligence will be built into our interfaces with the web and we will rely on smart assistants to take care of things for us. When the web is always with you and when the interfaces are all verbal, it’s just not going to be the same web. I’m sure at some point people will come up with a new name for it, but our future interfaces with computers will have very little in common with our web experiences of today.

Content Finally is King

One of the more common memes in our industry is the phrase “content is king.” This was first said by Sumner Redstone of Viacom in 1994 but made more famous by Bill Gates in 1996. The phrase has been used since then to describe how the creators of content have the power in our industry – be that programming or web content.

John Stankey, the CEO of AT&T Entertainment, recently emphasized this same concept in talking about the company’s planned merger with Time Warner. At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona he said, “We just cannot envision a future where AT&T is relevant if we don’t directly participate in some of the water flowing through our pipes.”

All of the big ISPs have decided that content is key to their survival. Comcast already owns a mountain of programming, and after the merger with Time Warner, AT&T will be a content powerhouse as well. Verizon has climbed into the game with the acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo. There are web companies with the same philosophy. Netflix has built a new industry by creating new content. Google is pushing content heavily through YouTube. Amazon has started to create unique content and recently said they are going to make that a priority. Facebook is becoming a content force through Facebook Now.

I remember having this conversation with Derrel Duplechin of CCG back in 2000. We were asked by several clients to speculate about the future of the carrier industry and we foresaw that most carriers were likely on the path to eventually become what we called “dumb pipe” providers. I remember that this was a story that many of our clients did not want to hear.

We lived in a different carrier world in 2000. Most homes still had telephones and voice was the most profitable product for most carriers. The cable TV product that many of our clients sold then also had decent margins. But we predicted that both products would eventually sink in importance and in margins and that eventually most of our clients would earn most of their profits from broadband. We thought this would happen to all carriers, small and large, and we figured that the most profitable future companies would be those that found some other line of business other than just selling data pipes to end users.

We had some clients take this to heart and some of them have made a really good living by providing extra value to customers. For example, we have several clients who thrive by bringing a suite of products to businesses other than just plain connectivity. But for the most part, the majority of the ISP industry sells dumb pipes today. They compete with the speed of those pipes and with price and with good customer service – but the primary products (and the driver of most of the profits) are now data pipes.

The big companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast looked at that future and it scared them. It’s pretty obvious that if your only product is dumb pipes that your earnings are not going to continue to grow fast enough to satisfy Wall Street. This is probably what convinced Verizon to stop expanding their FiOS network. Both AT&T and Verizon got huge earnings boosts from expanding their cellular businesses, but that industry also seems to be heading towards the same plateau as landline ISPs – cell service is becoming a commodity.

So these big companies are now pursuing content because it looks to be the last area in our industry with the potential for significant bottom line growth. It’s going to be an interesting race to watch. Content providers have succeeded or failed over the years according to their ability to find smash hits. A huge hit movie or TV series can mean huge returns to the bottom line. But content providers that don’t create what the public wants to watch suffer badly in terms of stock prices and earnings. Being a content provider is not predictable in the same way as telecom.

Interestingly. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are now direct competitors of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix. Content certainly is king, but content also brings the risk from competition. The companies that fall behind in this race are likely to be gobbled up by their more successful competitors. I find it extremely unlikely that all of these big companies will still be in existence in 10 years.

There is no real barrier to entry into the world of content creation other than having a pile of money. It’s likely that other big companies will join the content fray. But all of these companies are entering a world that is in big flux. For example, traditional video and web content might well be replaced by virtual and enhanced reality. The companies that succeed in content will have to spend a lot of money staying one step ahead of the competition, and my money is on the more nimble technology companies. Twenty years ago I would have been shocked to know that someday AT&T would have a CEO of Entertainment – and that may turn out to be the most important job in the corporation.

Who Will Win the Telecom Battle?

facebookNow that Google has pulled back with expansion of Google Fiber it’s easy to see that the cable companies and telcos think they have won the broadband war. But I think if you look a little closer this might not really be the case.

Tech companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are still focused on making sure that people have enough bandwidth to take advantage of the many products these giant companies offer or plan to offer in the future. And all three companies are growing in importance as content providers.

Consider first the strength of these companies as content providers. Google owns YouTube which is becoming the most important video destination for the younger generation – and those kids are growing up. We’ve seen young millennial households largely reject traditional cable TV offerings. While Amazon Prime is not nearly as big as Netflix it is a strong second and is continuing to grow. Amazon is also reported to be pouring big money into producing original content for its platform. Facebook is on a trajectory to become the preferred source of news and information. And their Facebook Live is also quickly becoming a huge content platform.

But content isn’t everything. Consider that these companies have amassed an enormous private fiber network. Google doesn’t talk about it’s network, but way back in 2013 it was reported that Google had assembled a network consisting of 100,000 miles of dark fiber. We also don’t know the size of the networks, but both Amazon and Facebook have also built large private networks. We know that Google and Facebook have partnered to build a massive undersea fiber to China and are looking at other undersea fiber routes. Amazon has built a huge network to support its cloud services business. It would not be surprising if these companies have already together amassed a larger fiber network than the telcos and cable companies. If they are not bigger yet, they are on a trajectory to get there soon. With these networks the tech companies could hurt the big ISPs where it most hurts – by taking a huge bite out of their special access and transport businesses.

These companies are also not done with the ISP business. Google Fiber has retracted from expanding FTTH networks for now, but they acquired Webpass and are looking to expand as an ISP using wireless last mile. And we saw in Huntsville that Google is not afraid to use somebody else’s fiber network – something we have never seen any of the telcos or cable companies consider. It would not be surprising to see Google make deals with other private networks to expand its ISP business to avoid spending the upfront capital. But perhaps Google’s biggest foray into providing data services is Google Fi, their service that provides unlimited cellular data using WiFi first rather than cellular. It’s been rumored that Google is looking for partnerships to expand WiFi access in many markets. And it’s been reported that Amazon is strongly considering becoming an ISP. I’ve not heard any details about how they might do this, but the company has shown the ability to succeed in everything it’s tackled – so it’s an intriguing possibility.

It’s a gigantic task to take on companies like AT&T and Comcast head on. I think Google Fiber learned this the hard way. But at the end of the day content is still king. As these companies continue to grow in influence as content providers they present a real challenge to traditional programmers. But they also are a growing threat to the big ISPs. If these tech companies decide that their best strategy is to directly deliver their content to subscribers they have a big enough marketing position to pull along a huge number of customers. It’s clear that consumers like these tech companies far more than they like the big ISPs, and in the end the accumulated animus with customers might be their undoing.

This kind of industry shift won’t happen overnight. But it’s already quietly going on behind the scenes. We may not be as far away as you might imagine when these companies provide more content than the traditional programmers and also carry more bandwidth on their own networks than the big ISPs. From my perspective that looks a lot like winning the battle.

Small ISPs and Net Neutrailty

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolLast week a small ISP asked me if they should be concerned about the potential end of net neutrality. It’s clear that the new FCC chairman is either going to reverse the net neutrality order completely or hobble it significantly. My response to the question comes in several parts.

First, net neutrality has had virtually zero impact on small ISPs. It is inconceivable to me that a small ISP could somehow find a way to violate the basic principles of net neutrality. It’s not something a small ISP can do on their own and they would have to somehow make a deal with a content providers that would give them the ability to discriminate against customers or against other carriers.

If anything, not having any real market power can be turned into a marketing advantage. Small ISPs should be advertising the fact that they are the one ISP in the market that does not spy on customers. Small ISPs generally offer bandwidth with few strings attached – customers are free to use what they buy in almost any manner.

If net neutrality goes away the real impact is going to come when the big carriers begin offering products that give them an unbeatable market advantage. We already have a hint at what such products are like by looking at the cellular carriers. It’s clear that AT&T and Verizon are each heading down a path where they can offer cellular customers free access to certain video content while charging all other data use against stingy data caps. And, with net neutrality going away, industry analysts expect them to step this up and begin offering exclusive content to their cellular customers that they can’t get elsewhere.

But that’s not the end game. The product that net neutrality is aimed to protect us from is what is called a curated web. Consider, for example, that some of the content providers join together to partner with AT&T. This could be traditional programmers like ESPN or newer content providers like Facebook or YouTube. These companies could help to subsidize customer data plans to entice people to buy a curated web product.

Such subsidies could mean cell plans that significantly less expensive than normal cellular service, but which comes with all of the web access baked-in. The content providers would encourage you to only use their portal. They would control which browser you use. They would control your search engine. And they would advertise specifically to you and collect everything they can about your preferences, buying habits, social contacts, etc. A curated cellphone product would severely curb a user’s ability to get to other content.

Such a product could become popular if it bundles in things people already like such as Facebook, YouTube and other popular web sites. The upside to the content providers is that they have exclusive control of you for purposes of data gathering and advertising – and they ought to be willing to pay for that right. And customers are going to love the savings.

You might ask, “Why worry about cellphone plans? I don’t compete against them.” Well, there is nothing to stop curated web plans from coming to landline broadband as well. Comcast might have a normal broadband product at $60, but a curated one at half that. A company like Comcast could offer multiple curated web products – perhaps one from Facebook, a sports package from ESPN, another that focuses on Star Trek and science fiction, and so on.

These curated plans don’t sound bad if somebody comes out with one that you would find of interest – and that is the danger. People are likely to want such plans if it saves money and has a lot of the content they already use.

But curated web access has several big problems. First, they give the ISP that offers them a major market advantage over any competition in the market. It’s hard for anybody else to compete against a web product that has been paid down to be under market rates by a content provider like Facebook. Second, the curated web will stifle new web content providers. It’s easy to think that companies like Facebook and Google are so large on the web that they can’t be supplanted by something else. But it has only been a few years since when the web was dominated by companies such as AOL, Yahoo and others. It’s almost in the nature of the web that people’s tastes in web content changes over time, sometimes rapidly. The next Google or Facebook is never going to get traction if a huge chunk of the web is curated by the current content giants. In that environment we might still be seeing a Facebook-curated web a century from now – and that would be an innovation killer.

But, to circle back to the original question: Small ISPs are not harmed today by net neutrality. But if it’s taken away, the big ISPs have already given us hints on what they’ll do – and it is those actions that will ultimately disadvantage small ISPs along with anybody else that wants a web which constantly innovates rather than one that would stagnate.

The Declining Search Engine?

ask-jeevesThere is a subtle battle going on for control of the web. The web as we have come to know it is built upon the search engine. Those who’ve been on the web long enough remember search engines like Archie, Excite, Aliweb, Infoseek, AltaVista and Ask Jeeves. Today Google dominates the search market along with others including Bing, Yahoo and DuckDuckGo. Search engines operate by the simple premise of ‘crawling’ through publicly available web spaces and categorizing web pages by topics that can be searched.

But we might have reached the point in the life of the web where the search engine will decline in value. This is because search engines rely on public content and an ever-increasing amount of our collective information is now being created for and stored in the dark web. This term refers to networks which use the public internet but which require specific software to access.

The best example of the dark web is social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. There are huge amounts of content now created for and stored inside of these platforms. Facebook is the best example of this. There are now many businesses that no longer have a web site but which instead have a Facebook page. There are many organizations that do the same and that communicate with members only through a Facebook group. Every social media site has something similar. For instance, there are now thousands of articles that are written for and published within LinkedIn.

But the dark web includes a lot more than just social media. Corporations and trade associations now routinely keep information hidden from the general public by requiring password access to read whatever they have published. You can understand the motivation behind this – a trade association might have more luck recruiting members if membership includes access to unique content.

But corporations also hide a lot of content that used to be public. For example, cable companies like Comcast require a customer to enter a valid address before showing them current products and prices. Those prices used to be openly published, but the act of asking for an address now ‘hides’ this information from search engines. Comcast certainly wants this iformation hidden since they don’t offer the same prices everywhere.

While the information behind corporate and trade association web sites is already unavailable to search engines, for now the information behind most social media sites is still searchable. But there is nothing that requires it to stay that way. Google and Facebook are now engaged in a fierce battle to win web advertising and there is nothing to stop Facebook from flicking a switch and hiding all of its content from Google search. To do so would instantly devalue Google since businesses listed only within Facebook would disappear from the search engine results.

It almost seems inevitable that this day will come, and probably not long from now. Both Google and Facebook have requirements from stockholders to continue to grow and both businesses are fueled largely by advertising revenue. It’s hard to think at some point that Facebook won’t deliberately try to gain an edge in this battle.

But the consequences of the dark web to all of us an ever-increasing lack of information. I remember spending evenings in the early days of the web just browsing the web for interesting content. It seems like every college and high school pushed huge amounts of interesting content onto the web – because in those early days that’s what the web was all about. All of the content from textbooks and homework assignments were on the open web for anybody to read. But there is no longer any major motivation to push information to the web. And many schools and universities are now behind a dark web wall as well.

The web has shifted massively towards entertainment and content is no longer king. Most of the early content-heavy web sites have died since they’ve either been pulled down or are no longer maintained. And so every day more content is removed from the web, and every day search engines become a little less valuable to the human race.

We may already be in a world where there is more useful data on the dark web than on the open one. Facebook and a few others could push the search engines onto the road to decline. History has already shown us that search engines can come and go. Excite was one of the first web companies that sold for billions, but the company that bought it, @Home went bankrupt. There is nothing to say that the Google search engine or any other is something that we can always rely on. And in fact, they may just fade away someday due to irrelevance.

I Cut the Other Cord

facebookIt’s the day before Thanksgiving and rather than talk about anything too serious I’m going to talk about my experience in cutting the other cord – the social media cord. I recently left Facebook – and it feels great.

I’ve been on Facebook for years. I had over 200 friends that were a mix of family, people I went to schools with and various other people I’ve met over time. When I first got on Facebook many years ago it was a fun experience. I was able to catch up with old high school friends and was able to see what my family was up to. It really was a social site in the true spirit of that phrase, and my memory is that my Facebook feed in those days were mostly personal postings from my friends and very little else.

But over the years a lot new things crept into the Facebook feed and it became far less personal. I would bet that not more than 10% of my recent feeds were things directly posted by my friends. Instead my feed became a long stream of ‘news’ articles and a ton of other impersonal content.

Facebook is currently under fire for allowing too much ‘fake’ news on the platforms that critics say influenced the election. Companies like the New York Times or the Huffington Post pay to suggest content on Facebook in the hope of driving people to their own content. These sponsored posts apparently drive several billion dollars a year to Facebook. But not everybody is the New York Times and there are lots of other websites paying to post much more questionable content. Facebook says they are going to figure out how to ban the worst of these sites from adding fake news or misleading content.

But I don’t think that will put a dent in the problem. The fact is that any one of Facebook’s 1.65 billion members can link to any web site that doesn’t violate things like Facebook’s ban on nudity. And since personal posts can go viral and I can’t imagine the amount of untrue content will decrease a whit.

The fake content is not all political. A huge percentage of the things I see on almost any topic have the same problem. I would venture to say that most of the posts I see talking about nutrition, global warming, vaccinations, or almost any other current topic are also untrue or misleading. I would estimate that as much as half of the ‘content’ I saw on my feed was of questionable veracity.

I’m one of those people that hates obvious untruths and I would routinely tell my friends when they had posted something untrue. I’m guessing they will be glad to see me gone, because nobody ever thanked me for this! I’m afraid Facebook was turning me into the cranky neighbor sitting on the porch and trying to fix the world by pointing out untruths. But it is clear that I’ve been trying to swim against the tide.

My wife, as usual, gets things a little faster than me and she dropped Facebook a while back because the tone was growing so mean. Regardless of the topic the whole site now invites trolling and argumentation.

The other thing that has been bothering me about Facebook is that the company has been getting really sophisticated in collecting information about us and is either using it for advertising or selling it to others. I’ve grown more uncomfortable over time that everything I do on the site has been helping Facebook create a detailed profile on me. I sit and watch my friends take ‘quizzes’ that ask them a bunch of personal questions that they would never answer for a stranger. But companies have become good at disguising this data gathering as something fun.

I haven’t dropped some other social media sites because they serve purposes that benefit me. For example, I only use Twitter to follow people in the telecom industry or to follow my favorite sports teams. I post these blogs on Twitter but I rarely comment or read comments there. And I use LinkedIn as my online rolodex since it gives me a quick way to contact colleagues that I may have lost track of otherwise. The way I use these sites doesn’t have any negative aspects for me.

I can tell you that dropping Facebook has been a positive experience and I’m never going back. It was a time eater that could nibble away from a few minutes to hours on some days. The obviously fake, false and untrue content that has overtaken the platform was driving me crazy. And I feel glad to no longer be feeding my likes, preferences and opinions into the advertising grist mill. I heartily recommend leaving Facebook to anybody that is bothered by these same things. Facebook started as something fun, but I recommend anybody who is not having that original fun any longer to drop the site and spend your time elsewhere. I can tell you that it feels really great to let go of something so negative.

Free Broadband from Facebook

freebasics_facebook_thumbFacebook is talking to the FCC about launching a free Internet service in the US. This would provide a subset of the Internet for free to anybody with a smartphone and would provide such things as news, health information, job sites, and of course Facebook.

This would obviously benefit many people that can’t afford access to the web. Today the national broadband penetration of households that have some kind of access to the web is around 82%. Some of those without broadband live in rural places that don’t have access. Some don’t want Internet access. And the rest would like web access but can’t afford it.

Facebook has launched a similar product around the world in 53 emerging markets in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America. This is offered under the name Free Basics.

But the free product ran into problems and has been banned in India due to the fact that it violates net neutrality. The Indian net neutrality laws aren’t too different than our own laws and the service is what called zero-rated, meaning that any use of this plan is not counted against a data plan from a participating ISP.

In India the biggest complaint about the product was that it was restricted only to those things that Facebook wanted customers to see and not to the wider Internet. But in Facebook’s favor, it was free.

For this to work in the US, Facebook will need to find a US cellular partner which would not count usage of the app against a data plan. I recall that Facebook was close to this a few years ago in a partnership with T-Mobile that would have provided free access to a suite of products called GoSmart.

But more importantly, Facebook needs to convince the FCC that this is not a violation of net neutrality. The FCC has not formally made any pronouncements about zero-rating of wireless content, but it has talked to the major wireless carriers about the zero-rating they are already doing today.

This is the kind of situation that is really tough for regulators. With this kind of product Facebook could be providing some sort of free access to the web for millions of people in the country that might otherwise not have it. Even if it’s a scrubbed and sanitized piece of the web, it’s hard to find anything wrong with the results of that. People could buy a smartphone with no data plan and have access to parts of the web.

But the downside to the FCC is the same one faced by the Indian regulators. Once you let Facebook do this then the genie is out of the bottle and there doesn’t seem to be any way that the FCC could stop other kinds of zero-rating.

The dilemma is that Facebook is not quite like other companies. I am sure that somehow this isn’t costing Facebook too much and they might even make a little money from the idea. But Mark Zuckerberg seems to be on an altruistic mission to bring broadband access to the whole world. He has already used this idea to bring free broadband to many millions, and his goal is to bring it to billions.

But even with the altruism, this has certainly been good for Facebook – they had 1 billion users in 2015 and are now are reported to have over 1.7 billion users. That’s a lot of people to advertise to and to gather data from, which is how Facebook makes its money.

And of course, no matter how altruistic Facebook might be, nobody would expect the same motives from other large companies like Comcast, AT&T or Verizon. One of the main fears that drove the creation of net neutrality is that we could end up with a web that is filtered by the biggest ISPs and that the openness of the web would be killed by deals like the one Facebook wants to do. The web brought to you by Comcast is not the same web that we know today – and I think it’s a web that we don’t want as a society. But if we take the first step and let a big company like Facebook filter the web, we could be headed down the path where almost all future web access is filtered.

Industry Shorts – August 2016

ATTThe following are a few topics I which found interesting but don’t require a full blog entry:

FCC to Allow Cable Black-outs. The FCC has officially decided that it is not going to intervene in the many disputes we see these days between programmers and cable operators. Only a few years ago this was a fairly rare occurrence, but you can’t read industry press without seeing some new dispute – many of which are now leading to content black-outs when the two sides can’t reach a resolution.

The FCC has always been allowed to intervene in disputes and routinely did so a decade ago. The American Cable Association which represents small and medium cable companies wants the FCC to be more active today to protect against abuses by the programmers, but the agency has decided to let the market work to resolve disputes. There have been over 600 blackouts since 2010 and the frequency seems to be accelerating.

Blogger Loses Life’s Work. Google recently hit the news when it disabled access to 14 years of blogs as well artwork, photograph, a novel and even the Gmail account that was being stored online by Dennis Cooper. The blogger claims he received no notice until his work disappeared and Google won’t tell him why he was cut off or if his content still exists. Cooper’s blog always contained controversial content and was a popular destination for fans of experimental literature and avant-garde writing.

His case highlights the intersection of first amendment rights versus the ability of private corporations like Google to allow or not allow content on their private platforms. Google has slowly been cutting back on storage services such as Google News Drives and Google Groups and Cooper’s content might not even still exist. If anything, this case highlights the importance of backing up content offline. It also raises the issue of how permanent anything is on the web.

AT&T Testing Drone Cell Sites. AT&T has been testing the use of drones as flying cell sites to use during big events. Large events always overwhelm local cellular sites and drones might be the answer to give access to many people in a concentrated area.

The company has already been using a technology that it calls COWs (Cells on Wheels) that are brought to large sporting events to provide more coverage. But the hope is that drones can be deployed more quickly and for a lower cost and provide better service. Of course, this just means more of a phenomenon I’ve seen a few times in recent years where people in the stands at a football game are watching the same game on their cellphone instead of looking at what is in front of them.

Huawei Creates 10 Gbps Cable Platform. We are in the earliest stages of deployment of gigabit broadband using DOCSIS 3.1 on cable systems and Chinese vendor Huswei claims to have already created a 10 Gbps platform using the new standard.

The company faces several hurdles to deploying the technology in the US since the company is under scrutiny by the US for doing business with North Korea and with Iran during the recent embargo. But the biggest issue with a cable company offering gigantic bandwidth over coaxial cable is freeing up enough bandwidth in a cable TV network to do so. Cable companies have to free up at least 24 empty channels to offer a gigabit over coax and it seems unlikely that are willing to try to open up a lot more channels than that for higher bandwidth. The only realistic scenario for going much larger than a gigabit is to migrate a cable network to IPTV and make the whole network into a big data pipe – but this is a very costly transition that means a new headend and new settop boxes. .

Facebook Develops Mobile Access Point. Facebooks has developed a shoebox size access point that can support wireless transmissions including 2G, LTE and WiFi. The box is hardened for the harshest conditions, is relatively low-powered and is intended as a way to expand Internet coverage around the world in poorer areas. Most of the world now connects with the Internet wirelessly and this access point can enable customers with a wide range of devices to gain access.

 

The Changing Face of Advertising

advertiseherebillboardmedThere has been talk for a number of years of advertising dollars shifting from television to the Internet, and it looks like maybe this is finally starting to happen. Consider the recent advertising revenues from Viacom and Facebook.

Viacom is one of a handful of the big programmers and owns such channels as Comedy Central, MTV, and Nickelodeon (along with Paramount Pictures). This has always made Viacom one of the powerhouses in attracting advertisers along with other large programmers like Disney, Fox, Comcast, Warner Brothers, and a few others. Viacom’s ad revenues in the first quarter of this year were $1.123 B, down slightly from $1.172 B a year ago.

But Facebook’s ad revenues were $5.201 B for the first quarter of this year, up from $3.317 B a year ago. It’s pretty obvious that the big web companies are starting to win the advertising battle. For all of 2015 the total advertising for television was $80.4 B, down slightly from $82.0 B in 2014. But in 2015 the advertising revenues for just Facebook and Google had grown to $84.5 B and is still growing rapidly.

This is not particularly surprising since ratings for television as a whole are plummeting. People are watching traditional television less and are watching more and more video on the web. It seems like the battle between television advertising and web advertising has passed a milestone and that web advertising is now dominant for the first time. I have no idea how fast (or by how much) television advertising will fall, but it looks inevitable that it will.

What does this trend mean to small cable providers? I think it matters a lot because advertising revenue is a major source of revenue for programmers. To the extent that advertising revenues drop for them there is going to be more pressure for them to raise programming rates to cable companies even faster to make up for the revenue difference.

But that could lead into a classic death spiral. Rapidly rising cable TV rates is one of the major factors in driving people towards alternate programming. Many cord cutters and cord shavers cite the cost of traditional cable as a big reason they are looking for alternatives. The more that programmers raise rates, the more eyeballs they are going to lose, and one assumes the more revenue they will lose.

Programmers are also starting to get some pushback from small cable operators. There are a handful of smaller cable systems with less than a million customers in total that have dropped Viacom completely in the last year due to the unreasonable rate increases the company is demanding. I have a number of small cable clients who – when they do the math – realize that they are either losing money on cable or are getting close to the time when they will lose money. Once a company gets to that point then dropping programming is a natural response. It’s better to cut costs and lose customers when you are losing money rather than to keep shoveling money out the door to the programmers.

The programmers are also facing an FCC that is leaning more and more towards giving customers more choices in programming. You can see this in the recent NPRM for settop box reform where they want the cable companies to include ‘channel slots’ for alternate programming like Netflix. The FCC has yet to act on the open docket that is looking at the rights of companies to put content onto the Internet – but it’s clear that the FCC favors consumer choice.

And all of the big cable companies are now implementing or looking to implement skinny bundles. These are smaller packages of just the channels that people want to watch, at a much lower cost to consumers than the big traditional packages. The cable companies want to get off the treadmill of paying huge amounts for programming, and skinny bundles reduce and reset the bar. The cable companies also want to offer an alternative to people to stop them from totally dropping the cable company.

It’s a tough time to be a cable company because margins on the cable product keep tumbling. But it’s starting to also be a rough time for the programmers. Probably the best thing that can happen to the programmers is for Wall Street to lower their stock price to reset the expectations for earnings performance. At that point maybe the whole industry can take a pause and see if they can salvage what is looking like a slowly sinking ship.

OTT Update – April 2016

television-sony-en-casa-de-mis-padresIt continues to be a very busy year in terms of companies launching or modifying online packages of programming.

DirecTV. Probably the biggest new announcement is that AT&T and DirecTV have announced a suite of online packages. This is not surprising after they have seen the success of Sling TV launched by Dish Networks. The two satellite companies have an edge over everybody else trying to launch OTT packages due to the apparent ability to use the content they buy for satellites onto the internet.

Pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but there are three packages being mentioned:

  • DirecTV Now is promising to replace online what you buy today from the satellite. So expect this to be packages with prices similar to the satellite packages. The biggest question will be how much local programming they are going to able to include in the package. This package is interesting in that there has always been a lot of homes that could not buy satellite due to the inability to see a satellite well or due to restrictions of some kind on using a dish.
  • DirecTV Mobile is a smaller set of programming to be aimed at smartphones, although anybody can watch it. DirecTV is promising this will be affordable.
  • DirecTV Preview will be a free service that is ad-sponsored. It will contain content from AT&T’s Audience Network and Otter Media. This seems similar to Verizon’s Go90 app.

Sling TV. Sling TV has continued to add packages of options to its base offering. But their big news is that they have made a deal with ABC to add ABC local content to the web. This is the first case I know of where a local network will be made available to anybody on line. This is being included by Sling TV as part of a Broadcast Extra package that adds additional channels for $5 per month.

One of the main draws for people on network TV is local programming – news, weather and sports. It will be interesting to see how Sling handles this. I know when I lived in the Virgin Islands that the only network TV available on the island carried news from New York City and I don’t think anybody there watched it.

Sony Vue TV. Sony has reconfigured their Vue TV from a $50 per month package down to a skinny bundle for $30. Sony didn’t have much luck with the $50 price tag and recently lowered it to $40.

The Sony offering is interesting in that it uses the Playstation 4 game console and the service comes with a built-in DVR. Rather than carry live network programming the new Vue offering provides next day access to a number of network TV series.

The biggest drawback of the offering is that there are not nearly as many homes with a Playstation 4 compared to other OTT packages that can be viewed on any device. Furthermore, the offering only supports one TV with one box.

Facebook. It was announced a month ago that both Facebook and Twitter were trying to obtain the rights to show Thursday night NFL football. But Facebook withdrew and the football is going to Twitter.

But this doesn’t mean that Facebook doesn’t have big aspirations as a video platform. They are putting a lot of effort into Facebook Live which they think can be a viable competitor to YouTube. It’s easy for my generation to forget that sites like YouTube has become a video powerhouse and Facebook wants to do something similar. Surveys have suggested that the platform that people adopt when young will influence how they watch video for life.

Facebook is also considering creating a skinny bundle that combines Facebook Live with some of their own content. With over a billion members on the platform they certainly have a good starting point.