Is Online Programming Too Expensive?

I’ve read several articles recently that conjecture that online programming services that mimic cable company TV are in trouble because they are too expensive. This matters when trying to understand the cord-cutting trend because homes are less likely to bolt traditional cable if they have to spend as much elsewhere to get the networks they still want to watch. I haven’t looked a while, so I thought I’d make a new comparison. My local cable company is Charter Spectrum, so I compared the price of Charter cable TV to the online alternatives.

Charter’s base TV plan is called TV Select, and a new Charter subscriber gets a 12-month special price as follows:

$49.99 – 12-month advertised promotional price

$16.45 – Broadcast TV charge

$  6.99 – Settop box

$73.43 – 12-month promotion total price

After 12 months the base price for Select TV goes from $49.99 to $73.99, a $24 increase – and the full monthly fee jumps to $97.43 after the end of the one-year promotion. I’m a sports fan, and to get all of the channels I want I’d have to subscribe to Charter’s TV Silver plan. That package is $20 more expensive than the select plan, or $93.43 for 12 months, and then $117.43 after the end of the promotion period.

Charter’s Broadcast TV Charge has been widely labeled as a hidden fee in that Charter never mentions the fee in any advertising about the cable product. Charter just raised the fee to $16.45 in August, up from $13.50, making it the highest such fee among the big cable companies. But Comcast is not far behind at $14.95 per month and that fee is likely to increase soon. This fee is where the big cable companies are aggregating the charges for local programming from network affiliates of ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC.

Comcast, AT&T, and some other big cable companies also charge a Regional Sports Fee, but so far Charter is covering this in their base cable costs. The bottom line is that for a Charter customer, my cheapest alternative that includes a full array of network cable channels will cost $73.43 for a year and then go up by $24.

How does this compare with the online alternatives?

  • The cheapest online alternative might be Sling TV. They have two basic small packages that cost $25 each or both for $45. Sling TV has a balanced number of sports and non-sports channels, but in my case doesn’t carry every sports network I want to see. There are also $5 add-on packages that can drive the cost up to $60 to see the network channels most homes probably want to watch. Sling TV doesn’t carry a full array of local network affiliates.
  • Next up in price is Fubo TV, priced at $54.99 per month. This is a sports-centric network that is especially attractive to soccer fans since the network carries a wide array of international sports. Strangely, Fubo TV doesn’t carry ESPN (meaning they also don’t carry ABC or Disney).
  • At the same price of $54.99 is Hulu + Live TV. They carry all of the sports networks I am looking for and a wide array of other network channels. They also carry the local network affiliate channels for most major markets. For $60.99 you can get this service without commercials, which requires downloading shows to watch the commercial-free versions. Hulu + Live TV also lets families and friends network together to watch shows at the same time.
  • YouTube TV is perhaps the closest online product to compare to Charters cable TV plans. This is priced at $64.99 per month. As a sports fan, the YouTube TV lineup provides all of the channels I want to follow my Maryland Terrapins. YouTube TV carries the same local network affiliates for my market that are available on Charter.

All of the online TV options allow subscribers to drop or add the service easily at any time, although none of them give a refund for time already paid. This means no contracts and no term commitment.

It’s easy to see why homes think that online program is too expensive, particularly since Charter falsely advertises their cable product at $49.99. But it costs almost $20 per month more to buy TV from Charter, even with the 12-month promotional price, and then $42 more poor month at the end of the promotion period. It still mystifies me why homes with decent broadband don’t do the math and leave Charter for Hulu or YouTube TV.

Regulating Cable TV versus OTT

Regulation often makes no sense, particularly in times when technology is transforming an industry. There is no better example of this than the way we regulate cable TV today.

Traditional cable TV is heavily regulated at the federal, state, and local levels. The FCC website has a nice summary of the history of federal cable regulation. The industry is less heavily regulated today than it was forty years ago, but there are still a lot of federal regulations that apply to cable TV. At the local level, franchise taxes levied on cable service are a huge revenue source for local government.

The FCC website includes a definition of cable television as follows: “Cable television is a video delivery service provided by a cable operator to subscribers via a coaxial cable or fiber optics.  Programming delivered without a wire via satellite or other facilities is not “cable television” under the Commission’s definitions.”

All of the federal cable regulations are aimed at cable TV signal that enters the home via a coaxial or fiber wire. Satellite or wireless delivery of television signal is not considered to be traditional cable TV, although the FCC does regulate satellite TV under a different set of rules.

The FCC has chosen to ignore its own definition of cable TV for programming that is delivered over the web. I’ve subscribed to the online cable alternatives Sling TV, Playstation Vue, and YouTube TV. Over time those services have come to look more and more like traditional cable TV. My subscription to Playstation Vue (before it folded) included all of the same local channels that I would receive from a traditional cable subscription. The service included a channel guide, and from a functional perspective, it was impossible to make any meaningful distinction between the Playstation Vue product and the same product I might buy from a cable company.

From a technical perspective it’s hard to see the difference between the online programming and traditional cable. Both come into the home over coaxial or fiber cables. Both offer a line-up of local channels and a similar mix of national programming. Both services offer options like DVR service to record programming to watch later. If you were to show both services to somebody who had never seen TV before, they’d probably not see any difference in the two services.

But there is a huge regulatory difference between traditional cable TV and online programming, particularly at the local level. Franchise fees of up to 5% are levied onto traditional cable TV from Charter, Comcast, or AT&T – but no franchise fees are levied against Sling TV or YouTube TV. Cable companies are arguing that this difference alone gives online programming a competitive edge – and it’s hard to disagree with them.

To make matters even more confusing, there are now cable products that sit somewhere in between traditional TV and online TV. ISPs are no longer building cable headends to download cable signal from satellites. Instead they are buying cable channels wholesale. The entire channel line-up is pumped into an ISP on a big broadband connection. The channel line-ups look a lot like both traditional cable channels and online cable line-ups like YouTube TV. In the newest cable wholesale products the ISP doesn’t even need a traditional setup box and can deliver straight to smart TVs or use something like a Roku stick.

For now, most ISPs that are reselling the wholesale TV are registering as cable providers and are collecting franchise fees. But I won’t be surprised if an ISP challenges this and argues that wholesale cable service is not the same as traditional cable TV.e

From a regulatory perspective, our current treatment of cable service is closely analogous to the difference between traditional telephone service and voice over IP (VoIP). ISPs successful fought to define VoIP as a non-regulated service, although there is no functional difference between the two products at the customer level. There is no discernible difference between a telephone line provided by AT&T over telephone wires and telephone service provided by Comcast over cable wires – but the products get a drastically difference regulatory treatment. It’s hard to think that we aren’t going to soon see legal challenges by cable companies trying to avoid collecting franchise fees – and I think there is a decent chance that courts will side with them.

Will Costly Alternatives Slow Cord Cutting?

The primary reason that households claim they cut the cord is due to price. Surveys have shown that most households regularly watch around a dozen cable channels, and cord cutters still want to see their favorite channels. Not all cord cutters are willing to go cold turkey on the traditional cable networks and so they seek out an online alternative that carries the networks they want to watch.

For the last few years, there have been online alternatives that carry the most popular cable networks for prices between $35 and $45 per month. However, during the last year, the cost of these alternatives has risen significantly. I doubt that the price increases will drive people back to the cable companies where they had to pay for hidden fees and a settop box, but the higher prices might make more households hesitate to make the switch. Following are the current prices of the major online alternatives to traditional cable TV:

Hulu Live TV. This service is owned 2/3 by Disney and 1/3 by Comcast. They recently announced a price increase effective December 18 to move the package from $44.99 to $54.99. Customers can also select an add-free version for $60.99. At the beginning of 2019, the service was priced at $39.99, so the price increased by 36% during the year.

AT&T TV Now (was called DirecTV Now) raised the price of the service earlier this year from $50 to $65. The company also raised the prices significantly for DirecTV over satellite and lost millions of customers between the two services.

YouTube TV raised prices in May from $40 to $50. This service is owned by Google. Along with the price increase, the service added the Discovery Channel.

Sling TV is owned by Dish Networks. They still have the lowest prices for somebody looking for a true skinny package. They offer two line-ups, called Blue or Orange that each cost $25 per month, or both for $40 per month. There are also add-ons packages for $5 per month for Kids (Nick channels, Disney Jr), Lifestyle (VH-1, BET, diy, Hallmark), Heartland (outdoor channels), Hollywood (TCM, Sundance, Reelz), along with News, Spanish and International packages. One of the big things missing from Sling TV is local network channels and they provide an HD antenna with a subscription. Sling TV has spread the most popular channels in such a way that customers can easily spend $50 to $60 monthly to get their favorite channels.

Fubo TV is independent and not associated with another big media company. They offer 179 channels, including local network channels for $54.99 per month. The network started with sports coverage including an emphasis on soccer.

TVision Home is owned by T-Mobile. This was formerly known as Layer3 TV. The company has never tried to make this a low-cost alternative and it’s the closest online service to mimic traditional cable TV. The service is only available today in a few major markets. Customers can get an introductory price of $90 per month (goes up to $100 after a year). They charge $10 per extra TV and also bill taxes that range from 4% to 20% depending upon the market. This is cable TV delivered over broadband.

Playstation Vue. The service is owned by Sony and has announced that it will cease service at the end of January 2020. The service is no longer taking new customers. The price of the core packages is $55 per month, which increased by $5 in July.  The service carries more sports channels than most of the other services.

The channels offered by each service differ, so customers need to shop carefully and compare lineups. For example, I’m a sports fan and Sling TV and Fubo TV don’t carry the BigTen Network. There are similar gaps throughout the lineups of all of the providers.

All of these alternatives, except perhaps TVision Home, are still less expensive than most traditional cable TV packages. However, it looks like all of these services are going to routinely increase rates to cover increased programming fees. Couple that with the fact that customers dropping cable TV probably lose their bunding discounts, and a lot of houses are probably still on the fence about cord cutting.

Is OTT Service Effective Competition for Cable TV?

The FCC made an interesting ruling recently that signals the end of regulation of basic cable TV. Charter Communications had petitioned the FCC for properties in Massachusetts claiming that the properties have ‘effective competition’ for cable TV due to competition from OTT providers – in this case, due to AT&T DirecTV Now, a service that offers a full range of local and traditional cable channels.

The term effective communications is a very specific regulatory term and once a market reaches that status a cable company can change rates at will for basic cable. – the tiers that include local network stations.

The FCC agreed with Charter and said that the markets are competitive and granted Charter the deregulated status. This designation in the past has been granted in markets that have a high concentration of satellite TV or else that have a lot of alternative TV offered by a fiber or DSL overbuilder that has gained a significant share of the market.

In making this ruling the FCC effectively deregulated cable everywhere since there is no market today that doesn’t have a substantial amount of OTT content competing with cable companies. Cable providers will still have to go through the process of asking to deregulate specific markets, but it’s hard to think that after this ruling that the FCC can say no to any other petition.

From a regulatory perspective, this is probably the right ruling. Traditional cable is getting clobbered and it looks like the industry as a whole might lose 5-6 full percentage of market share this year and end up under a 65% national penetration rate. While we are in only the third year where cord cutting became a measurable trend, the cable industry customer losses are nearly identical to the market losses for landline telephone at the peak of that market decline.

There are two consequences for consumers in a market that is declared to be effectively competitive. First, it frees cable companies from the last vestiges of basic cable rate regulation. This is not a huge benefit because cable companies have been free for years to raise rates in higher tiers of service. In a competitive market, a cable provider is also no longer required to carry local network channels in the basic tier – although very few cable systems have elected this option.

I’ve seen several articles discussing this ruling that assume that this will result in an instant rate increase in these markets – and they might be right. It’s a headscratcher watching cable companies raising rates lately when higher rates are driving households to become cord cutters. But cable executives don’t seem to be able to resist the ability to raise rates, and each time they do, the overall revenue of a cable system increases locally, even with customer defections.

It’s possible that this ruling represents nothing more than the current FCC’s desire to deregulate as many things as possible. One interesting aspect of this ruling is that the FCC has never declared OTT services like SlingTV or DirecTV Now to be MVDPs (multichannel video program distributors) – a ruling that would pull these services into the cable TV regulatory regime. From a purely regulatory viewpoint, it’s hard to see how a non-MVDP service can meet the technical requirements of effective competition. However, from a practical perspective, it’s not hard to perceive the competition.

Interestingly, customers are not leaving traditional cable TV and flocking to the OTT services that emulate regular cable TV service. Those services have recently grown to become expensive and most households seem to be happy cobbling together packages of content from OTT providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime that don’t carry a full range of traditional channels. From that market perspective, one has to wonder how much of a competitor DirecTV Now was in the specific markets, or even how Charter was able to quantify the level of competition from a specific OTT service.

Reality Pricing Coming for Online Video

I’ve been a cord cutter for many years and over the last few years, I’ve tried the various vMVPDs that offer channel line-ups that somewhat mimic traditional cable TV. I’ve tried Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue. In every case I’ve always scratched my head wondering how these products could offer prices that are lower than the wholesale price of the content from programmers. There are only two possibilities – either these companies have been setting low prices to gain market share or they had been able to negotiate far better deals for content than the rest of the industry.

Of course, the answer is that they’ve been subsidizing these products. And Wall Street is now pressuring these companies to end the subsidies and become profitable. There is probably no better example of this than AT&T’s DirecTV Now service. When DirecTV Now launched it carried a price tag of $35 per month for about a hundred channels of programming. The low price was clearly set as a reaction to a similarly low price from Sling TV which was the first big successful vMVPD.

Both companies offered line-ups including the channels that most households watch. This included the high-price programming from ESPN and numerous other quality networks. The initial pricing was crazy – a similar package on traditional cable was priced at $60 – $70.

The low pricing has worked for DirectTV Now. They are getting close to surpassing the Sling TV in subscribers. AT&T has featured DirecTV Now in its advertising and has been shuttling customers from the satellite-based DirecTV to the online product.

But AT&T company just got realistic with the product. They have collapsed from four options down to two options now priced at $50 and $70 per month. The company got ready for this shift by eliminating special promotional prices in the fourth quarter of last year. They had roughly half a million customers who were paying even less than their published low prices. When AT&T raised the rates they immediately lost over half of those promotional customers.

Not only are prices rising, but the company has significantly trimmed the channel counts. The new $50 package will have only about 40 channels while the $70 package will have 50 channels. It’s worth noting that both packages now include HBO, which is the flagship AT&T product. HBO is by far the most expensive programming in the industry and AT&T has now reconfigured DirecTV Now to be HBO plus other premium channels.

The new prices are realistic and also include a profit margin. It will be interesting to see how the DirecTV Now customer base reacts to such a drastic change. I’m sure many of them will flee to cheaper alternatives. But the company may also attract customers that subscribe directly to HBO to upgrade.

The big question is if there will be cheaper alternatives? The online industry has been around long enough that it is now out of its infancy and investors are starting to expect profits from any company in this space. The new realistic pricing by AT&T is likely to drive the other online programmers to also get more realistic.

These price increases have ramifications for cord-cutting. It’s been easy to justify cutting the cord when you could ditch a $70 per month traditional cable product for a $35 online one that has the channels you most watch. But there is less allure from going online when the alternative choice is just as expensive as the traditional one. There is always going to be some savings from jumping online – if nothing else customers can escape the exorbitant fees for renting a settop box.

It’s clear that AT&T is counting on HBO as the allure for its online offering. That product is available in a number of places on the web for a monthly rate of $15, so including that in the $50 and $70 product still distinguishes DirecTV Now from the other vMVPD providers.

What is clear by this move is that we are approaching the time when companies are willing to eat huge losses to gain online market share. That market share is worthless if customers leave in droves when there is a rate increase. These big companies don’t seem to have fully grasped that there is zero customer loyalty online. Viewers don’t really care who the underlying company is that is carrying their favorite programming – it’s the content they care about. The big cable companies have to break their long history of making decisions like near-monopolies.

Why Households Keep Cable TV

The results of a new survey were recently released by Telaria and Adobe Advertising Cloud that looked in detail at both cord cutters and those who still use traditional cable TV packages. The survey asked questions to groups of cord-cutters, those with traditional TV and also consumers who only watch video on demand and don’t pay for a service. A summary of the survey can be found at this link.

The survey asked why households keep traditional cable TV and got the following responses:

  • 42% said the primary reason for keeping traditional cable TV is to watch live programming such as sports or local news.
  • 55% said that the options for cord-cutting are confusing.
  • 34% said they liked having a lot of channels available.
  • 21% said they didn’t know where to look for alternative options to traditional cable TV.
  • 55% with traditional cable TV are still satisfied with the value they get for the price they pay.
  • 48% said they have considered cancelling traditional cable TV.
  • 30% said they would cut the cord if they were sure they could watch all of their favorite content

Cord-cutters were asked why they had left traditional TV:

  • 73% said it was due to the high cost of cable TV. 74% of cord-cutters say they are now happy with what they are paying for content.
  • 30% described themselves as low users of watching content and left because they didn’t use traditional TV very much.
  • 36% said they were still able to get the content they want.

There were some other interesting responses in the survey:

  • 16% of respondents say they have used somebody else’s password to watch streaming content.
  • 27% of homes now use a digital antenna to watch over-the-air TV, with sports being the primary reason for using the antenna.

These results are further validated by a survey released earlier this year by Deloitte who surveyed 2,088 households asking why they are keeping traditional cable TV:

  • The primary reason for keeping TV, cited by 71% of households is the ability to watch live broadcasts – be that sports, local news or events like the Emmys or Oscars.
  • Another primary reason is that households perceive that they are saving money due to a bundle. 56% of respondents said the bundle made them feel like they are getting a good deal.
  • The third reason cited for keeping traditional cable is that households said they’ve had the service for a long time and don’t want to change.
  • However, Deloitte found concern about price with 70% of respondents said they are paying too much for their cable subscriptions.

As somebody who cut the cord a number of years ago I echo some of the concerns voiced in these surveys. It can be confusing understanding the differences between the online programming options. I applaud anybody who can decipher the differences between packages offered by Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue. I’ve not yet found an online service that is easy to surf if you don’t have specific programming in mind. The proliferation of platforms with unique programming such as CBS All Access, Disney and others will likely make it even harder to find or afford all of the content you might want to watch. We are definitely not yet to a point where cord-cutting is as easy as keeping the traditional cable package.

Can Skinny Bundles Remain Viable?

It seems like the industry has accepted the new paradigm that households are cutting the cord and getting programming online. Those going online have a few options. The option that gets the most press are skinny bundles – those online services that offered a smaller version of traditional cable programming. Another alternative is for households to abandon the traditional content found on cable and to seek different content from providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

At the end of June there were about 6 million households that have purchased the online skinny bundles. That number is still small compared with the 90 million or so homes that still buy traditional cable programming from cable or satellite providers, but it represents a 75% growth just since October of 2017.

Current estimates of customers of the largest services include Sling TV at 2.3 million, DirecTV Now at 1.5 million, Hulu Live at 1 million, YouTube TV at 800,000 PlayStation View at 500,000.

Skinny bundles providers are attracting customers by offering a suite of the most-watched cable channels at a lower price than the cable company. They also get rid of all of the hassle of dealing with a cable company and customers can come and go easily without having to deal with cable company customer service.

I have to wonder how sustainable these businesses are. Every analyst I’ve been reading speculates that these businesses are all losing money and are using low prices to gain market share. But that means they lose more money with each customer added and it’s hard to see the end game for this industry segment.

One article I read speculated that YouTube TV is paying more for programming than the consumer price being charged. It’s unlikely that anybody but a few insiders really know the cost of programming, but the analyst estimated that YouTube TV was paying $49 per month for content to support its $40 consumer product. They speculated that YouTube might also be making $15 per month from advertising. That would mean only a tiny margin before considering any of the costs of operating the business. Obviously this is a concern for the skinny bundle providers, and YouTube TV and Sling TV each recently raised monthly rates by $5 per month.

The biggest issue for the skinny bundle companies is that they are still operating in a world where the programmers control their costs. Programmers have little incentive to offer big discounts to skinny bundle providers, which would provide incentives for more customers to cut the cord.

The big programmers all have interesting pricing that penalizes skinny bundle providers. They tend to charge a lot for their most popular channels and very little for the many other channels that they provide to cable companies. For the skinny bundle provider this means that they might spend as much to buy the one or two most popular Discovery channels or MTV channels and still pay as much for programming as the cable companies that get a whole large suit of channels for almost the same cost. Programming has been sold that way for years and I always assumed it was so that the programmers could extract full price out of smaller cable systems that can’t physically handle the 200-channel line-ups. But this pricing seems tailored-made as a way for programmers to minimize losses from selling to the skinny bundle providers.

Ultimately something has to give for skinny bundles to become a viable alternative to traditional TV. One alternative is for the prices to rise to be similar to traditional cable with the value proposition being that customers can easily come and go with a provider without the hassle. However, numerous surveys have shown that the primary reason for cutting the cord is to save money, and so skinny bundles likely can never charge as much as traditional cable. In the long-run skinny bundle providers can’t keep losing money, and it’s hard to see this same industry being around five years from now.

Skinny bundle providers share some of the same concerns as traditional cable companies. Many cord cutters seem willing to give up on watching many of the networks they have been accustomed to watching. This is what my household has done. We mostly watch the content on Amazon Prime and Netflix, including buying the occasional seasons of specific shows from other networks. That means that we no longer watch content from Discovery, MTV, the Comedy Channel and the many other traditional cable networks – we’re satisfied with the wide array of alternative programming.

Surveys from Nielsen show that people become loyal to the content they watch, but that means that they are also able to forget about and not care about content that they no longer watch. If price is the main driver for consumers to choose programming, then traditional cable TV and skinny bundles both are battling a losing battle if their must charge a lot to cover the high cost of programming.

Do People Really Want a la Carte TV?

We just got a glimpse of a la carte TV and it makes me wonder if this is what people really want. Poll after poll over the years have shown that people would like to pick their own channels. I’m not sure that many people really want a la carte channels once they see the market reality of the product.

Sling TV just started offering a number of a la carte channels and they are available to anybody. Subscribers don’t need to buy another Sling TV package and can buy just one channel. The company says they are planning on offering more a la carte channels.

For now the a la carte line-up is small. It includes Showtime for $10 per month, which is also available elsewhere on line. The other channels available now include:

  • Dove Channel for $5 per month. This channel is not carried on any cable systems and is marketed direct to consumers. It carries a library of Christian-based programming.
  • CuriosityStream for $6 per month. This is an ad-free network that delivers documentaries and shows about science, technology, technology and nature.
  • Stingray Karaoke for $7 per month. This network carries a big library of karaoke songs that streams both the music and lyrics.
  • Outside TV Features for $5 per month. This network carries a big library of outdoor adventure sports films. This is the network that carries the dramatic footage of surfing, skiing, skydiving and numerous adventure sports.
  • UP Faith & Family for $5 per month. This carries original content and movies that are family-based and faith-friendly.
  • Pantaya for $6 per month. This network carries Spanish movies.
  • NBA League Pass for $28.99 per month. This network carries all NBA games and related content.

Sling TV is not the first one to offer a la carte channels and it’s a big part of Amazon Prime. Amazon carries many of these same networks, and over 100 others. However, you must subscribe to the Amazon Prime service for $119 per year in order to buy the a la carte channels. Amazon has taken the approach of being the biggest bundler of content and has become the portal to a huge array of content.

The only other service with any real a la carte characteristics is the new package offered by Charter, only to their own customers. They provide the local networks in a market and then let a subscriber choose 10 out of 65 networks. This is supposedly priced at $21.99, but the fine print shows there will be other fees, typical of a cable company, and I’m guessing this will cost around $30.

What strikes me most about the Sling TV offering is the monthly fee of between $5 and $7 per channel. How many people are willing to spend $60 to $84 per year for one channel? Surveys by Nielsen have shown that the average family regularly watches about a dozen networks. A price of $5 per channel would mean a price of $60 per month to get the networks a household wants. But local network channels, movie networks and sports networks would likely cost more than $5 and it wouldn’t be hard to see a bill of $75 to $100 to buy only the channels a family regularly watches.

I don’t think this is what households want. When people respond to surveys talking about buying channels individually they were not thinking of paying $5 each. I recall a Nielsen survey from a few years ago where people suggested they would be willing to pay less than $2 per channel if they could buy them individually.

I saw a Google article that said that the Dove Channel had over 100,000 customers. Even if they now have twice that, at $5 per month per subscriber the network would have a monthly income of $1 million. That might sound like a lot, but it’s not enough to support a staff, buy the needed content and also try to fund original programming.

Contrast this with a network that sits today on the traditional line-ups on cable systems. At the current nationwide cable TV penetration rate of 69%, a network that charges only a nickel to the cable companies would make $4.4 million per month. A network like the Dove Channel would need to get nearly 900,000 subscribers at $5 per month to perform as well as traditional cable network that charges only a nickel. You can see why most cable networks are scared of the a la carte model because there are very few of them could survive as online providers.

Simultaneous Data Streams

By working all over the country I get to hear a lot of stories about how people use broadband. I’ve noticed that over the last few years that the household expectation for broadband performance has changed.

As recently as three or four years ago most households seemed to judge the adequacy of their broadband connection by how well it would handle a video stream from Netflix or other streaming service. Households that couldn’t stream video well were unhappy, but those that could generally felt that their broadband connection was good enough.

Interestingly, much of the perceived improvement in the ability to steam video was not due to better broadband performance. Streaming services like Netflix took steps to improve the performance of their product. Netflix had always buffered their content, meaning that a customer would load the video stream a few minutes ahead of viewing to eliminate the variation in customer broadband connections. They subsequently built some brains into the service so that the compression used for a given stream would vary according to the broadband connection of the customer. They also began caching their content with ISPs so that their signal would be generated from the ISP’s local network and not from somewhere in the distant cloud.

Streaming quality then became an issue again with the introduction of live streaming sports and other content, and many of the flaws in the video stream became more apparent. I remember trying to watch ESPN online when it was first offered by Sling TV and the experience was miserable – the stream would crash a number of times during a football or basketball game. Live-streaming services have subsequently improved their product to work better with a variety of broadband connections.

Over the last two years I’ve noticed a big change in how households talk about their broadband performance. I haven’t heard anybody mention single video streaming in a few years and the expectation for a broadband connection now is that it can handle multiple data streams at the same time.

This tells me two things. First, as mentioned above, video streaming has improved to the point where you don’t get interruptions on most broadband connections. But more importantly, households have changed how they use broadband. I think my household is a typical example. The only broadband need we have that is different from many families is that my wife and I both work from home. But other than that, we don’t have atypical broadband demands.

If you go back five years we probably had perhaps half a dozen devices in our home capable of connecting to the Internet. We rarely demanded a lot of simultaneous broadband. Today we have over 40 Internet capable devices in our house. While some of them use little or no broadband, we’ve changed how we use broadband. We are cord cutters and routinely are streaming several videos at the same time while also using the Internet for gaming and schoolwork. We’re often stream music. Our computers automatically upload files to the cloud and download software updates. Cellphones are connected to the WiFi and there is regular use of FaceTime and other apps that include video streams.

Interestingly, when the FCC established 25/4 Mbps as the definition of broadband they justified the speed by looking at simultaneous uses of multiple broadband services. At that time a lot of critics derided the FCC’s justification since it wasn’t realistic for how most households really used broadband. Perhaps the staff at the FCC was prescient, because their illustrative examples are exactly how a lot of homes use broadband today.

If anything, the FCC’s method was conservative because it didn’t account for the interference that arises in a home network that is processing multiple data streams at the same time. The more streams, the more interference, and it wouldn’t be unusual for a home like ours to experience 20% to 30% overhead in our WiFi network while processing the numerous simultaneous streams.

Unfortunately, many policy makers are still stuck on the old paradigm. This is the only way they can justify something like the CAF II program that will provide data steams in the 10 Mbps range. They still talk about how that connection will allow a household to watch video or do homework, but they ignore all of the other ways that homes really use broadband today. I know for my home that a 25 Mbps broadband stream is not sufficient and will bog down at various times of the day – so I buy something faster. It’s hard to imagine stepping back to a 10 Mbps connection, because doing so would force us to make hard choices on curtailing our broadband usage.

Another Alternative to Cable TV

In just the last few years we’ve seen a plethora of alternatives to cable TV. It was only a few years ago in 2014 when the Supreme Court rules against Aereo for offering a product that allowed people to bypass the cable company to watch local channels anywhere within a market. In retrospect is looks like Aereo’s biggest sin was being too early to market, because today Sling TV is offering a product that feels the same to customers.

Sling TV’s product is AirTV. The company provides several options, all which include a settop box that includes an antenna to receive local over-the-air networks. AirTV then integrates the local channels into the Sling TV OTT offering for a seamless mix of local and on-line channels. The box let’s a user watch the local channels on any device within range of the customer’s WiFi network. The box also will upload your local channels to the cloud to watch anywhere else while you are traveling.

The differences between AirTV and Aereo are subtle. Both companies avoided paying retransmission fees for the local networks. Both companies used antennas to receive off-air channels like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and PBS. AirTV places the antenna in the home while Aereo had an individual antenna for each customer at the central office and then beamed the shows to an Aereo box in the home. A non-technical customer would probably be hard pressed to describe the difference between the services, because from the end-user perspective the products offer the same end result.

The Supreme Court’s ruling again Aereo was also subtle. They ruled that Aereo had infringed on network copyrighted material by beaming the signal from an Aereo customer antenna located at a hub and the customer site. Now only four years later these same content owners seem to have no issues with AirTV beaming local content over the Internet to reach a customer who is traveling.

The big obvious difference between 2014 and now is the proliferation of numerous other OTT offerings that are using subsets of the traditional cable offerings to compete with cable companies. Some of the biggest ISPs like Comcast and Verizon even have their own OTT offering to compete against their own cable products.

It seems like the genie is out of the bag now and anything goes in the programming world. We recently saw Charter introduce a package that feels like a la carte programming where customers only get the channels they want. We see millions of customers opting for smaller packages by cutting the cord or migrating to smaller packages.

If you go back and read the big cable company complaints against Aereo you could make many of the same arguments against AirTV – and yet they are not being pushed out of business, as happened to Aereo. The cable companies can’t stop anybody from selling rabbit ears, but one would think they would have a valid complaint against a company that bundles the rabbit ears with other programming without paying retransmission fees.

One reason that AirTV might not be getting push-back is because they are owned by Dish Networks. A lot of the alternative programming today is being offered by the biggest players in the industry, and perhaps Aereo was singled out because they were a brash outsider. Clients ask me all of the time about creating their own small packages and I regret having to tell them that the programmers won’t even talk to small companies about the possibility.

Smaller cable operators don’t have the same options as Comcast, Charter, Dish Networks or AT&T. Small cable providers must still follow FCC rules that require traditional cable TV packages and lineups. Any small cable provider that wants to buck these rules probably ends up on the wrong side of a lawsuit or else is threated by the programmers with losing their programming contracts. Small cable operators, who are already losing money on cable TV are not willing to risk a legal battle with one of the big programmers.

I love seeing companies like AirTV blazing new ground because I hope that what they are doing will eventually filter down to the rest of the market. Sling TV has made it clear that they don’t expect to make money on AirTV and their real goal is to create stickiness for the Sling TV product. I know a lot of small cable operators who would be thrilled to reach breakeven with a cable product, and I’m hopeful that in the next few years they might have the option to resale a bundle like Sling TV and AirTV rather than continuing to lose money with traditional cable.