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ACA Summit Matthew Polka Ajit Pai

ACA President Matthew Polka with FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai

You know how a lot of consumers are fed up with rising cable bills, excessive program bundling, and limited access to TV shows? It turns out independent cable operators feels the same way.

Over and over and over at today’s American Cable Association Summit – a policy-driven event put on by the independent cable organization – I heard frustration about the state of the pay-TV business from small cable companies who feel outgunned in a market where the content bills just keep going up. Indie operators have two main complaints, and they’re both related. First, they have no leverage in licensing retransmission agreements because content owners can threaten TV blackouts. Second, in some markets, broadcasters are working together to set licensing fees, a practice the cable operators consider to be collusion. According to Wide Open West CEO Colleen Abdoulah, collusion is taking place in 20% of TV markets and is driving up retransmission costs by at least 22%. Continue Reading…

Aereo hearts cable

People think of Aereo as a cable competitor, but the company’s real fight is with OTA broadcasters who don’t want to lose retransmission revenue. And if Aereo were to win its war in court, some pay-TV providers might very well decide to partner with the company rather than battle against it.

Jeff Baumgartner reports that the topic of cable partnerships came up this week at the annual NCTC winter conference. The National Cable  Telecommunications Cooperative is made up of independent cable operators, and Aereo’s CEO Chet Kanojia participated on a panel at the organization’s recent event. Reportedly Kenojia said Aereo would “take a very open approach with everyone we choose to work with,” and that he’d be “‘ecstatic’ to work with a like-thinking cable ISP.”

In other words, despite its marketing rhetoric, Aereo – like TiVo before it – would love to break into the cable biz.

Personally, I’m convinced that even if Aereo doesn’t win in court, it has other options for peddling its services. Beyond the now-famous dime-size antennas, Aereo appears to be operating sophisticated transcoding and video delivery technology. I imagine the Aereo solution is similar to what the TiVo Stream or Morega’s DirecTV Nomad device provides, except that the transcoding process takes place in the cloud rather than on a device in the home. The basic transcoding isn’t novel – plenty of companies offer transcoding services – but the ability to do it well and at scale is another thing entirely. Until all television content is transmitted in IP, Aereo has another potential technology ace up its sleeve, and plenty of patents to support it.

ESPN for $7

I love ESPN. I am entirely willing to spend gobs of money on my cable bill just to get it. Even so, my jaw dropped when I read that the licensing fee for ESPN programming is set to go above $7 per month in 2017. That’s the amount pay-TV operators have to spend per subscriber to get ESPN programming, and the amount that gets factored into our monthly cable bills for including the sports juggernaut. For $7 a month, I get ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3, the WatchESPN app, and… wait a minute. I get all that for $7?

Yes, I was all set to write a snarky post about retransmission fees and the high cost of programming these days, and then I thought about all that I get from ESPN. Pretty much any sporting event I want to watch that’s not being broadcast on the free networks is available somewhere on ESPN. And that WatchESPN app? Man that’s come in handy when I’ve been away from the living room TV and wanted to catch a college basketball game or two. And it works on both my iPad and my Android phone. Inside and outside my house.

The big catch of course is that not everyone is a sports fan, and most cable subscribers have to pay for ESPN programming whether they watch it or not. On the other hand, I don’t watch a lot of the junk on the “free” networks (morning news programs, terrible reality TV shows, etc.), and I still have to pay for their skyrocketing licensing fees. So maybe all’s fair in love and TV programming. Regardless, there’s no cord-cutting in my future. Cable is expensive, but at least I enjoy what I get for my money.

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A random web search turned me on to some interesting Roku job openings, emphasizing content relationships and recommendations. Individually, maybe they’re not so compelling. But from a holistic standpoint, perhaps these new positions shed a bit of light on Roku’s ambitions and decision to turn down an Amazon acquisition in favor of additional funding.

The first role is Roku Programming Director… to be located in Los Angeles. Which, of course, much of the content industry calls home. “The Director will survey the landscape of available content, plans and strategies” to assist “business development prioritize content acquisition efforts. ” Hm. By comparison, the Content Programming Manager will be based at Roku’s Nothern California headquarters and will basically function as a full-time recommendation engine: Continue Reading…

Clearwire Voyager hotspot

Years ago I was one of the early Clearwire customers with a Motorola WiMAX USB stick and a month-to-month service contract. But despite decent network coverage in both Philadelphia (where I lived) and Las Vegas (where CES proved to be the perfect venue for testing WiMAX performance), I couldn’t justify the ongoing expense of an extra data plan. Broadband at home, plus data on my phone, plus free Wi-Fi at local coffee shops was enough to keep me going.

And that was before Clearwire virtually imploded.

Many people, however, aren’t making the same broadband calculations that I am. And I discovered last week, that the Clearwire WiMAX network is now being used in some interesting ways. The Freedom Rings Partnership and regional ISP Wilco Electronic Systems have started a program under the Keyspot brand in Philly to bring more people online who wouldn’t otherwise have access. If you haven’t had Internet service in the last 90 days and visit a Keyspot location for online access, or to take a class, you can qualify for a free Clear Voyager modem (see above), and a monthly, no-contract WiMAX service plan for $14.95. (One-time install fee of $14.95) That’s more than Comcast Internet Essentials service, which slides in at $9.95 per month, but, as I heard last week at the FCC’s Broadband Summit, it can be difficult to register for the baseline Comcast program. (More on that over at DSLReports).

Perhaps even more interesting, outside the Keyspot program, you can still get a 2 GB/month, no-contract WiMAX plan for $19.99If you have coverage in your area, and if you can swallow the initial hardware cost ($40 or $50 depending on USB stick or hotspot), that’s a pretty sweet deal. I wouldn’t sign away a year or two for that service given the state of Clearwire as a business. But for certain people (or maybe a small office?), the price point is compelling.  Continue Reading…

Cox Cisco 2013 iPad app

While CES now feels like forever ago, we’re still catching up on some of our notes and leftover photos. Among them are scrawled observations and camera shots covering the “magical” new TV interface introduced by Cisco and Cox. (Yes, someone actually used that word.) I was struck by two things during the presentation that Dave and I attended. First, the Cox Trio TV user interface and accompanying iOS app are beautiful. But second, they don’t do anything that I don’t already expect the next-generation of electronic program guides to do.

The updated Trio HD guide (built by NDS, now Cisco) rolled out to Cox customers in December, but the latest iOS app was unveiled for the first time at CES. (An Android version is reportedly scheduled for Q1.) In addition to cosmetic touch-ups, the Trio HD update includes the ability to establish profiles for individual users, and provides new personalized content recommendations that cut across live TV, future broadcast listings, and video on demand.

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The new iOS app, meanwhile, works with iPads, iPhones and iPods, streams 90 Cox television channels, and provides access to the full Cox VOD library. It doesn’t use the same UI as Trio, but because the underlying information is delivered from the cloud (that magical place in the sky), it does support the same user profiles. It also relies on the same ThinkAnalytics content recommendation engine accessed by the Trio EPG.

In the future, Cox plans to offer new features that allow subscribers to stream content from a second-screen device to the TV, and to move recorded content in the other direction from a DVR to a tablet or smartphone. Exactly how it plans to enable those features, however, is still in question. Continue Reading…

Making The Case For Aereo

Dave Zatz —  January 19, 2013

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My Twitter pal Michael Turk, whose name you may recognize from a tenure at the NCTA, recently wrote up his disdain for Aereo:

You know what is 100% free and doesn’t require any payment to the cable industry? Broadcast TV. This guy is suggesting people pay money every month – albeit to a different company – to watch something that is broadcast OVER THE AIR. [...] if all you are watching are broadcast channels, you certainly don’t need to be paying Aereo or anyone else for it.

While Turk makes some reasonable points regarding onerous retransmission fees and Aereo’s legal challenges, there’s way more to the service than basic access to broadcast channels. $8/month grants you access to two micro antennas and 20 hours of cloud DVR storage space (or $12 for 40hrs). So not only does Aereo provide “live” broadcast television, but you can schedule season passes and the like. Further, you’re not confined to a television and set-top box in your home as Aereo pretty much allows you to watch your live and recorded television programming via any modern browser… including the ones found on our smartphones and tablets. Continue Reading…