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The best of both worlds

Thu, 03/31/2005 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner

Since late 2003, the $50 digital brick and cable's eventual migration to an all-digital environment has been all the rage. Starting with Charter's digital simulcast deployment in Long Beach, many other operators will soon follow suit in many markets this year. It's already the leading candidate for the cable tech story of 2005.

The benefits are easy to pick out: it gives cable a migration path to an all-digital platform, which, in turn, enables operators to reclaim valuable bandwidth for HDTV and other new services. Plus, it takes a long-used DBS marketing point (its all-digital picture) off the table.

Despite all of this all-digital talk (and action), it's not like the cable industry is getting ready to kick analog to the curb like an old, moldy, beer-stained recliner that even a fraternity house wouldn't welcome. The industry should—and likely will—hold on to it like a coveted vinyl copy of "Led Zeppelin IV"—not because of its sentimental value, but because it is something many consumers still find useful and are comfortable with. And telling a consumer that a digital box gives them access to free video-on-demand content and a spiffy interactive program guide still might fall on deaf ears regardless of the value proposition.

The "lifeline" label typically is attached to voice services. But it's definitely time to start thinking about that term in the video context, as well—a trimmed down, analog video lifeline product available to all cable outlets. The cable industry is fond of saying video-on-demand is a key differentiator against DBS. Analog video is another. It's something that DBS won't do and can't do.

But, years from now, when cable begins to reclaim that analog spectrum for digital services, the tricky part will be to figure out what channels will make up that lifeline. Is it only the broadcast channels and must-carries? 15 channels? 30 channels? More? That debate is just getting started, but some of the industry's top engineering talent took a crack at it in our annual CTO roundtable (check out this month's InDepth section for more).

But consumers can provide some interesting answers, as well. "DSL Reports," a blog of broadband news and gossip, is a good place to start, though many who read it and respond to it are more tech-savvy than the average consumer. Their recent opinions on the value of an all-digital video cable product varied greatly.

One reader, a Cox subscriber, said he would order digital cable if channels like TLC and Discovery were offered in the digital domain. "I'll pass on watching those in nasty analog. Until then, I'll stick with my dish."

But another reader said analog was the "only reason I haven't gone satellite," noting that he's perfectly happy with expanded basic.

So, how can cable achieve the right balance and make everyone happy? That may be an impossible task. But, if there's enough bandwidth to go around, cable could find itself in the unique position of being able to offer the best of both worlds.

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