IN THE LOOP: The ‘constant-on’ future

Mon, 12/31/2007 - 7:10pm
Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.

We have welcomed 2008, a year that brings us closer to a new decade that may spark a societal revolution. Some sociologists believe that the 2010s will usher in a lifestyle where technologies will not just be integrated into the existing home and workplace, but workplaces and homes will be built around the technologies. This will occur as the first wave of the “constant-on” generation begins to take control. Consistent with this, here are some predictions for what this will mean for the cable and telecommunications industry:

Thomas G. Robinson

• A la carte program and channel delivery – As the old saying goes, the reports of the death of a la carte (even before it got started) are greatly exaggerated. Whatever you think of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, he certainly has a lot of multichannel video system subscribers behind him when he pushes for a la carte channel selection and provision. Despite all of the economic models that indicate that people may not be able to get all of their favorite channels unless those channels are packaged and paid for by the mass subscriber audience, historic market experience indicates that, in the end, the consumer will win out and, all the while, programmers will still find a way to continue making money. Technology to deliver customized services, of course, is here and will only get better (think switched digital video). The question is, who will be able to finally break the mold and lead programmers, service providers and consumers to the a la carte promised land. It will probably take a play similar to Google’s recent move to bust open the wireless phone and applications market, getting wireless carriers to allow any phones and thus any applications to work on their networks. Google has had early success with this gambit, and with its announced intent to bid on wireless spectrum in the 700 MHz auction, there is reason to believe that this open network push will continue to grow.

As one possibility, a la carte may be realized by way of per program vs. per channel delivery. Research indicates that younger subscribers aggressively time-shift and access programs on-demand. They are also big users of the Internet and get much of their news and entertainment from the Web. Accordingly, there will most likely be a melding of traditional cable and IPTV that makes true a la carte economically feasible.

One thing is for certain, though – as young viewers grow and begin to determine the path of household and personal subscriptions, they will demand a different type of service. They simply do not have time for most real-time TV. The only exception is live event television such as “American Idol” (where they can interact by voting) or a program such as the “Survivor” finale where they want to access it as it happens so that they can share in the proceedings with their friends.

• Videoconferencing – I travel a lot. The words “we’re expecting a full flight” are the rule now, and it’s not pretty whether you are flying for business or pleasure. This travel dynamic alone might drive more people like me to video calling and videoconferencing, requiring steadily increasing bandwidth from high-speed Internet access networks, including those accessible in-transit.

But that is just a small piece of the drive toward the increasing use of interactive video. We are becoming a nation of video communicators. As much as they text and instant message, young people are coming to realize the limitations of those media, so they are gravitating toward video. Interestingly, some sociologists also theorize that they will grow up realizing that relying on text communications and IMs serves to create a passive-aggressive communications environment that creates communications with unintended consequences. Accordingly, these sociologists believe that once they become parents, they will likely take a reactionary approach with their children (i.e., “do as I say and not as I did”) and require that their children be more fully interactive communicators. At that point in the future, the technologies and networks will need to be, and should be robust enough to handle constant two-way video.

• Interactive TV (ITV) – Akin to interactive video, but incorporating other multimedia elements such as advanced graphics, text, games, voice-activated response and other services that depend on two-way communications, is the burgeoning realm of ITV. Still evolving in multiple directions, such that the killer application is not yet defined, its future fate is clearly positive, since interaction and “connectedness” are hallmarks of the constant-on generation. How far down the road the above will be the norm is anyone’s guess, but my bet is on sooner rather than later because the pace of change continues to accelerate. The good news is that systems and technologies are continuing to evolve that facilitate the constant-on, personalized, service world that we are rushing into headlong. The bad news is that some in the industry point to the millions of “one-size fits all” subscribers that they still have, and believe that the mass audience will continue to be there. It won’t, but the masses individually will be, and that is where the focus will need to be.


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