Cable Ready: Ops Map Portable Video Plans

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Cable won't be a bystander as consumers begin using cell phones and other portable devices to access video, according to a panel of senior cable executives at a CTAM Texas meeting last month in Houston.

“There is no doubt that portability is going to be a big new technology,” said Matt Bond, executive vice president of programming for Comcast Corp. “We bring the bundle and the ability to offer a unified product.”

Sam Howe, Time Warner Cable executive vice president of marketing, added, “We have to find a way to make this work with cable in extending our core strengths.”

His company is packaging video content for new mobile platforms. “Wireless has to work off what we have in the home.”

But operators believe cable can play a role in this space. “We can take the mobile content play forward,” said Joe Rooney, senior vice president of marketing for Cox Communications Inc.

Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Advance/Newhouse Communications have partnered with Sprint Corp. to bring integrated services, including video, to cell phones.

The joint venture's president, John Garcia, said that according to a survey conducted last year, consumers want the ability to share cell phone voice minutes on the cable network, unified e-mail and voice mail accessible via cell phones, and video-related applications (like programming a digital video recorder from a cell phone and accessing short-form video content). “It's about place-shifting as opposed to time-shifting,” Garcia said.

To some in the industry, wireless represents the fourth leg in a video, voice and data “quad” play. But Howe said the industry should not use the term “quad” play, as if wireless was a separate experience.

For instance, the joint venture is working towards placing a subscriber's in-home cable guide on cell phones to make DVR recording work the same way, with the same icons, as if the consumer was at home, Howe said. “What we bring to the party is the bundle and the ability to offer a unified product … Consumers want an interface that is seamless,” he said. “And they want a good deal.”

“With downloadable security coming to cable systems,” said Rooney, “we'll have an industry standard to work across platforms.” Downloadable security would protect content from being pirated or copied without permission through software. The cable industry believes the same downloadable security that will be used in future set-tops could be used on cell phones to transfer content.

That's a key selling point for programmers, said Garcia. The joint venture wants to transport the “trusted domain” status that exists between the headend and the home to Sprint's wireless network, which can help content providers from being “Napsterized” on the wireless platform. “That secure environment,” he said, “will allow new business models to emerge.”

One idea that has been floated, is to charge consumers 50 cents per month for Home Box Office access in a wireless “trusted domain,” where usage can be tracked. “It's an idea that's being kicked around,” Garcia said.

Rooney said the cable operators' existing relationships with customers can help programmers sell new cell-phone video services. “We have incumbency and a relationship with customers,” he said. “We have marketing channels.”

Bond said the new SlingBox technology from San Mateo, Calif.-based Sling Media is very compelling to early adopters. With a Slingbox and associated software, a consumer can hook up their PC to any broadband connection in the world and view their home cable channel lineup. So a New York Yankees fan traveling in Florida could watch the Bronx Bombers with SlingBox and a broadband connection — great for the fan, but not so great for the sports leagues.

“The legality is a question mark,” Bond observed, especially for sports leagues that sell TV rights for a defined geographical area. “Watching the San Francisco Giants in Tokyo is a different right than watching in the U.S.,” he said.

There is no doubt, Bond said, “this technology could be disruptive.” But cable has strong rights management software. “We can be respectful of the programming rights issues. We can control the geography and provide copyright protection,” he said, indicating that cable might play a role with SlingBox-like devices going forward, since the technology is riding off an original rights agreement between cable and the content community.

“The product we're delivering today is built on this pyramid of rights,” Bond said. Many of those deals are old or don't deal with these new technologies, he said, or the programmer hasn't secured rights from producers for new technologies. “The rights package is very problematic, when you're talking about moving into a new technology like wireless.”

But Bond expressed optimism that content and platform providers will reach agreements over extending content rights to new platforms, since consumers show an interest in consumer video on portable media. “Rarely is there a consumer need that doesn't go unmet,” he said.

EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network and DirecTV Inc. have announced DVR-to-go products, new devices that allow consumers to take content off their in-home DVRs and carry it with them.

“It's something we're looking at,” Bond said. “It's clear we'll be there with a product to the extent there is demand for it.” While cable may be behind the development curve with this product, Bond said, “We have the right platform, the high-bandwidth, two-way platform. We'll have more touch points with the customers. Even though we might be behind satellite with respect to this technology, I think ultimately our product will be superior.”

The end goal is simple, according to Bond: “Consumers want to watch any content on any device any time.”

It's a matter “of finding the one or two things that grabs people,” said Howe.

Garcia added, “We have to be very, very focused on what customers are telling us.”