Cable's Strangely OPEC-Resistant

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What amazes me about Multichannel News turning 25 is that it seems like it's always been around. And that's true of the cable industry it covers.

Most of us take cable for granted and turn to Cable News Network, Fox News Channel or MSNBC, rather than wait for the evening news from one of the three broadcast giants and their authoritative anchors, who now are all gone.

And with cable-modem penetration reaching such heady heights in such a short time — it's only been about five to seven years — we tend to forget about the interminable screeching from our old dial-up providers.

While basic cable is now a mature business and cable-modem growth has slowed, cable's robust broadband platform will continue to offer up new services that we can't even imagine right now.

Unfortunately, as far as Wall Street is concerned, the thrill is gone. Investors want to see several more steady years of free cash flow before they come back to the table.

Already, a handful of cable operators have announced their intention to go private and more with take that step. Heck, even my own broker won't recommend any stock in cable or the entertainment industry, period. And that's being short-sighted.

Just look at how voice-over-Internet protocol has taken off. Just about every cable operator who is serious about it reported robust sales last quarter for VoIP, a very new service.

That trend will continue, considering America's love affair with the telephone. Soon, on top of VoIP, all cable operators will be introducing a wireless phone option with their bundles. And that's going to be the next big winner.

Consider that 40% of the nation already has a cell phone and a good proportion of those users are disconnecting their landline phones. In fact, in the consumer-electronics sector, cell phones remain the hot-ticket items.

So where else can cable grow? Another emerging trend is the largely untapped business community. Savvy operators like Cablevision Systems Corp. tapped into those lucrative arena years ago.

In the case of Cablevision, it offered Lightpath phone service to business owners in Long Island, N.Y., well before other operators had considered the low-hanging fruit in that sector.

And the business community might be the place for big-time growth for cable as murky economic clouds make it difficult to predict what residential customers will be willing to upsold to in the future. Cable, by and large, has proved to be is a recession-proof business.

What cable has not had to withstand is the impact of soaring prices at the gas pump. Second-quarter retail sales, in general, were hurt by it and the trend continues unabated.

But even OPEC didn't have much impact on cable's second quarter. One smart MSO, Adelphia Communications Corp. here in Cape Cod, is hitting its customers behind the wheel with a heavy radio flight pushing an incredible deal for the cost-conscious set: $30 for 70 channels and a cable modem.

Music to the ears of those who just shelled for $2.61 for a gallon of gas.

Contributing editor Marianne Paskowski was editor in chief of Multichannel News from 1990 through 2005.