After addressing the political, strategic and competitive issues of his constituency at the Independent Show, NCTC president and CEO Rich Fickle was back in his Denver office Wednesday, ready to talk tech.
For starters, the National Cable Television Cooperative, which represents around 850 small, independent cable operators across the U.S., is still working on developing a unified streaming solution that will let its members deliver video in the advanced, multiscreen way their consumers now expect, without deploying expensive next-generation set-tops.
Like everyone else in the cable industry, NCTC companies are also trying to find ways to compete with emerging 5G competition and participate in the wireless future. Fickle said the co-op can help its members with everything from small cell deployment to potential MVNO deals. Meanwhile, the technology vendors serving NCTC member companies face global shortages of crucial electronic parts — a problem being exacerbated by a burgeoning tariff war.
MobiTV Gains Traction
High on Fickle’s priority list is establishing a unified recommendation for NCTC members for video streaming — one that allows members to inexpensively provide apps to subscribers, in lieu of set-tops, letting customers use their MVPD service on Roku or Apple TV boxes, smartphones or any other over-the-top device they choose.
And at the Independent Show, MobiTV announced that more than 50 NCTC member cable operators had signed up to license its MobiTV Connect streaming solution.
The deal, Fickle said, was the culmination of a trial involving more than 20 app-based video solution vendors, including TiVo, all vying for the NCTC’s endorsement.
“It took us about four months to go through the RFI process and have discussions with everyone,” he said. “We’re still talking to a couple of companies who we’re close to and who we feel like have good solutions.”
The goal “was to reduce member costs by eliminating the need for expensive set-tops, and to bring features that are competitive in the marketplace,” Fickle said. “With an app-based [streaming] solution, it’s easy to integrate over-the-top solutions [like Netflix and Hulu]. And overall, a broadband provider becomes more relevant to the consumer looking for content from traditional TV and OTT providers.”
Fickle conceded that the selection of MobiTV’s platform “was a bit of a surprise,” given the level of dominance rival TiVo has enjoyed in serving tier 2 and 3 operators with streaming solutions.
MobiTV, he said, “has really advanced features like a network DVR, integration across all popular CE devices and relatively flexible terms compared to what the industry has seen before. I think they’re on a really good growth path. They now have 60 members under contract and probably 40 or 50 more in the queue. They’re serving 1 million broadband homes now, and that will be 2 million next year.”
Prepping for a 5G World
While the video business continues to undergo tremendous change, “the core business for our members now is broadband,” Fickle said. “The NCTC is going to be more engaged with broadband initiatives going forward. That will become more apparent in the next few months.”
These initiatives will center around “developing technologies, arranging network transport, and bringing in partners for commercial services,” he said.
Only hours earlier, Verizon Wireless had announced an expansion of its fixed 5G wireless launch to Indianapolis. And AT&T and T-Mobile are readying similar fixed 5G services. Addressing the competitive urgency for small cable operators presented by the emergence of 5G is a key challenge for the NCTC. But Fickle said NCTC members should approach 5G from the perspective of participation.
Wireless companies, Fickle said, “have a long way to go to make 5G a true competitor to cable broadband. And if we’ve done our homework, some of those wireless capabilities are going to be good for cable operators. I think it’s kind of an interesting future.”
On the wireless side, Fickle said the NCTC has “30 to 40 companies engaged on some level on fixed wireless. There are many different flavors to it, but there’s definitely momentum there.”
And beyond watching what the big operators are doing with wireless technologies like Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), the NCTC is also carefully observing their consumer mobile plays.
“There are a lot of things to think through before we do an MVNO play at the NCTC level,” Fickle said. “From the back office to managing devices at retail, it’s a complicated beast. Right now, we’re closely studying what Comcast and Charter are doing on the MVNO front. We’re just exploring it at this point.”
Shortages, Tariffs Hit Vendors
While Fickle and his team address long-term technology challenges like video streaming and 5G wireless, there are also immediate concerns.
In June, for example, Arris sent out a note to its customers, advising them on potential delays on products including modems and gateways because of a global shortage of multilayer ceramic capacitors (MLCCs) — a crucial component for a wide range of electronic devices. NCTC put the memorandum in its monthly newsletter, advising members, “Order delays and price increases can be significant, so place your blanket orders as soon as you possibly can.”
Speaking to Multichannel News, though, Fickle described the capacitor issue as somewhat contained.
“Most of the other vendors are kind of absorbing [the shortage] and adapting around it,” he said. “Probably the bigger issue we’re seeing is the tariffs. Things like fittings, cable and other components that are manufactured in Asia could be hit particularly hard.”