Taking Broadband to the Next Level

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Put yourself in the shoes of the fan that has ponied up major league ticket money only to find that the stars are taking the day off. What's happening on the field is good, but it could be better. Our industry runs the risk of creating that type of scenario for cable modem subscribers. They are paying for broadband Internet access, but for the most part, participating in a narrowband experience.

It's time for us to raise the level of play. Cable's "house" is the major leagues of broadband access and we need to shift the strategy from focusing on faster speeds for narrowband activities to giving our customers an experience that only broadband service can offer. MSOs have built broadband networks that can provide their customers with a front row experience to fast-paced action. But, without main events to showcase, no one is rushing to buy the tickets.

According to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the penetration of cable-modem subscribers to cable-modem homes passed was 10.3 percent at of the end of last year. That leaves a lot of vacant capacity and unearned revenue for our broadband box office.

We don't have to look between any lines to find the reasons for this gap. They are staring back at us from the pages of newspapers across the country. Most notably, a Wall Street Journal
article reported: "Consumers don't see a compelling reason to shell out an extra $20 or $30."

This viewpoint shouldn't surprise us. Our industry's success is based upon delivering a tremendous breadth of choice in television programming.

We know that compelling content provides a compelling reason to subscribe. When all cable had to offer was the retransmission of broadcast TV, the only people who lined up to subscribe were those without off-air reception. No one even considered constructing "community antenna systems" where there wasn't a compelling reason.

But when the time came for people to start buying "cable," we knew they weren't referring to the coaxial wires. They were cheering about the programming that drove the growth of our industry.

Now we face a similar challenge and opportunity. Fiber-rich digital platforms have the capacity to transport a new generation of compelling content. To captivate the mass audiences that we now have the capacity to reach, broadband must move beyond "fast and always on" to "what's on."

Streaming media represents an on-demand application, widely available today, with the potential to distinguish the value of broadband. A recent study by Arbitron and Edison Media research found that 59 percent of people with broadband Internet access use streaming media, compared with 47 percent of dial-up users. The contrast is even greater with computer savvy youth: kids with broadband connections are twice as likely as their dial-up counterparts to view streaming video.

With streaming audio meriting much acclaim from end-users, it shouldn't be a stretch for us to appreciate the appeal of streaming video. Streaming video can be the power hitter for broadband providers.

The cable industry has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in broadband content distribution and compete. On ESPN.com, for example, we inform all visitors that streaming video is "best experienced with a cable modem" when they access video clips.

Through our "Go to" Broadband initiative, we are increasing cable-modem sales by offering visitors information about high-speed Internet service, providing a search engine for verifying availability in their area and by giving them a chance to sign up for it online.

In light of these factors, the agenda for realizing the potential of broadband Internet via cable modems is getting clearer: We must satisfy current customers, and continue to attract new ones, with differentiated content and services that make those extra dollars worthwhile.

Programming networks and streaming media companies need to work in tandem with cable operators on caching this content inside cable's robust local broadband networks to ensure a high quality experience.

Branding is also a team effort. Without local operator involvement in branding these services, the industry will not benefit from operators' equally robust sales and marketing resources.

And we need to continue to enhance the architecture and operations of cable's broadband networks to ensure that they remain in a league of their own, far superior to the competition.

Cable operators didn't become broadband Internet service providers with aspirations of anything less successful than their role as television programming providers.

Not long ago, networks were faced with the world changed by the economics of digital TV. The choice was to create their own niche channels or risk a competitor making the move first. While it potentially could cannibalize their incumbent market share, it was also a sure means for maintaining, and potentially increasing, their overall mind share.

Streaming media represents a similar challenge. If we build virtual stadiums on the broadband Internet, we need to offer the level of play that will fill the seats and provide a return on our investment. It has not been cable's legacy to disappoint the audience. Let's work together to take broadband Internet content to world championship levels.

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