Three developments

1. More passive content from network providers. Comcast announced that it’s going to be providing 3,000 high-definition video-on-demand programs for subscribers to its highspeed Internet access services.

“Comcast is the largest purchaser of TV content and now we are bringing that content over to the Internet” [Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, at CES today]

Comcast is also confidently predicting that the PC will become “a full cable TV client” in the future. Dirk van der Woude pointed me to a Wall Street analyst, Douglas McIntyre, who doesn’t think Comcast’s plan makes any sense.

Why not buy some more content? According to The New York Times “Comcast is already the world’s largest buyer of content, and it is spending about $4.5 billion a year to assemble content from around the world to offer on demand.” But, all of that content, even delivered via cable and the internet, may not get Comcast any new customers and may not be the magic bullet that kills new products from the telephone companies.

A wide range of video is already available on the internet. YouTube to Hulu, AOL to MSN. The largest content firms are already pushing TV and films across dozens of delivery portals. The new Comcast online product would not seem to have much advantage here.

On the TV, VOD has always been an attractive product, but the reason most companies do not offer huge film libraries is that no one wants them. Consumers watch the most popular movies. Having an extra 5,000 films that 1% of the subscriber base wants to see is hardly a solution.

Well, we’ll see. Comcast’s plan is to create a platform of its own, a one-stop shop that you can drive from your PC – checking mail, making phone calls, and watching hi-def video. That could be quite attractive to users, particularly if they don’t have any easily-available alternatives.

2. The Chairman promises to look into Comcast’s blocking practices. FCC Chairman Martin says he wouldn’t mind investigating what Comcast was up to.

“Sure, we’re going to investigate and make sure that no consumer is going to be blocked,” Martin told an audience at the International Consumer Electronics Show.

The insouciance, the blitheness of that “Sure” tells us that “blocking” is going to be looked into. But so much happens short of blocking – so much can get in the way that doesn’t amount to an outright ban of particular applications or activities or devices. And Martin will make, and the network providers will make, huge exceptions for “reasonable network management.” Undefined. Surely we can do better. Maybe Obama would do better.

3. All Quiet at Frontline. I understand that Frontline didn’t make a required downpayment to bid in the 700 MHz auction. That means it’s even less likely that we’ll see any experimentation with internet access business models – even more likely that Verizon or AT&T will win what they want in the auction. What they really want, perhaps even more than the spectrum itself, is freedom from the specter of wholesale open access requirements. Like Comcast, they want to continue to be in the business of managing a vertically-integrated network of content.

All three of these developments point in the same direction: putting the broadcast model of the internet on a firmer footing. Yes, the Commission may look out for adequate disclosure of what that management consists of, but because there isn’t any competitive pressure to provide an unmanaged internet environment, we won’t expect one. And we won’t get one, unless different leadership emerges in this country.

Comments

  1. Susan:

    1) Comcast’s plan makes sense in the traditional context of Comcast: monopolize the must have programming and have enough additional programming to avoid looking ridiculous when compared to rivals. Not all programming is fungible, and Comcast controls critical programing in sports and kids programming.

    this came up in the conmtext of the Adelphia transaction and the control of PBS Kids. When Comcast exerciesed its exclusive control over PBS Kids video on demand to cut off RCN, RCN experienced a drop in its video on deamnd use of 83%.

    Comcast is recapitulating the edge v. core battle, but with the critical difference that it is using the power of convergence to leverage its domnance in video over the related converged markets. The traditional wisdom on convergence is that it should make Comcast’s monopoly less relevant. But it makes it more potent, because it gives it an edge as it expands into additional markets.

    2) As I wrote on my blog, I am not pursuaded that the demise of Frontline is the death knell for innovation that conventional wisdom holds. I do think it makes a pure wholesale play less likely. But I think it makes it more likely that Google will go for D Block if C Block turns out to be too pricey.