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Cable Technology Feature Article

October 26, 2013

Cable Technology Week in Review

By Tara Seals, TMCnet Contributor

With the growth of online video services – Netflix, Hulu (News - Alert) Plus and YouTube topping the list – making its presence known throughout the home entertainment market, pay-TV services are scrambling to find ways to keep the customers they already have while trying valiantly to recover some of the lost. A recent survey from Veveo, meanwhile, revealed exactly what many users want: better content discovery. The survey showed, among other things, that pay-TV service subscribers consider their supplied content discovery tools – generally the search function – to be mostly inadequate. What's more, pay-TV services also aren't keeping up in terms of accommodating the connections that subscribers desire, like social media and mobile technology. Perhaps most distressing of all in this revelation, at least from the perspective of pay-TV providers, is that sub-optimal search functions are costing providers revenue opportunities and potentially even costing them revenue outright, as over 85 percent of subscribers simply turn off the television if they have not found anything worth watching at least some of the time.

Faced with such dissatisfaction, video providers are looking to offer multiscreen access beyond the home zone as a differentiator. TiVo is the latest to announce out-of-home streaming, via the TiVo Roamio Pro and TiVo Roamio Plus DVRs, allowing consumers to access live TV and recorded content from smartphones and tablets. TiVo is offering a sort of Slingbox/Roku/TV Everywhere mash-up functionality, so Roamio customers can gain authenticated access to their cable subscription content for live streaming on-the-go, as well as access over-the-top (OTT) streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube (News - Alert). They also have the option to download content to watch later offline.

Meanwhile, Barry Diller-backed over-the-top video service Aereo has released its first Android (News - Alert) app, available for download in the Google (News - Alert) Play store. The move significantly widens the company’s addressable market for mobile streaming, given that Android devices continue to gain market share vis-a-vis Apple iOS. Aereo members will also now be able to connect a Roku box to their Aereo account using their Android device. Device support is widely considered a linchpin to making an OTT play successful, as demonstrated by Netflix’s strategy of planned ubiquity when it comes to app availability. The company topped 40 million subscribers in the third quarter, in part because of its wide availability across screens.

Not to be outdone, AT&T (News - Alert), has rolled out the ability to watch live U-verse TV via Android mobile devices and Uverse.com while on the go. The U-verse App for Android makes live TV channels available on more than 30 devices. Users can also access on-demand titles, manage their DVRs remotely and use an advanced search functionality for discovering content. The company earlier in the month announced more than 100 live TV channels had been added to the U-verse App for those with a U-family or higher U-verse TV package. Just twenty of them are available for streaming outside of the home for now, but AT&T said that it plans to add more live channels on an ongoing basis.

Such moves to take content out of the home are part of an ongoing trend spurring investment in infrastructure and management. Broadcasters and TV service providers are offering more applications and interactive content, and are seeing the rising adoption of mobile and online video. That in turn is benefitting the global IP video network management market, which is forecasted to reach $442.4 million in 2017, from $217.8 million in 2012, according to Frost & Sullivan. The report found that consumer uptake for video across non-traditional devices such as tablets, smartphones, PCs and connected TVs has propelled operators to rush to ensure the quality of service for mobile and online video as a differentiator. However, implementing a digital distribution strategy to push content to mobile and Internet devices presents a new level of complexity into an operator’s architecture and service management approach—operators thus need to invest in new systems to adequately manage IP video service quality while obtaining analytics across screens, in order to best optimize the user experience and ensure that the content is adequately monetized across screens.

Meanwhile, in a move that could be a harbinger of a new era for premium TV networks, Comcast (News - Alert) is readying a new, stripped-down hybrid residential package that will offer unbundled HBO. The premium cable net will now be available to customers that don’t subscribe to Comcast’s TV tiers—a big cultural shift on the cable MSO front. The package, dubbed Internet Plus, and will include a limited basic TV package with local broadcast channels plus QAM (20 channels total), VOD, Comcast's streaming video service StreamPix, a 25Mbps broadband tier and the plum HBO/HBO GO. Earlier in the month, it began offering episodes available for a la carte purchase via Google Play, marking the first time in the United States that it has been decoupled from the cable distribution chain. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has always called HBO his biggest competition, but the question is, could—and should—HBO continue to move beyond its existing walled garden model to pursue a piece of the Netflix over-the-top (OTT) pie? And, will it allow Comcast to win (and keep) customers.

Meanwhile, could Netflix show up on cable tiers sometime soon, alongside HBO? Earnings reports show that Netflix almost certainly hit 30 million subscribers as of September 30, and that just edges out HBO, which counts 28.7 million subscribers to its credit. Netflix has managed to bring in a host of new subscribers not only with the massive array of options presented by the older content that appears on the service—not to mention some of the newer stuff that shows up—but also in terms of the original content that’s exclusive to Netflix, at least in the early going, including “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black,” and the latest season of “Arrested Development.” Now, Netflix is also looking to bring its brand of new and unusual programs to cable services, and cable providers are starting to prove receptive to Netflix's offering. The monthly subscription fees are said to be an asset, and some, like Janney Capital Markets analyst Tony Wible, suggest that Netflix is likely to be “...more valuable than other networks,” noting further that the monthly price Netflix asks “...makes it very difficult for others to be in the business.”

Comcast may be looking at stripped-down TV + HBO as a new growth area, but it’s also making some changes to its Internet plans in some areas, increasing its broadband caps from 250 GB per month to between 300 and 600 GB per month. It’s also, notably, trialing a new broadband-light type of option, for users who typically use 5 GB of data or less per month. Economy Plus customers in some markets now have access to a trial service dubbed the Flexible-Data Option. Specifically designed for casual or light Internet users, the option provides a $5 credit if a customer’s total monthly data usage is less than or equal to 5 GB per month. However, if those customers use more than 5 GB of data in any given month, instead of a $5 credit, they would be charged $1 per gigabyte for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB that’s included in the plan. Comcast said that it may choose to expand the option’s availability, or it may choose to end it; but stressed that the Flexible-Data Option is for now, just a pilot program.

With that, we will leave you to mull the ways that cable MSOs can either partner with or take tactics from the over-the-top world and other models to retain customers. Have a great weekend!

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