5 Essentials From INTX

CHIGAGO — Even as the faithful began to filter into the McCormick Place Convention Center here there was a feeling that this show would be different, and not just by the change of name from now retired “The Cable Show” to the inclusive new INTX: Internet & Television Expo.

Cable TV companies, the original disruptors, are being disrupted.

New “over-the-top” competitors are forcing deep trepidation and profound business strategy shifts for multichannel-TV distributors, who are creating new “skinny” bundles of TV with Internet to respond to the threat. To draw — and retain — customers, cable’s biggest operators are accelerating upgrades to make broadband speeds top out at 1 Gigabit per second and more.

And they are spending furiously — hundreds of millions of dollars, in the case of giant Comcast — to fortify the issue that despite genuine advances, stands today as the Achilles’ Heel of the entire industry: customer service.

Cable networks are seeking new metrics to measure the millennial shift to viewing on new devices, and they’re fretting over a more Darwinian ecosystem that will surely kill off the weaker networks, a certain result if new “slimmer” bundles take hold. Upstart channels won’t have a chance on linear television, and it’ll be harder for entrenched networks to show growth. Welcome to the jungle.

On top of these challenges, there will be little help from Washington, as Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler made clear to the flummoxed crowd in Chicago, who sat, literally and figuratively, in the dark on his intentions. Unlike the last few glory years of the industry, federal regulators’ eyes will be trained hard on Internet distribution, with the ability — if not the intent — to control pricing.

Greater scrutiny was the point of the FCC’s lengthy suffocation of the $67 billion Comcast- Time Warner Cable merger, which was summed up by Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts not with any verbal explanation, but by cutting his speech to a clip of an explosion from the movie Fast & Furious 7 (released, of course, by Universal Studios).

But the convention’s host — National Cable & Telecommunications Association president and CEO Michael Powell, cable’s articulate and admired general — reassured the assembled troops that cable’s long collective history of innovation wouldn’t stop soon.

For readers who couldn’t make to Chicago, following are five takeaways from the staff of Multichannel News.

1.A New Gold Standard for Broadband Speed: 1-Gig Is Here

Despite the specter of Title II hanging over the future of U.S. broadband, regulators aren’t slowing cable’s push to bring speeds of 1 Gigabit-per-second and more to residential customers.

Among MSOs, Cox Communications and Comcast last week trumpeted news of the new gold standard of Internet speed.

Cox said its 1-Gig “G1GABLAST” residential service has been launched in parts of four markets: Phoenix; Orange County, Calif.; Omaha, Neb.; and Las Vegas. Cox, which first launched G1GABLAST in Phoenix in October 2014, is also in the process of extending that fiber-based service to systems serving Arkansas, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Oklahoma and Virginia, and expects to light up service in those markets sometime this summer.

Comcast, meanwhile, said it had begun to roll out “Gigabit Pro,” a 2-Gbps residential service delivered via fiber-to-the-premises technology, in Nashville and other systems in middle Tennessee, as well as the greater Chicago region, including northwest Indiana. All told, Comcast expects to make Gigabit Pro available to 18 million homes that are within “close proximity” (about one-third of a mile) to its fiber network.

Much-smaller Mediacom Communications is preparing a 1-Gig trial in the university town of Columbia, Mo., using DOCSIS 3.0 technology.

While those services are being rolled out on a limited and targeted basis, cable operators aim to bring gigabit broadband to its more broadly deployed hybrid fiber/coax networks using DOCSIS 3.1, an emerging CableLabs-specified platform that will be capable of delivering up to 10 Gbps downstream and at least 1 Gbps in the upstream.

At INTX, Comcast offered a glimpse at its D3.1 strategy, showing off a fancy-looking “Gigabit Home Gateway” slated to go into production later this year and become available to customers in early 2016.

Although competition from Google Fiber and AT&T’s fiber-based “GigaPower” appears to be accelerating cable’s advances, it’s still not clear what apps and services will require such lofty capacities.

“I still think a Gigabit is overkill for some time,” Tony Werner, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Comcast, said on a panel last Tuesday (May 5) covering innovation and the future of media.

For now, it’s about future-proofing the network as apps and services develop that will require gigabit speeds.

“We think 1-Gig is about enabling the next generation of the Internet,” Philip Nutsugah, Cox’s vice president of access product development and management, said Thursday (May 7) on a panel dedicated to the gigabit topic. “As a service provider, we need to stay ahead of the demand curve.”

— Jeff Baumgartner

2. Cable Stops Worrying and Learns to Love OTT

INTX amplified the idea that 2015 will be the year cable learned to stop worrying and love over-the-top video. Instead of fearing OTT and considering it an enemy to the traditional pay TV ecosystem, operators are starting to embrace it.

That became increasingly apparent after a handful of cable operators, including Cablevision Systems and Mediacom Communications, struck distribution deals with Hulu, the OTT subscription video-on-demand service (see “Distribution: Hulu Antes Up” in Next TV).

Mediacom last week also became the latest in a growing group of pay TV providers to sign agreements that enable them to bring Netflix to MSO-leased set-top boxes. In Mediacom’s case, it will offer Netflix as an app on its TiVo-powered platform. But instead of signing on for Open Connect, Netflix’s private content delivery network, Mediacom and Netflix agreed to an interconnection deal under which the MSO will build fiber directly to Netflix’s facilities.

Comcast, meanwhile, is pushing hard on X1, a next-generation, Internet protocol-capable platform. So far, though, Comcast has not been nearly as aggressive with integrations of Internet-fed OTT video apps on the set-top. At this juncture, access has been largely limited to services such as Pandora, Instagram and Facebook. But Comcast’s platform is technically capable of supporting integrations with just about any OTT service.

TiVo has been preaching the value of TV-plus-OTT for years, and the message appears to be getting through, at least among its pay TV partners.

But Tom Rogers, TiVo’s president and CEO, said cable operators should be pushing even harder to blend their traditional TV service with increasingly popular over-the-top options.

“The cable guys can own that; they should own it,” Rogers said. “Instead, what is going on is programmers are creating individual streaming services. People are then thinking they can put together their own bundles, and that’s happening outside the integration and single experience that the cable operator can offer.”

The cable industry, he suggested, needs to be even more aggressive.

“It is amazing to me that they aren’t just putting their stamp on it,” Rogers said. “The best possible way to get it all and get it on a great interface … is the integration of traditional and over-the-top TV the way that only cable can do it.”

— Jeff Baumgartner

3. Bundles Are Gettiing ‘Skinnier’

Could 2015 be “the Year of the Skinny Bundle?”

Big multichannel distributors operators are creating “skinny” TV packages with Internet service, an effort to attract millennials and retain subscribers.

Peter Chernin, the former top Fox executive turned producer and online video entrepreneur, told the INTX crowd on Tuesday (May 5) that rather than destroy traditional channel packages, skinny bundles would “rationalize” them. “We’re going to see a tremendous explosion of new alternatives, largely IP-delivered,” he said. “That will ultimately force the bundle to justify itself, which is not the worst thing in the world.”

Later that day, a trio of seasoned execs offered similar predictions that the bundle is officially going on a diet. “I think you’re going to see more experimentation around this from programmers as well as operators. It’s in all of our best interest not to lose customers,” said Kathy Payne, senior vice president and chief programming officer of Suddenlink, during the panel session “Thin to Win: Choice, Change & the Rise of Skinny Bundles.”

Citing company survey findings, she added that market forces, especially OTT offerings, are making “people say, ‘Gosh, why am I paying this much to my cable operator when I have other choices?’ So we have to be nimble.”

Conversation and open diplomatic channels are key, the panelists agreed. Verizon’s bold move was preceded by virtually “no conversation” with programmers, Tonia O’Connor, president of content development and corporate business development for Univision Communications, said. “That was a head-scratcher for us because we’re more than happy to work with our partners to understand what the best option is for the consumer.”

Given the expectation of more OTT services, including some from traditional players (a la CBS All Access or HBO Now), O’Connor added ominously, “The launch of new linear channels as we know them today, there’s probably not a real future there.”

Mike Biard, distribution president for Fox Networks, declined to address his company’s legal fight with Verizon over its skinny bundle when asked by panel moderator Mark Robichaux, editorial director of NewBay Media’s TV Group. Later, though, he took issue with Verizon’s “touting” of a Nielsen study that found pay TV subscribers watch no more than 10 channels. While that notion “gets repeated ad-nauseum,” Biard said, “our research doesn’t back it up. What we hear from third parties doesn’t back it up. The idea that people have different tastes is absolutely true. But those tastes can cross over to a lot of different channels.”

— Dade Hayes, Broadcasting & Cable

4. Cable Ops Spend Big, Will Keep Spending on Customer Service

Comcast made the biggest splash on the customer care front, unveiling plans to spend $300 million on customer service, with several initiatives aimed at what Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit called “productizing the customer experience.”

Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts unleashed a flurry of product and service announcements ranging from voice-activated remotes, 4K-enabled set-tops and sleek high-speed routers to customer-facing initiatives like an “Always on Time” pledge that will take effect in the third quarter, launching modern updates to its retail stores and hiring 5,500 new customer service reps over the next three years to handle calls.

Roberts demonstrated the voice activated remote at the INTX opening session last Tuesday; it finds shows and information intuitively — he found Forrest Gump by merely speaking a line from the movie: “Life is like a box of chocolates.”

In a moment of levity, Roberts aid into the remote, “show me the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger,” into the remote, which brought up a scene in Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious 7 featuring an exploding house.

A new home gateway router, capable of handling 9-Gigabit WiFi, IP video, phone and Xfinity Home is being trialed this year and will be available across Comcast’s footprint by the end of next year.

In Chicago, Roberts unveiled a prototype Studio Xfinity store complete with virtual-reality stations and video games for the kids alongside set-top boxes, modems and other equipment for subscribers. In introducing the store — which he said will be Comcast’s flagship retail operation and will officially open in June — Roberts said the intention was more toward education rather than the hard sell.

Comcast has had to weather several high-profile and embarrassing customer-care glitches in the past, and Roberts said that it has served as a “rallying cry” for employees to rethink how it does business.

He added that the initiatives have been more than two years in the making.

“We’re going to use that negative energy and turn it into positive energy,” Roberts said.

Leading the initiative is Comcast executive vice president of customer experience Charlie Herrin, who has a $300 million budget to make Comcast’s customer care vision a reality. He added that products and services aren’t the only part of the plan — at some point, all of Comcast’s 84,000 employees, from front-line workers to top executives, will go through hospitality training to improve the customer experience.

Comcast customers will soon be able to track technicians via their mobile phones with an Uber-like app that display’s the tech’s name, how far away he is and when he is expected to arrive. The app also has a ratings system for after the tech completes the job — anything less than a four-star rating will prompt a phone call from Comcast to find out how it can do better. With the “Always on Time” initiative, customer accounts will be automatically credited $20 if a tech shows up one minute late.

— Mike Farrell

5. Cable Is a Regulated Industry — and the FCC Is Watching

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler received a frosty welcome from the congregation at INTX last week, who were stingy with applause for a man who had just branded them “gatekeepers” and rocked their world with new regulations that the NCTA has dubbed “a disaster.”

The Title II regulations recently passed by the FCC will ensure there’s no discrimination against competitors, but MVPDs are concerned that other restrictive parts of the new rules — including price regulation, which the FCC is “forebearing” — could come to life in this or future administrations.

“I thought we operate in a different environment than he [Wheeler] seems to live in,” Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Rob Marcus said at the start of the general session panel that immediately followed Wheeler’s speech. “In my world, broadband is very competitive. Competition has, in fact, fueled a tremendous amount of investment, and it’s investment we continue to make to make our broadband better. I wonder what the problem is.”

Wheeler defended his recent decisions and assured the crowd Title II would be the law of the land. He said the broadband industry was not competitive enough, and the FCC would be working to change that.

“[It] is important to understand that the tipping point from cable to broadband came while the transaction was under review,” Wheeler said of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal the FCC helped quash. “We recognized that the industry had changed and we saw concrete evidence of the new competition and business models made possible by high-speed Internet access. You don’t have a lot of competition, especially at the higher speeds that are increasingly important to the consumer of online video,” he said.

“By bringing competitive alternatives to television viewers, this industry did just that — and the video business was changed forever. Then, your industry went on to upgrade, compete with the telcos, and dominate broadband. Now the question is whether consumers will have competitive alternatives for broadband.”

— John Eggerton