Cable's IP Boon Could Help Telcos, Too

Talk at last week's joint convention of the Washington and Oregon state cable associations centered on Internet-protocol video as a double-edged sword.

Comcast Corp. Mountain division president Brad Dusto sought to clarify some of the points made by Microsoft chief software officer Bill Gates and Comcast president Brian Roberts on the subject at the National Show in June.

The concept, Dusto said, is to create the ability for consumers to access content from servers, no matter where they reside — at a cable headend, a Web site, a broadcast station or from some other library — "and convert it to nonlinear programming. That is a tremendous growth opportunity for cable."

But the same IP video that could benefit cable could also be used by the industry's competitors — namely the telephone companies — said other speakers at the conference.

Greg Gudorf, senior vice president of Sony Corp.'s digital platform division, said IP set-top boxes "could be a threat to the cable business."

Some small local telephone companies are already looking to ship IP video across their digital subscriber line networks — and to offer video services to consumers.

"This little data stream can result in a lot of content available to the consumer," Gudorf said.

Turning to other topics, Gudorf said Sony was a big backer of the unidirectional plug-and-play deal between the cable and consumer-electronics industries, and would continue to work with operators on a bidirectional agreement. He said Sony supported the industry's new CableCARD point-of-deployment module setup, which will allow consumers to turn on cable service after buying a box at retail.

But "the economics are the key," he warned. Gudorf said he has heard operators talk about prices for the card ranging from under $20 to between $80 and $100.

"That's a hell of a range," he said, suggesting operators may be better to go with the low end of that scale, as the industry tries to explain to consumers what a CableCARD is all about.

Dusto, echoing comments Comcast executives made two weeks ago during its second-quarter earnings call with analysts, said the MSO will begin rolling out digital video recorders later this year. DBS has a 70% market share with DVRs, he said, but "the next six months we think we can catch up very quickly."

Comcast continues its HDTV rollout, having recently upgraded its content package with a deal for ESPN HD. Dusto also said Fox Sports Northwest will supply Comcast with 19 Seattle Mariners baseball games in HD.

As the MSO works through its 2004 budget cycle, Dusto said the company is focused of teaching all of its employees to take personal responsibility for any customer issue that might arise. Transferring calls to someone else may make sense at one level, he said, but it could leave the customer frustrated.

"We want to take responsibility at that instant," he said.