Keeping Operators Current on Convergence

With the cable industry in probably its greatest period of change since the invention of hybrid fiber coax, small and midsized cable operators are set to converge on San Antonio, Texas, next week (Feb. 12-13) for the National Cable Television Cooperative’s annual Winter Educational Conference. Themed “Break the Rules,” the conference offers networking opportunities as attendees engage with peers and experts in the technology, legislative and business fields to share ideas and best practices. NCTC president Rich Fickle spoke with Multichannel News about the conference and some of the topics that are top of mind for small and midsized cable operators across the country. Here are highlights.

MCN: What do you see as the biggest issues facing small and medium-sized operators today, and how are you addressing them at this conference?
Rich Fickle:
On the video front, our focus based on members’ input is to help them get to a video platform that is low cost, but has very competitive features. One of the main themes that you will see at the show is we’re encouraging members to think about going app-based. In other words, you don’t have to have a set-top, you can download an app onto Roku or an Android set top or Apple TV and it will have the cable operator’s lineup. That blends the content choices in with OTT offerings for the consumer.

The driver of that is twofold: One is lowering the cost structure, because programming costs are taking most of the money out of the video business; and secondly, in an IP world with consumer devices like that, you can get a lot more innovation than you can out of the traditional MPEG2 set-top-supplier world.

MCN: How is that going to lower costs? Is it just equipment — set-tops and the like — or is this going to mean lower costs for programming, too?
I wish it would lower programming costs, but definitely the cost of set-tops. In our world, members have been paying $300 to $400 per home or more just for set-tops and in this environment you could choose to let the consumer provide the set-top or you could provide one that is a lot less, like $70 per TV. This type of transmission, using IP, is a lot more bandwidth-efficient, so it is going to save, over the long term, bandwidth. If you want to have a more robust on-demand offering, if you want to have a better mobile solution, these things are part of the whole offering. You don’t have to stand up a lot of new infrastructure to get that done. It’s just a lot easier to bring new features in without huge cost.

MCN: Do you think the time is ripe for this because broadband has taken such a front-and-center role, and cable appears to be the quality and capacity leader?
If you’re going to put investments into your business, the best place to put it is in making sure your broadband network is robust and high capacity and things like helping customers with their home network and ensuring that the service quality is super high with wireless routers and monitoring capabilities. It’s much better to put your money in those things rather than legacy video set-tops or legacy video headend equipment.

MCN: What other things are you seeing that look promising on the tech front for smaller cable operators?
The home networking side is looking pretty exciting because there are now a dozen new companies entering that space. The interesting part is the software control systems that monitor what’s happening in the house and make it easy to ensure the quality is really good.

[In] the network itself, there are a lot of interesting things going on with deep fiber, the idea of wireless to the home from the last couple of hundred feet — we have a few members testing that out already. So instead of running a cable drop, you’re setting up a wireless connection into that home and in some cases a business.

MCN: Tell me what else is in store for conference attendees?
We’ve got some great speakers. Jonathan Taplin, who wrote a book [Move Fast and Break Things] about breaking the rules. He’s kind of a renegade in the media world; he should be a provocative opening speaker. We also have the editor-in-chief [Nicholas Thompson] from Wired magazine. The other item that we are focusing on in this show is more sales and marketing. We’ve got a couple of really good sessions and a dynamic speaker to talk about, in this world of more competition, how do you change your approach to sales and marketing. Plus, we’re going to have fun. A big part of the reason people come is they want to share ideas and it’s where they learn what’s working and what’s not working.

NCTC’s WEC at a Glance

Where: Marriott Rivercenter, San Antonio, Texas When: Feb. 12-13 Key Speakers: Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and author of Move Fast and Break Things; Wired magazine editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson; Meridith Elliott Powell, author and business strategist; Matt Polka, ACA president; Gerard Kunkel, founder/managing partner, Next Media Partners.