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The Multiscreen Cable Business

So many screens. So many devices. And so little hard drive space in the brain to grapple with them all.

If the last four months have taught cable executives anything, it's that the rapid pace of technology change continues unabated.

Anyone who went to the Consumer Electronics Show in January, CTIA Wireless in March, and the National Show and NAB in April left dizzy with the possibilities. Mobile video. Wireless. Channel Bonding. Advanced codecs. FTTP. IPTV.

What is the cable business anymore?

Today's definition: video to TVs, data to PCs and voice service to phones. There also will be combinations of the above, like incoming calls on TVs and voicemail messages on high-speed data e-mail accounts, etc.

But what about the next vistas? Is it video service beyond the home, to any device? Should cable supply video service to automobiles? KVH just signed a deal to place DirecTV Inc. programming in Cadillac Escalades. Can the family van be far behind?

What about video service to cell phones or portable media devices? What about high-speed data services to those same devices?

Cable is not in the wireless business, yet. But the top industry minds are feverishly working through the possibilities.

Let's take plain old cell phone service. Cable could resell minutes, like Time Warner Cable is testing in Kansas City with Sprint. Cable could take buckets of minutes and become its own MVNO (mobile virtual network operator).

Cable could create a joint venture or buy an existing wireless operator and enter the business, or get even hungrier and purchase spectrum, build cell towers and enter the market that way.

That last approach costs lots of money, but when's the last time a cable operator entered a significant business without owning the underlying physical platform? Never happened.

But why stop there, with pedestrian, voice-only cell phone service? That's so 1994.

Kick it up a notch, or several notches. Sprint and Verizon are offering 24x7 cable networks on cell phones — the program networks that cable operators supported all those years. Why shouldn't cable MSOs get a piece of that action?

Cable knows how to deliver multimegabit service to PCs; why shouldn't it use that know-how to deliver multi-megabit service to portable-media devices?

Why not WiMax? Buy some spectrum, buy some WiMAX towers that can deliver 70 megabits for 30 miles and cover a market. A consumer, at home, watches TV, accesses the Internet and receives phone calls through cable. So why not the logical extension?

A consumer is running Saturday-morning errands and receives cell-phone service, through cable. A consumer is at a Saturday-afternoon soccer game and checks on threatening weather by accessing the localized weather section of his cable-modem home page.

While waiting in line for dinner Saturday night, he accesses ESPN's SportsCenter on his portable media player from the Mobile Video service offered by his MSO, a tailor-made package of shorter video content. It could be VOD content; could be the full 24/7 channels from ESPN, CNN and MTV; could be material pulled from his high-speed data home page.

The onslaught of technology change, the proliferation of smaller and mobile consumer devices, and the personalization of media is inevitably leading to such questions, which the current generation of cable leaders will have to answer.

It's not just cable vs. DBS, or even modems vs. DSL. It's now a lot bigger than that. It's about new definitions of what the industry stands for. How many old markets, new markets and evolving markets can it — or should it — enter?

Cable — better than telcos, broadcasters, and even DBS — knows multichannel video. Cable — better than DBS, telcos and wireless carriers — knows multi-megabit transmission speeds. Why shouldn't it marry that heritage to the next generation of platforms and consumer devices here or on the horizon?

Yes, it will take time, vision and some amount of money. This is not a one- or even three-year plan. This is about setting up cable for a longer haul, perhaps 10 years out, using broadband, and the large amount of bits traveling through that pipe or over the air, to reach consumers wherever and however they want.