As seen on television … it’s The Battle of the Network (Provider) Stars.
   
More exciting than Survivor; more cutthroat than Big Brother; more entertaining (what isn’t?) than American Idol, The Battle of the Network (Provider) Stars features satellite and telcos maneuvering to unseat defending video champion cable by providing the best-est and most-est video on the Earth, and, in the case of satellite, off the Earth.
   
In the satellite corner, there’s Scooby Doo and the gang who’ve captured a villainous "cable guy" that looks surprisingly like John Malone, DirecTV‘s savior, not Brian Roberts, the cable guy du jour. In the telco corner, there’s "true QAM" and an angelic choir surrounding its optic light show. And in the center ring, there’s cable with the most high definition (HD) programming available at any time over an advanced fiber-optic network.
   
OK, so it’s advertising, and everyone knows that’s a tightrope walk with truth, but the reasoning behind this current battle, unlike reality TV, makes sense. Consumers are buying big HDTV sets, and past trends indicate that people watch more television and are willing to pay for it when the economy tanks.
   
There’s even a (shudder) modicum of truth in the advertising. Satellite does have more all-the-time HD channels; telcos do have fiber-to-the-home (in some areas); and cable does have a fiber-based network (that doesn’t reach your living room).
   
There are also a couple of other unadvertised realities. Greenfield telco providers can use advanced MPEG-4 compression to get more HD because they’re not saddled with millions of installed MPEG-2 set-tops. Satellite is already using MPEG-4. And fiber-to-the-premises is better (if more expensive to build) than fiber-to-the-node, and any wire is better than satellite.
   
Cable’s answer has been a stiffer upper lip and a sharp knife to slice and dice nodes. More recently, the industry has decided to switch and fight (to paraphrase an old cigarette commercial) by using switched digital video (SDV). Both are admirable, acceptable ways to make do with what’s there, but unfortunately they offer limited protection against the oncoming tractor trailer of competition.
   
There’s another far-out possibility that could help cable: cherrypick. Face it, cable operators don’t have to live by broadcasting standards, and they don’t have to give every subscriber the same video package. While satellite’s infrastructure makes it a broadcaster, telcos can, and do, cherrypick neighborhoods as they build out their video services.
   
There’s probably no reason cable can’t do the same with today’s technology. Some, like Vyyo‘s use of bandwidth above the existing 860 MHz cable plant to target commercial customers, has caught Cox‘s attention for business services and technically could be used to do the same for residential services.

Why not target areas that would pay for more advanced video services in the same way you’re targeting businesses? Why cede high-end customers to telcos with true QAM or a satellite beam that doesn’t deliver true interactivity? Maybe HD isn’t for everyone, and not every HFC node needs to be upgraded to make it happen. Certainly cable’s new-found consumer electronics and retail friends could help identify areas most likely to want high-end video services.
   
If Verizon is fibering a neighborhood where the cable system is stuck with a mid-’90s 860 MHz HFC plant, why not retrofit commercial technology to target neighborhoods or nodes or streets or enclaves with an extra tier of bandwidth? Eventually the whole community will be rebuilt to deliver more bandwidth. Eventually. In the meantime, why concede the customers?
   
It’s hard to believe that the cable industry—with an image that bottom feeds with lawyers, used car salesmen and journalists—is worried about public perception. Perhaps the idea’s just unworkable. Perhaps there’s a legal problem. But if existing cable plant can target businesses using residential plant, why can’t residential services target high-end video customers?
   
Just asking.

Jim Barthold is a contributing editor for Communications Technology. Reach him at jimbarthold@comcast.net.

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