My colleague Amy Maclean recently asked whether cable was getting cool again. Consider this piece a sequel of sorts, with a telecom twist. Because if you think cable has had problems in the cool department, let me tell ya about telecom. I spent a couple of years in the 1990s at Telecommunications Reports, a wonky newsletter that covers mostly telecom issues. We weren’t cool. And we knew it. Have you ever attended a NARUC meeting of state telecom regulators? It starts at 7 a.m. and involves about 12 hours of debate over the grammar, sentence structure and clause construction around various resolutions. It’s the opposite of cool. But people immersed in telecom minutiae thrive on its unending blandness the same way that squirrels happily munch on acorns and nothing else. It may seem boring to an outsider, but squirrels are built to love it. So goes the world of telecom.
The cable industry—while facing its own deficit of cool on certain fronts—has always been cooler than telecom. Even when cable operators launched broadband years ago, it seemed somehow hipper than DSL (and, of course, generally much faster). And when speeds reached multi-megabit levels in recent years, Web video took off—first as a user generated phenomenon with the YouTube generation but in recent years as an extension of linear TV. Premium online video is everywhere now. Hulu. Netflix. Even UG-vanguard YouTube. And it’s decidedly cool—at least for consumers who don’t have to worry about pesky details like finding a business model that sustains the content ecosystem.
And therein lies the challenge for all industries, including cable, that find themselves drenched in the newfound coolness of telecom. How do companies that grew up in the media world with defined silos under defined regulations and using defined CE technologies evolve into all-encompassing Bit Kings able to ride atop the Internet protocol to telecom greatness—all while capturing that media/entertainment biz coolness that Hollywood feeds so expertly to the masses? That’s why they pay you the big bucks, media executive. It’s on you to make it work.
One indication of how this will shake out comes not from Hollywood, but from Wall Street where the Financial Masters of the Universe are helping the telecom and media industries build new empires from the ashes of old media. Comcast’s recently closed acquisition of NBCU was cool because it involved glitzy assets like TV networks and movie studios. But it’s the less cool deals of late that may sneak up on everyone and prove even more significant. AT&T’s proposed purchase of T-Mobile will help Ma Bell hasten its LTE rollout and more quickly challenge cable’s dominance in broadband by giving customers super-fast broadband speeds along with mobility. Verizon, meanwhile, continues to build out LTE. Both will probably have LTE iPhones by year-end, not to mention a slew of other cool gadgets based on Google’s Droid OS. At the same time, Level 3—which powers Netflix video streaming and has been fighting with Comcast over how to trade traffic loads—has made a play for Global Crossing in a deal that would vastly extend its reach beyond U.S. borders. Hot. Cool. Who knows? But it’s definitely not boring. Pass the acorns.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).