The cable industry converges on New Orleans this week for its annual trade show. The industry is in decent shape — by cable industry standards. But growth is slowing, and the future is a bit blurry, as competition heats up from phone companies and Internet-based TV/video services; now the cable guys are trying to figure out what to do about mobile. We’ll be watching the show remotely; here are four questions we’d like to see answered:
How will cable companies fold mobile into the picture? Pivot, a joint venture between cable giants and Sprint Nextel (S) designed to add mobile to cable service bundles, fell apart this year — a disaster. Now, cable is making its second push toward mobile: Comcast (CMCSA) and Time Warner Cable (TWC) are investing a collective $1.5 billion in Clearwire (CLWR), which is building a super-fast wireless network using WiMax technology. Still unknown: What sorts of services will they try to sell? Will anyone ditch their wireless carrier to buy wireless service from their cable company? Or is this mostly a defensive move aimed at blocking a competing, “third pipe” to the home — a move that won’t work?
What’s being done to fight off Internet TV/video, assuming it gets better and becomes more mainstream? There’s still a lot of stuff you can’t watch on the Internet (legally), like most live sports, most HBO (TWX) shows, etc. There’s also no good way to get Internet video from multiple sources — Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes, Hulu, etc. — on your TV yet. (Apple TV doesn’t cut it. Holding out some hope for the Netflix box.) We assume both of these will change over time. How will the cable industry fight back? More hi-def content, which most people can’t stream over the Web yet? Every movie ever on-demand? Interactive TV? Lower prices (and profits)?
What’s going to happen to bandwidth hogs? Comcast and Time Warner Cable are both reportedly considering new pricing models for cable Internet service, such as pay-per-use pricing, or subscriptions with a monthly bandwidth cap or overage charges. As Web video/TV becomes more popular, and quality improves, cable Internet pipes are only going to get more packed. Is all-you-can-eat service going to be phased out? And while we’re at it, how’s that upgrade coming along that will let cable compete with the super-fast fibre-optic Internet Verizon (VZ) is selling?
When will your set-top box be less useless? It’s great that you can watch TV and use your set-top box as a DVR. But that’s it? How about a slick built-in Web browser? Casual games? Direct access to YouTube? iPod dock? Better yet, what’s happening with “Tru2way,” which was shown off at CES, and will supposedly let other devices — like a game system, a computer, or a TV itself — do what a crappy Motorola (MOT) set-top box does now?