Extreme Makeover, Cable Edition

Summer of MultiscreenJust as the nuclear family is giving way to the blended family, the approach cable operators take to how they manage the households they serve is being drastically redefined. This redefinition is both overt and subtle. One thing is for sure: Cable homes are changing.

The bits and pieces of this transition are defined in the graphic around which Broadband Technology Report's Summer of Multiscreen is structured. (That can be seen here.) Those granular pieces are one bookend; the other and equally important bookend is the high level view of how these pieces come together to forge a new bond between operator and subscriber.

The bottom line is that the tightly controlled domain of yesterday has broadened to a more open and expansive world in which the services and devices are by design beyond the operator's control. Indeed, in many instances operators won't even know what devices subscribers are using.

In a way, nothing could be further from cable's roots. "It is no longer sufficient [for operators] to say they are delivering cable to three televisions, and that's fine," said Keith Nissen, a principal analyst for the consultancy In-Stat. "They now recognize that there are a plethora of devices to get content to and from."

Despite this lack of control, however, operators still are called on to manage the devices as if they still were totally in charge. This is vital because one of the most significant advantages that cable operators have over over-the-top (OTT) providers is the ability to manage their services in a fluid and efficient manner. The good news is that this more challenging environment also is far more lucrative.

The new reality is that operators primarily are interacting with homes, not the devices within them. "The fundamental change that's happened is that instead of viewing each of the screens as a separate thing in the home, there is a much more cohesive delivery platform," said Stephen Palm, the senior technical director for Broadcom. "Previously each screen was treated separately, whether there were one, two or 10 screens in the home. It wasn't considered a 'real home' other than perhaps to the billing department .... That has changed to encompass a video gateway or media center STB where that single device is delivering to all screens in the home."

In Nissen's view, the predominant device in the home will house the conditional access functions. Most end user devices are treated as thin clients -- subservient equipment with just enough computing horsepower and related capabilities to carry out their assigned tasks and no more. "This will dramatically lower the capital expenditures," he said.

The relationship between the devices in the home to each other and to the cable operator is, perhaps, the major change. It is by far not the only one, however.

Steve Necessary, the vice president of product development and management for  Cox Communications, listed changes in authentication, the enhancement of user interfaces, reformatting of content to fit the many new types of devices, and the ongoing evolution of content rights and protection as major issues that will impact the way in which the cable home is structured going forward.

He said the challenges can be divided into business and technology categories. He said the user interface challenge was an interesting one. It must be fully functional and offer a consistent vision -- and one that is closely tied to the operator's identity -- across all the screens. This isn't an easy task when the devices range from 72-inch TV sets to smartphones. "Creating a UI is easy, but creating a good one is hard," he said. "There are hundreds or thousands of content choices. How do you find what you are interested in? It is almost the simplest element -- but may be the hardest to deal with really well."

In the bigger picture, Necessary said it is pretty well accepted in the operator community that the physical and logical parameters of the home are changing at a rather fast pace. What is unknown, he added, was the pace of change for consumers.

For instance, it is a given that a tremendous amount of video will be offered on mobile devices. What isn't clear, however, is whether subscribers will be satisfied with watching it on smartphones or if the real popularity of mobile video will be limited to tablets with larger screens. This is an important distinction, and one that will impact the way in which operators roll out their business plans. While popular and high profile, there simply are far fewer tablets in the field than smartphones. "We don't really know the speed of change or the rate of adoption," Necessary said.

There are very interesting times ahead. Eventually, Palm said, more functions will exit the home. The first great change is the loosening of the bonds that tie operators to every device in the home. This evolution -- the move from a nuclear to a blended family -- will dominate operators' efforts for the next few years.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor for Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at carl@btreport.net.

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