Archive for the 'Gaming' Category

Comcast is after me… and Internet video

Friday, November 13th, 2009

(or: “My Game System is My New Cable Box“)

Comcast is the largest cable operator in the US and it was my cable service in Illinois until I cancelled cable earlier this year.  Here’s when I snapped:  Our cable bill was up to $123.80 per month (internet + digital cable) and we were not getting premium channels or using pay-per-view.  Cable operators are notorious for leveraging their legal monopoly — they like to charge high prices for terrible service.  My Comcast cable regularly had service problems even though I live in the center of town.

In one of my memorable service calls a technician somehow smashed one of the windows of my house.  I know it was an accident (and they paid to replace it) but I think that this poignantly symbolizes Comcast’s attitude toward their customers.

As another example, they sent me a gift certificate for a free pay-per-view movie as an apology for one of several recent outages, but to redeem it I had to call them on the phone.  Since calls to Comcast customer service are actually more unpleasant than some kinds of dental work, that wasn’t much of a reward.  They have allegedly-voice-recognizing computers that do not understand my voice and customer support people who can never help me with whatever I called about… no thanks.

I’m not alone with my rising cable rates.  According to the FCC’s most recent cable report, cable rates have increased about 122% since 1995 — that’s about 3 x as much as the consumer price index rose over that period.  While cable likes to boast that they’ve added many more channels in that time, subscribers don’t appear to watch many more channels — they divide a relatively constant amount of video viewing time (an average of about five hours per day in the US) over a small number of channels chosen from whatever they are offered.  So we are paying a lot more but not watching a lot more.  And how are they delivering more extra channels?  I turned on my cable TV before I cancelled and saw something like this:

compression-artifacts-example-2

Click to zoom in and look around the buildings.  The dots in the sky aren’t supposed to be there: that’s MPEG noise… quality loss induced by using too much compression.  Sometimes this is called “Mosquito Noise.” (Compression artifact example from topaz.com.)  My Comcast digital cable movies were suddenly filled with these dots.

Just in time to match everyone’s purchase of high-resolution televisions, Comcast decided in 2008 to compress their already compressed MPEG streams so that it could add more channels without adding more capacity on some systems (see this thread on the AV science forum for some nice comparison shots).  So to recap, my digital cable images look like they’ve been growing mold when they work at all and they cost more every year.  Comcast’s customer service strategy is to violently attack my house.  Time to switch!

US consumers are often stuck with cable service they hate because the FCC’s focus on platform (or “inter-modal”) competition. Instead of multiple competing cable or landline phone services we have to switch modes and buy a new box (cable modem, DSL modem, satellite TV receiver, etc.).  Search for the word “inter-modal” in Yochai Benkler’s summary for more explanation of that.  So the customer usually has to be really pissed off before we bother with it, but I reached that point when I figured out that I could buy this package and convert my XBox into a kind of cable box:

XBox Live Gold: $6.46/mo.
Netflix (1 DVD + unlimited streaming): $8.99/mo.
AT&T Elite DSL: $35.99/mo.
Hulu.com watched on TV: free

…and get substantially the same thing that I was getting with Comcast at less than 50% of the price.  If you want you can add in free over-the-air digital TV (we don’t).  Note: this partly works well as a substitute because we watch a lot of movies and few shows.  Your mileage may vary.

Now that the upcoming XBox Live update adds Zune pay-per-view video, last.fm, and other goodies (like Facebook), my strategy looks even better.  Since the PlayStation network recently added Netflix streaming that would work as well.  My game system is my new cable box.  I described this kind of move in 2008 with a paper co-authored with François Bar titled “US Communication Policy After Convergence” in Media, Culture, and Society.  This article was actually written in 2000 so it’s nice to see that François’s nine years of foresight worked out.

But Comcast, my old window-smashing nemesis, hasn’t been sitting still.  It’s announced plans to acquire a majority share of NBC Universal — a video content production powerhouse (The Office, Law & Order, Saturday Night Live, the Olympic Games, Inglorious Basterds, Coraline, …).  Bernstein Research (quoted by Post Tech) evocatively noted that if this merger goes through “Comcast would be calling the shots for one out of five viewing hours in the United States.”  I don’t think they planned this merger just to go after me, but I don’t rule it out.

Commentators on media mergers like to say that “big = bad.”  Ben Bagdikian compared media mergers to George Orwell’s 1984 — “Big Brother” was the ultimate media monopolist.  But the most interesting thing about this proposal are the implications for Internet video distribution.  NBC Universal is behind Hulu, sometimes called an Interent-based “television catch-up service,” but as far as I can tell the Hulu viewers like me don’t plan on going back to cable or the public airwaves for their shows.  My students often report that they watch Hulu and YouTube exclusively, not to “catch-up” with anything else.

Comcast has created its own hulu-like Internet service (called fancast) that will be restricted to Comcast subscribers only.  They’ve got to do something, as this nice anonymous analysis on ReadWriteWeb puts it: “cable-based television will not survive the next decade.”  The pressing question for people who like video entertainment (and EVERYONE watches video) is: what will the next video platform look like?  That is the crux of the Comcast/NBC-Uni merger.  Either competing with hulu via fancast or buying into hulu (by buying NBC) is an attempt to be sure that they get to decide.  Even minor differences in the shape of such a system would have major consequences if the platform became dominant.

Aside from the many antitrust issues (the previously-cited Post Tech article summarizes them), the big question I’m asking about the proposal is: What will this do to Internet video? We have a brief opening when some tech-savvy consumers can get away from their cable lock-in via alternative technologies but the carriers are trying to figure out how to close that loophole.  We need to figure out how to keep the future of video as open as possible.  None of the catch-up sites (hulu) or online video services (YouTube) really looks good in that regard but they both look better than Comcast from where I sit.

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