NEW YORK The cable-TV industry held its annual convention last week. News reports from it (see "New FCC Chairman says nothing at cable show" brought back memories of many that I'd attended (I missed this one), and many articles and editorials I've written -- spanning a quarter century -- all with one central theme: Cable TV will ultimately operate as a common-carrier, carrying anyone's video "message" or 24-hour channel, on a first-come, first-serve basis.
In one of the keynote panel discussions carried on C-SPAN, Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast, the U.S.'s largest cable operator, paid lip service to this notion, speaking of a "single experience" the company calls "Bedrock" that will combine video, voice, and data. But it's not here yet today -- even though the technology pieces are all in place.
Back in the 1960s and 70s, the cable TV industry made it very clear they intended to operate as what's now called a "walled garden" -- a collection of selected services. (As explained in "The Myth Of The Video Walled Garden" -- the cell phone carriers are now declaring the exact same principle for their new video services.)
While cable-TV's programming is tied to many of the big themes swirling around mass media today -- including media concentration, politics, economics, culture, and society -- and while the U.S. Congress has just recently, for the first time ever, started talking about regulating cable-TV's adult content (see Unplugged At The Cable Show ), I believe engineers are in a unique position to appreciate the technical inevitability -- and elegance -- of an open-access, common-carrier approach to video signal delivery.
With my own published musings on this subject dating back decades, I'm beginning to develop a "we may not get there in our lifetimes, but someday..." attitude about this inevitability. (My first articles, in the 80s, advocated analog switching, much like the phone system, to create a true "marketplace" of video.)
But several recent signs indicate this may actually happen sooner rather than later. First, there's the explosive growth of broadband Internet to the home. 'Nough said. IPTV is poised for take-off. (See Phone companies eye cable TV's local territory.) Ironically, censorship of cable-TV might even help kick-starting IPTV in the U.S.
Google is already getting in the act, testing out a directory of open-access video and offering free hosting to boot (see Google To Host Home-Video Uploads). Startups like Akimbo are attempting to offer open access IPTV commercially, completely independent of the big carriers.
And then there's the double-standard of digital cable-TV, with its "triple play" of services -- video, voice, and Internet. Two of these operate on an open access basis, one does not. How much longer can that disparity continue? At this week's convention the cable-TV industry even went so far as to promise open access VoIP -- see Cable Execs Say They're Not Blocking Outside VoIP. Big deal. Why not offer open access to Video On Demand? Now that would be revolutionary!
Meanwhile, after over a decade of talk, the phone companies are finally entering into video delivery (see SBC Picks Scientific-Atlanta For IPTV Boxes). And the bandwidth for plain old copper keeps getting better (see Settable equalizer increases copper throughput to 6.25 Gbits/s).
With all these competing video-delivery technologies swirling around cable TV, it's just a matter of time before those garden walls come tumbling down.