Friday, February 10, 2012

Comcast Anti-consumer Strategies

      In preparing updates to comprehensive treatise on cable television and broadband (see http://www.lawcatalog.com/product_detail.cfm?productID=15670) I have the opportunity to dig deep into current business and regulatory activity.  Recently I saw that the FCC has sanctioned Comcast for favoring two affiliated sports networks (The Golf Channel and Versus) and disfavoring an unaffiliated sport network (The Tennis Channel).  The Comcast affiliates appear on a cheaper and lower programming tier than the unaffiliated network.  The FCC did not buy that Comcast and its subscribers just happen to like golf more than tennis.

       So along comes another Comcast action that may not fully pass the smell test.  Comcast wants the FCC to allow cable television operators to encrypt all service tiers including the cheapest basic service tier containing only a few channels.  Ostensibly to make bandwidth available for new services, Comcast wants to eliminate all analog channels that just about all subscribers can receive without a set top box. Comcast also benefits by not having to send a technician to activate, terminate and change service.  But it also gets to force every subscriber to install a Comcast device that might just prevent subscribers from doing lawful things the company does not want done, e.g., using non-Comcast equipment to record, distribute and receive content.

      I suspect there is more than meets the eye on Comcast’s digital strategy. On the matter of bandwidth conservation Comcast only offers a small number of channels in the basic tier, so the newly available bandwidth is insignificant.  In most systems Comcast has ample bandwidth available and already offers HDTV options. 

      So the issue focuses on the new mini-set top box subscribers have to install.  First, channel switching will take longer.  Remarkably analog channel switching occurs instantly while digital changes take a few milliseconds.  Second, most subscribers will leave the box on 24/7 surely offsetting the carbon and cost savings Comcast accrues by not having to send as many technicians across town.  Third, Comcast now has a company-owned device standing between its network and subscribers’ televisions.  Maybe this device simply better protects Comcast from program theft.  But knowing Comcast I suspect they have created more upside benefits that will result in less opportunities for subscribers to use the content for which they have paid.

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