TW wants to have cake, eat it too

As several outlets are reporting, HBO plans to launch a trial project called HBO On Broadband, in which subscribers can watch the channel’s programs — such as the highly acclaimed series The Wire — on their computers for several weeks after they air. Of course, the programs can’t be downloaded or transferred to another device, and they eventually expire, but it’s still a step forward, if only a limited one.

As the Hollywood Reporter notes, however, an interesting twist to this particular offering is that HBO is a subsidiary of Time Warner, the media giant that has confirmed its cable subsidiary is rolling out metered Internet access. In other words, one part of the TW empire is giving you more content to watch — content that sucks up the gigabytes — and the other is planning to charge you by the gigabyte.

That may fly with the boys in finance, but if I were a Time Warner cable subscriber and an HBO fan, I would feel like I was getting squeezed between a rock and a hard place. Cynthia Brumfield of IPDemocracy doesn’t think it’s really that big a deal, but I think it’s a sign of the conflicting pressures that media conglomerates like TW find themselves under. Steve Bryant of Reel Pop has more on the HBO deal.

An inspiring talk by Jeff Cole

Along with Mark Evans and Rob Hyndman, I sat in on a terrific presentation given Friday morning by Dr. Jeff Cole, the director of the World Internet Project (thanks to Jordan Banks of eBay Canada for inviting me). The WIP is a joint project organized by the UCLA Center for Communication Policy (now the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future) and involves research in more than 26 countries, including Canada, into how people use the Internet.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Cole – who is a compelling and funny speaker – talked a lot about how Internet use has increased, how broadband penetration has increased, how newspapers are dead, how TV is doomed, how the advertising industry is in major upheaval, and so on. Not a big news flash, at least not to anyone who has been paying attention over the past decade or so. One of the commenters on Mark’s post about the event asks why he was so impressed with the presentation – after all, this is all “superficial and obvious.”

But as Mark notes, it is one thing to believe these things and even to have read about them – but it really brings those points home when someone like Dr. Cole lays out the picture in such detail, and with five years of intensive surveys and research to back it up. In particular, it was interesting to hear about how broadband changes the way people approach the Internet even in subtle ways, since it changes the process of getting online from being an occasional, almost ritualized event – in which people make lists of things they want to accomplish when they dial up, and then disconnect when they are done – to something that is far more a part of their lives all the time, using it now and then in small ways.

In that sense, Dr. Cole noted, the Internet has followed the same kind of evolution that TV did. People used to schedule their TV watching around a particular show, and then turn it off when that show was over – but more recently people simply switch the television on whenever they are in the room, even if they don’t know what they want to watch. In the same way, the Internet has gone from a destination for specific purposes to something that is just “always on.” At the same time, people have moved their PCs and Internet use out of the back room or office and into either the living room or the kitchen, which has made it much more a central part of their everyday lives.

There was plenty more that was fascinating in Dr. Cole’s presentation – how people feel more empowered politically and socially as a result of having the Internet, how it is making younger users more interested in becoming creators of content instead of just consumers, and other things that we hope participants at our mesh conference in May will be interested in discussing. For more of his findings you can read the World Internet Project summary report.

An expose on telecom bait-and-switch

I don’t know telecom analyst Bruce Kushnick, but I’m definitely interested in the subject of a new book he has written (and is selling himself using the Internet). In a nutshell, the topic of his book is a scam that the major U.S. telecoms pulled on the American government — and the American people — by effectively promising high-speed, fibre-optic Internet in return for concessions on licensing requirements and other regulations set by U.S. telecom regulators. Then they reneged on their end of the bargain.

Steve Stroh, who has been covering the telecom and networking industry as an independent consultant for some time, has written about Kushnick’s book on his blog, and so has veteran telecom consultant Gordon Cook, and Richard Stastny of the VOIP and Enum blog, and David Isenberg, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, on his blog.

Given that kind of support, I’m prepared to believe Kushnick’s version of events has some truth to it, since several of the people mentioned above have said that he has documentation backing up his claims. Beyond that, it certainly sounds like something the telecom companies would do — they may even have believed it when they said it. But the U.S. certainly doesn’t have anything like the 45-megabit-per-second connections that the telcos promised.

And it definitely sheds a different kind of light on their repeated claims that Internet content companies should be paying more for access to their pipes (something my friend Rob Hyndman has written about many times). It sounds to me like U.S. consumers have already paid for it several times over.