Watch Qualcomm discuss video over wifi at Broadband World Forum 2011

When Netflix decided to separate DVD delivery from its video streaming service, consumers rebelled. Many dropped both services and the company lost half its value on Wall Street. Trouble like this is commonplace for cable TV and satellite providers, which, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), both consistently rank low in customer satisfaction surveys.

The ACSI found that for the first two quarters of 2011, “higher fees are significantly dampening customer satisfaction [for cable and satellite TV service], more so than in other industries.” J.D. Powers drew a similar conclusion, finding that customer satisfaction for all TV services fell in 2010.

Price dissatisfaction is only one of the challenges facing TV service providers today.

An even more pressing problem is the fact that consumers are turning to the Internet for more and more rich media. Consumers want instant availability to content on any device, at any time and with the ability to switch from device to device on the fly without interrupting the service. But, the two devices that could potentially manage this device-to-device sharing, the set-top box and wifi gateway, weren’t designed to deliver multiple video streams over wireless connections. This results in a poor user experience.

As a result, consumers are starting to drop traditional cable TV services in favor of on-demand – or pirated content available on the Internet – and a new set of equipment. Consumers, and especially those in the under-30 demographic, simply aren’t satisfied with dated video delivery models.

“Why am I paying $100+ each month for 200+ channels when I only watch HGTV, the Travel Channel and sports?” they ask. “And why can’t I watch the shows I recorded on my DVR on my iPad or Android phone?”

Pay TV Delivery Model Fails to Keep Up with Consumer Preferences

Of course, one of the ways TV service providers respond to customer dissatisfaction is to point to the poor performance of online video. Netflix streams drop and its streaming catalog is growing, but still in the infancy stage. Hulu has limited content and suffers from the same performance issues as Netflix. YouTube is rife with useless and low-quality videos. Illegal BitTorrent videos take forever to download.

Consumers put up with these problems, though, because the price is right – anywhere from free to less than $10 per month. As the price rises, though, say for something like MLB.TV (Major League Baseball), consumers won’t settle for poor performance online any more than they do with cable or satellite TV.

In a pinched economy, the pressure to deliver only the content customers want will become increasingly important. If consumers can get what they want from online streaming and pay-per-view services, while saving money each month, they’ll opt for the flexibility and cost savings en masse. Meanwhile, cable TV and satellite providers may permanently lose their pathway into the home.

High Setup and Support Costs Apply Even More Pressure, Opening the Door to Google or Amazon?

Now, let’s throw yet another wrench into the mix: HDTV. Everyone wants HD streaming, and this demand is even more pronounced among early adopters. Consumers are seeking providers who can deliver HD content to any device, anywhere in the home, and with performance on par with or better than classic cable TV service. If TV service providers don’t think ahead and prepare their offering for this new demand someone else (Google? Amazon? A recovered Netflix?) will come along and steal their business. If past history foretells the future, an offer of a new and more attuned service at a lower price point often results in the demise of the established providers. Trying to ward off competitors using your existing model cannot be a viable strategy in a free market when your customers are crying for change.

The Way Forward: Video over wifi

Today, set-top boxes/DVRs are the hub of video services. An increasing number of savvy consumers dislike these devices, since they know that most new HDTVs have the computing power to make these set-top boxes unnecessary. Meanwhile, DVR functionality tends to be low, with most service providers actually dumbing down the devices by shutting down services and blocking peripheral ports. Thus, in-the-know consumers chafe at paying $15 each month for what is essentially an overpriced, underperforming storage device.

Set-top boxes could conceivably rebound to serve as a hub for video sharing, but most consumers want their content centralized on a device with better sharing capabilities, such as the home gateway. As content shifts away from set-top boxes, wifi gateways will become ever more important.

Unfortunately, today’s installed wifi networks aren’t quite ready for the coming “my content, my way, my device” consumer wave. Today’s gateways don’t yet enable you to start watching a program on your HDTV, before bumping it over to your netbook on the kitchen table and onwards to your iPad as you head to the basement to check on the laundry.

That doesn’t mean this is not technically feasible. It is. New high-capacity, multi-stream capable wifi solutions are starting to hit the market, and some of the major service providers have already expressed the intention to cash in on this new opportunity.

The opportunity for Video over wifi is huge. New, robust wifi solutions can stream content from Internet video services, direct content to be consumed later to appropriate consumer-picked storage depositories, facilitate in-house device-to-device sharing, and even enable carrier-approved P2P sharing to overcome network bottlenecks.

wifi gateways can even help providers lower opex and support costs. New customers will be able to log onto online self-service portals to get setup, and once service is established, carriers will have a better ability to remotely monitor service quality and troubleshoot without sending a service truck.

Is interference from a microwave oven causing an iPad in the kitchen to drop video streams? Onboard diagnostic tools in the wifi gateway will help remote technicians pinpoint the problem at a fraction of the cost of today’s cable or satellite service calls.

Let’s face it: the most important cable into the home these days is the broadband connection. Number two probably isn’t a cable at all, but rather cellular service. Cable and satellite TV services are a distant third. With carriers bundling services anyway, TV service providers would be well served to set their sights on the right cable into the home and the right box (the wifi gateway) to keep up with consumers’ changing behaviors.

Whichever cable TV or satellite provider, or whichever newcomer like Amazon, Google or Apple, figures out how to wirelessly stream multiple video services to multiple devices at once will be able to differentiate itself from competitors in a market where consumers often have trouble seeing any difference from one service provider to the next.

The first TV service provider to meet this challenge won’t have to answer the question of “Why am I paying so much for these services?” Customers of this forward-thinking provider will have a vast range of new services at their fingertips, services better tailored to meet their evolving consumption demands, and services for which they’ll be willing to pay.

Patrick Ribardiere is director of product management with a focus on carrier technologies in the networking business unit at Qualcomm Atheros.

Sources:
1. Netflix debacle: http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2011/09/19/netflix_separates_its_dvd_streaming_businesses/?camp=obnetwork
2. Cable/satellite customer satisfaction survey: http://www.theacsi.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=246&Itemid=291
3. A good overview of cable TV satisfaction surveys: http://www.fiercecable.com/special-reports/cable-customer-service-struggles-climb
4. JD Power’s survey: Customers of traditional cable providers are particularly dissatisfied with their cost of service. (**NOTE: Last year this study came out on 10/6, so we may want to update this at the last minute.) http://businesscenter.jdpower.com/news/pressrelease.aspx?ID=2010166

Post your comment

@telecoms