Firms Fight for Slice of Tech Pie

Jan 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Cable versus satellite. Cable versus the phone company. Satellite and the phone company versus cable. The phone company versus cable and satellite.

That’s essentially what pay television’s competitive landscape looked like in 2004 as the age-old war between cable and satellite operators morphed into a hodgepodge of battles that involved not only video but also high-speed data and telephony services.

It was enough to trigger headaches all around as consumers and investors tried to sort out the tangled mess that has satellite operators and telephone companies linked as allies in some cases and as adversaries in others. Or has cable companies evolving into leading providers of high-speed Internet access and telephone service from the outfit that gave people their MTV. Or has the phone company trading in its dial tone for a slice of the business that pipes HBO and HGTV into people’s living rooms.

That confusion is likely to get worse in 2005 as most players in the video-delivery space step up many of the initiatives they talked about in 2004, including cable operators’ offer of telephone service and telephone companies’ deployment of video.

Blame the chaos and line-blurring on the need to survive. With many of these companies’ core businesses showing signs of maturing, launching new business lines is seen as a way to keep the growth momentum going while also taking advantage of the fatter margins that often come with products such as high-speed data service.

Cable operators, fresh from an $85 billion rebuild of their systems, have been the most aggressive diversifiers to date, taking advantage of their two-way cable plant to deliver high-speed data services and telephony to subscribers, while also freshening their video product offering with the introduction of video-on-demand, high-definition television and digital video recorders. To keep subscribers interested-and on board-cable companies have devised bundled packages designed to offer slight discounts on telephone and high-speed data service to those who already have-and keep-their cable-based video service.

Their efforts have borne fruit: Comcast is now the nation’s largest high-speed data provider, while Cox Communications has grabbed a large chunk of market share from the telephone companies in the markets where it offers its cable-based telephone service.

Determined not to be left out in the cold, satellite companies have likewise stepped up to stay competitive. This past year both DirecTV Group and EchoStar Communications beefed up their local-into-local service, enabling customers in the bulk of their markets to access local television stations via their satellite service-and narrowing a competitive gap that long gave cable an advantage over satellite. At the same time, satellite operators teamed with the telephone companies to offer their own version of the three-product bundle, with phone companies supplying high-speed data and telephony as a complement to the satellite companies’ video product.

Satellite companies’ alliances with the Regional Bell Operating Companies have fueled a substantial chunk of their subscriber growth over the past year, with much of it coming at the expense of cable operators. The link with the satellite companies has also been a boon to the phone companies, which, coupled with the deep discounting of their high-speed digital subscriber line service, has helped blunt some of cable’s rapid growth in high-speed data.

But theirs is likely to be a tenuous marriage going forward, particularly now that the nation’s top three phone companies are gearing up to spend billions of dollars deploying fiber networks that will enable the delivery of video services into households.

SBC Communications is shaping up to be the most aggressive, with plans to spend $4 billion to build a network that can offer video to 18 million households by 2007, while Verizon Communications has already spent $1 billion to build a network to deliver video to a Dallas suburb and has plans to have fiber technology available to 3 million homes by the end of 2005. Beyond that, the Bells have teamed with companies including Yahoo! and Microsoft to strengthen the backbone of their television offerings with things like program guides and Web-based programs that enable consumers to program their televisions remotely.

The RBOCs’ efforts are likely to change the competitive landscape for cable and satellite operators alike, said Bernstein Research analyst Craig Moffett, who thinks both camps are likely to suffer at least a little at the hands of the RBOCs.

Mr. Moffett said while cable operators can expect to see some subscribers bolt for the RBOCs’ video offering, satellite operators, whose main product is video service, are even more exposed.

“Video is [direct broadcast satellite’s] sole business,” Mr. Moffett said in a recent research note. “While cable’s growth over the next five years will mostly come from [telephony] and continued broadband deployment, satellite’s growth will come exclusively from subscriber growth and pricing, both of which will be pressured by the Bells.”