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Over the Top Video: A Peak or a Path Forward?

About six months ago, I was quite bullish on advances in over-the-top (OTT) video making it easier for communities to build fiber networks because they would no longer have to deal with the challenges of securing and delivering traditional cable television channels. I explored these challenges in a recent post.

OTT video includes Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, and similar services that deliver video content over your broadband connection, ideally to your television. Last summer, we were anticipating more devices and services that would expand OTT options.

In the time since, I have been disappointed. There have been advances - the Google Chromecast dongle works well (if you have a good Wi-Fi signal near your TV - no ethernet option unfortunately). But Chromecast works with a limited suite of video services.

Hulu works well enough, but seems to have fewer shows that I want to watch available on Hulu plus. Also, Comcast owns it and won't always be shackled by the temporary conditions it agreed to in order to secure permission to buy NBC Universal.

Aereo continues to be a very interesting model but will be fighting in the courts for awhile yet, creating an air of uncertainty over its future. Additionally, its business model hurts public access media (locally produced content), which often depends on franchise fees that Aereo and broadband providers don't have to pay. On the other hand, Aereo solves the problem of getting sports programming over the top and that is a big deal.

We had high hopes for an announcement from Intel that it would begin marketing a service offering television channels over the top but it ran into the steep barriers to entry we have previously noted. Now the Intel effort is dead to us: Verizon has purchased it.

Maybe Sony or Samsung or some other manufacturer will suddenly come out with a breakthrough, but given my experience with their user interfaces, I would be shocked if it were usable, to say nothing of desirable.

It is distinctly possible that we will see breakthroughs that make OTT video more accessible and therefore help to drive new investment in fiber networks that don't require large investments in cable head end technology and acquiring hundreds of channel contracts. But I think it more likely that we are going to see OTT content hold steady or even draw back - we may see still fewer popular programs available on Hulu in the near future, for instance.

Regardless, we should not assume that we are in the midst of a linear progression from little OTT video to much more. Given the massive power of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and the channel owners, we could well see a return to content only being available to those who pay ever-increasing fees to the local cable monopoly.

There is a reason Google decided it needed to offer television channels to get enough subscribers to make their investment worthwhile. Communities may not need the same high subscriber rates that Google wants, but it is a sign of where they think the market is staying.

Meet Russellville, Kentucky's Broadband Speed Leader - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #82

The municipal electric utility in Russellville has launched Kentucky's first citywide gigabit service on its FTTH network. Russellville Electric Plant Board General Manager Robert White joins us to share their motivations for building a fiber network.

The utility had originally offered some telecommunications services over a wireless system but recognized the need for a more robust fiber system, in part because of the lack of investment in modern telecommunications by incumbent cable and telephone providers.

Now Russellville has much better options for residents, local businesses, and schools. We expanded on this interview with a mini case study of their network.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Public Access Media and Community Owned Networks - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #81

After a listener suggested we do a show on the modern role of public access media, we decided to reach out to Mike Wassenaar, now a senior development officer at Free Press and formerly the Executive Director of Saint Paul Neighborhood Network, a great example of the promise of public access.

Mike and I talk about history, present, and future of public access. Historically coupled with the cable companies for both funding and distribution, access centers are now under fire as cable companies have been successful in reducing their funding and distribution.

But we believe there remains a strong demand for local content that is not being met by large corporations and access centers continue to have a strong role to play. That means we need to ensure they are funded and have a means to distribute content, both of which are possible as communities build their own fiber optic networks.

A good place to seek additional information is the Alliance for Community Media. Thanks to Eliz for suggesting this show.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 19 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

LightTUBe Financially Secure in Tennessee

Tullahoma Utilities Board's triple-play FTTH LightTUBe, began serving Tullahoma in 2009. The fiber network utility is paying off its city bond debt on schedule reports the Tullahoma News.

The network's income during the first four months of fiscal year 2014 is a positive $58,939. General Manager Brian Skelton spoke with Chris Mitchell in July 2013 and expressed confidence that that network will continue to operate in the black. The News reported on our podcast interview with Skelton and provided some recent updates:

With an estimated potential customer base of 9,000 in the TUB service area, LightTUBe services 3,201 fiber customers. That number is slightly ahead of goal (3,186) and represents nearly 36 percent market penetration against primary competitor Charter Communications.

Tullahoma deployed its network to encourage economic development. In 2011, we reported on J2 Software Solutions. The company located its headquarters in Tullahoma because LightTUBe offered fast, reliable, affordable service. 

According to the News article, expenditures on Internet service remain consistent while subscriptions grow. The Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB) only recently approved a $7 rate increase for video service due to an increase in the cost of television content. When content rates rose in the past, TUB chose to absorb the increase but the cost of content continues to increase for all providers. Since 2009, TUB increased Internet service speeds five times without increasing prices. From the article:

”LightTUBe is in a very comfortable position from a financial perspective. Our biggest concern at this point is the unreasonable price increases that we (and others in the video business) are seeing from many of our channel providers,” said Skelton.

That comfortable financial position appears to rest largely on the shoulders of LightTUBe’s Internet service.

While video and telephone services together generate enough income to offset the system’s net maintenance and depreciation costs, Internet services generate enough income to offset its additional customer service, sales, administration and debt costs.

Unlike the private providers it competes against, Tullahoma is limited in where it can offer service. State law prevents it from serving customers outside its electrical territory - something AT&T and Comcast lobbyists have preserved year after year by killing bills that would remove this damaging law. Across Tennessee, local businesses, residents, and anchor institutions are stuck with slower, less reliable connections despite desiring expansion from the nearby utility but they are denied.

Because Tennessee law prohibits municipal utilities from providing their fiber services outside of their electric service territory, LightTUBe cannot offer its 1G Internet to – for example – the Coffee County Joint Industrial Park, which is serviced by Duck River Electrical Membership Cooperative (DREMC). The joint park, located five miles northeast of Tullahoma and outside of TUB’s service area, has cable-based Internet service.

Billy Ray on the Origins of the First Muni Broadband Network: Community Broadband Bits Episode #74

Last month, we unveiled a video teaser of our interviews in Glasgow, Kentucky over the summer regarding its municipal broadband network. This week our podcast features a few clips from those interviews with Billy Ray, the Superintendent of Glasgow's Electric Plant Board.

He offers more context on the history of their network, including how they became "savvy marketers" when faced with stiff competition from Telescripts - a cable company that cared nothing for Glasgow until they dared to build a rival system operated for community benefit.

He details how they began producing local content and the surprisingly most popular show they developed - what would eventually come to be known as "reality TV."

We thank Media Working Group, our partners in this documentary for the high quality interviews.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 10 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

New Free Press Infographic: Stop the Corporate Cyclops From Gobbling Up Local Media

When we think of the enormous cyclops we don't usually imagine him in a suit and tie but the Free Press does and it works. In their recent Media Giants infographic, the Free Press uses the hulking one-eyed beast to represent corporate behemoths slowly taking control of our media through smaller shell companies.

As media power is consolidated, every one else's voices fade. We all become like the one-eyed cyclops: seeing things through his limited vision. The Free Press sums it up like this:

Media companies are using shady tactics to dodge the Federal Communications Commission’s ownership rules and snap up local TV stations across the U.S.

Gannett, Nexstar, Sinclair and Tribune are on major buying sprees. To grow their empires, these corporations are using shell companies to evade federal caps on how many stations one company can own. And so far the FCC has done nothing to stop this trend.

In some communities, one company owns two, three and even four local TV stations — and airs the same news programming on all of these outlets. The result: An echo chamber where all the news looks and sounds the same.

Take action now through the Free Press' campaign or contact your elected officials directly.

Television Consumer Freedom Act Promises More Choices

On August 14th, Christopher Mitchell and I visited Senator Amy Kobuchar's office in Minneapolis. We arranged the meeting in coordination with Free Press and the Media Action Grassroots Network to talk with our Senator about the Television Consumer Freedom Act, also known as S.912.

Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are sponsoring this effort to scale back cable program bundling. ILSR and the Free Press recognize this as a good start to reforming our deeply flawed video market. We also see it as a foothold to inching closer to the wide ranging and affordable broadband we desperately need.

We met with Senate staff to present 594 Minnesota petition signatures in support of the legislation. Free Press has collected over 27,000 signatures from across the country asking Congress to pass the Television Consumer Freedom Act.

The bill provides options for consumers beyond today's restrictive bundled services. By offering channels a la carte, consumers can pay for what they want rather than being forced to pay for many channels they do not. Bundling also limits independent channels by crowding out capacity and creating onerous financial barriers for entrepreneurial media ventures. This bill will not eliminate bundling, but will require cable providers to also offer a la carte pricing. It is important to note that the cable companies themselves are often forced to bundle by channel owners like Viacom or Disney. This bill restricts that practice as well.

We also give two thumbs up for the sports fans' provision in the bill. From an LA Times opinion piece written by Senator McCain:

Another provision in the bill seeks to end the practice of sports team owners punishing fans by blacking out home games that don't sell out. It provides that games taking place in publicly financed stadiums can't be blacked out.

For an in-depth analysis of S.912's provisions, read Combating the Cable Cabal, from the Free Press.

Contact your elected officials through the Free Press call to action page or contact them directly. Elected officials respond best to visits, phone calls, and brief personalized emails. Let them know you want their support for S.912, the Television Consumers Freedom Act.

We Need Video Reform, Let D.C. Know What You Think

Time Warner Cable subscribers across the country who enjoy CBS programming are out of luck. The two media giants have reached an impasse in their fight over retransmission consent so several major markets are now missing out. CBS has also taken the fight one step farther, blocking TWC broadband subscribers from accessing CBS.com video content.

Public Knowledge as launched a campaign to end this viewer lock-out. From their recent call to action:

It doesn't matter whether CBS or Time Warner Cable is the bad guy here. The only one losing here is you, the viewer.

Some members of Congress are standing up to the media giants. The bipartisan "Television Consumer Freedom Act," [PDF] co-sponsored by Senators John McCain and Richard Blumenthal, takes the first steps at fixing this mess.

But an army of special interest lobbyists likes things the way they are, and they don't care that you are caught in the middle. For this bill to move forward, your members of Congress need to hear from you.

For more detail on how we got here, read Harold Feld's recent Policy Blog on the PK website. PK makes it easy for you to inform your D.C. represenation that you want video reform. 

You can also look up your U.S. Representatives and your U.S. Senators to contact them directly via phone or email.

TV Everywhere in Tullahoma, Tennessee

Tullahoma's network, LighTUBe, continues to bring new services to residents and business customers, including smart metering and gig service. LighTUBe has increased Internet speeds without raising rates five times since 2008. Now, LighTUBe offers 'TV Everywhere' to subscribers.

The Tullahoma New reports:

TV Everywhere allows customers to watch content on mobile devices such as iPads and smartphones, according to communications specialist Chelsea Adams.

“What’s even better is that there is no additional cost to LightTUBe customers for using this service,” she said.

To sign up for the TV Everywhere option, LightTUBe customers should log into the TV Everywhere website at www.watchtveverywhere.com, register as a user with information provided on their monthly LightTUBe statement, and an activation link will be emailed to them.

Additionally, LightTUBe customers can register up to four user accounts to use with their TV Everywhere accounts, according to Adams.

You can listen to the story behind LighTUBe in Episode #54 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Chris interviewed Brian Skelton, General Manager of the Tullahoma Utilities Board, about the network and the benefits it brings to the community.

Court Says Big Broadcasters Can't Stop Aereo's Tiny Antennas

You are surrounded by the radio waves of local television signals. They are available to you for free if you put up an antenna, but there was no easy way to take that free signal and then stream it to all your digital devices. Now there is. Aereo, available only in New York presently, combines an antenna with broadband to transmit television wherever you want it.

Ryan Kim provides the details in a February GigaOm article:

The system works by creating an array of hundreds of thousands of tiny TV antennas the size of a thumbnail and housing them in one data center in a market. When users hook up to Aereo, they take command of an antenna, renting it to get local broadcast channels such as ABC, CBS, Fox and others. They also have access to a cloud-based dual tuner DVR that allows them to initially record up to 40 hours of content.

Customers can view the content on iPads, iPhones, AppleTV, and Roku devices via the web. Rates vary from $1/day to $80/year. The company, backed in part by IAC, aspires to expand nationally.

This is an approach local community networks should follow, particularly those who want to build broadband networks but don't want to get lost in the mind-numbing details of offering a television package.

Needless to say, major broadcasters have gone to the court to stop the ambitious start-up. FOX, the Tribune Company, PBS, Univision, and others, lost their July bid for a preliminary injunction to stop Aereo from rebroadcasting their programming over the Internet. The plaintiffs argued that Aereo violated copyright protections, but Aereo's method does not amount to a copyright infringement according to the court. The individual control over each antenna does not allow sharing of content and does not amount to infringement through public performance.

Staci D. Kramer, from paidContent summed up the judge's rationale for denying the injunction:

U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan ruled that the networks and television stations suing Aereo had some points in their favor but were arguing a legal position that was unlikely to win in court based on precedent set by the earlier case Cartoon Network vs. CVC Holdings (Cablevision). In that case, an appellate court agreed with Cablevision that individual delivery to customers of shows recorded via off-site DVR was not the same as a transmission to the public. Aereo’s individually operated antenna-DVR contention dovetails with Cablevision. The judge accused the plaintiffs of trying to twist that ruling by arguing some elements should apply and others should not — and concluded “faithful application of Cablevision requires the conclusion that Plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their public performance claim.”

In addition to the likelihood of success (or lack thereof), the judge had to consider financial impact on both parties, routine elements of preliminary injunctions. The judge agreed that the broadcasters would be negatively affected, but an injunction could shut down Aereo. Balance of hardships tipped the scales in favor of Aereo.

Plaintiff broadcasters immediately announced they would appeal the ruling, stating that an appellate decision in their favor is the primary goal. Aereo, and IAC, were not surprised and seem to have been ready for a substantial legal battle. From the Kramer article:

When the startup’s plans went public earlier this year, networks began asking for payment in exchange for permission to transmit the signal (retransmission fees). But [IAC CEO Barry] Diller says he told them: “When you get Radio Shack to pay you a slice of profit for selling an aerial, we’ll pay you.”

Update: To be clear, Aereo is far from home free and still may be sued out of existence. But the model is what we find intriguing and could be copied depending on how the lawsuits go.

Here are some videos showing product demonstrations.

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