When CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) starts offering IPTV service in Colorado Springs, Colo., this summer--or even when it finally gets the go-ahead to do so--it will be like a new ice cream store opened in the middle of a one-flavor town. Maybe consumers will flock to buy chocolate fudge swirl; maybe they'll stick to vanilla. Whatever they do, at least they'll have the option to choose something different from the fare that's been available for the last dozen years or so.
If nothing else, the news that the telco was expanding its IPTV tentacles into the Colorado city was refreshing because it caused a breeze in the stagnant summer air mass that appears to be hanging over the U.S. IPTV marketplace.
While the world enthusiastically embraces IPTV, U.S. service providers, with some exceptions, have been keeping the technology at an arm's length, touching and retreating but never hugging it, preferring to serve up vanilla with the occasional whipped cream topping to a full-blown menu of off-the-wall flavors.
To be fair, this is not a bad way to run a TV delivery business; especially since there's nothing wrong with vanilla that the occasional chocolate sauce, sprinkles or cherry can't enliven. The United States is well ahead of the rest of the world in conventional television delivery. This means, for those who love to dwell on these kinds of things, that there's a lot of infrastructure out there already being used to pump TV to people who are eager to pay for the privilege. If that means night after night of vanilla, so be it; they don't seem to really mind.
There is already some saucy competition for those who dole out straight-up vanilla. OTT has built a good little corner store business selling 28 flavors of TV for the adventurous crowd willing to look for it. It is--and I'm sure I'll hear about this--a nice little niche business but, honestly, it's not for everyone … not because it isn't tasty but because most people at the end of the day want spoon-fed TV and OTT requires digging in and figuring how to do it yourself--and maybe sometimes even bringing your own spoon to the dish. BYOS anyone?
Which brings everything back full circle to CenturyLink and its decision to seek a cable TV franchise in Colorado Springs. Comcast (NYSE: CMCSA) has been doling out the treats in the market for a while and the telco openly admits its offering is all about competition with the big players in town.
No doubt that competition will become nasty as CenturyLink cherry-picks the best customers right off the top--or at least as Comcast suggests that it's doing so--and city officials dither over whether the whole thing is worth the hassle just to get a scoop of chocolate. But CenturyLink is no OTT; it's a legitimate service provider with roots in the community and the resources to establish a viable business.
That means that in the end Colorado Springs residents will come out ahead--not because their cable TV fees change dramatically, although that might happen in the beginning, but because they get to taste a different flavor of television. Depending on how CenturyLink doles out its offerings, folks in Colorado Springs could sit down to a dish of Cherry Garcia.
More likely they'll get a helping of butter pecan with wet walnuts. But, because it's fueled by IP, it will be different--or at least it will be made to seem different. And that's good because it will inevitably cause Comcast to broaden its menu and perhaps throw in a little frozen custard or a popsicle or two on the side. The behemoth MSO can do it, be assured; it's proven that in other parts of the country.
With today's TV delivery technology, and certainly with the plethora of devices available to receive TV, there's really no reason not to add a little flavor to what consumers get. And yes, OTT has already done that. But an expanded menu, from an established player with resources is so much more attractive. --Jim Barthold