Faster broadband connections have Americans opting to skip cable altogether. Geoff Daily here, reporting from the front lines of the future of TV.
As you may have heard, there's a revolution under way. In the last year hundreds of thousands of American households have canceled their cable TV service. The reason? Because they can scratch their video itch cheaper and better through the Internet.
I am one of those intrepid souls who cut the cord, having decided 18 months ago to leave cable behind to get (pretty much) all of my video online.
Today I share with you my story. Read on for an exploration of what's possible and for a reality check on how the vision of watching anything anywhere may be technologically possible today, but we're still a long way from living that dream.
I cut my cord for a few reasons.
First, I'm a chronic channel surfer, so by subscribing to cable I was paying good money to never watch any one show from beginning to end.
Second, I hate sitting through long commercial breaks, which drove my channel surfing.
Third, while DVRs helped a bit because I could record shows to watch when I wanted and fast forward through commercials, they felt like a half-step in the right direction, a Band-Aid for a broken system.
Fourth, I was already watching video online for the convenience and larger selection of video.
Fifth, what pushed me over the edge was when I realized that if I advocate for next-gen networks like LUS Fiber that I had an obligation to take this plunge to see how it worked. I needed to walk the talk.
With this in mind, I pulled the plug and canceled my cable TV service to start living the future.
Cutting the cord is easy, as most TV-related devices released recently tap into online video services, including game consoles, Blu-Ray players, and TVs themselves. I started with my PlayStation 3 and then recently purchased a Roku 3, which is dedicated to online video with the bonus of a headphone jack in the remote for nighttime viewing next to my sleeping wife.
I get most of my video from three services: Netflix for movies, past seasons of TV shows, and original series; Hulu for current TV episodes; and Amazon Instant Video to rent/purchase movies and some TV.
There's been a lot to like about cutting the cord so far.
The quality of online video has been amazing, especially if you have a reliable, high bandwidth connection like LUS Fiber. While not quite Blu-Ray good, it's way better than DVD, and good enough that I'm purchasing movies on Amazon Instant Video rather than Blu-Ray because I like the flexibility of watching on other devices.
With services like Netflix or Amazon there are no commercials, and even on those with commercials, like Hulu, the breaks are shorter than on TV - sometimes as little as one commercial long.
And there's a ton of content ranging from the most popular latest releases to the niche and the obscure, which is one of the biggest advantages to going online - you're no longer limited to whatever shows TV channels decide to air but instead have a whole world, literally, of video at your fingertips.
But content selection is also the biggest shortfall to cutting the cord today.
For starters, there lots of video you can't get online at all, as well as a lot you can only get online if you subscribe to cable TV, like anything that's currently on HBO. I'd pay good money to watch the last season of Game of Thrones, but I can't. While it's available on HBO Go, HBO's online service, you can only get it if you subscribe to HBO, and you can only subscribe to HBO if you subscribe to cable.
And this trend is worsening; an increasing amount of video on Hulu is only available if you can prove that you also subscribe to cable TV.
Some video is available on some services but only for a short while and then it disappears, especially on a site like Netflix, where if you see something you want to watch you better do so right away. There's no guarantee it'll be there the next time you log on.
Another limitation is that some videos that I can watch on my computer or tablet I can't watch on my TV because of rights issues. And many TV shows can only be accessed through the website of their TV network, which often doesn't have a tie-into platform that can bring this video to your TV.
Arguably the biggest shortcoming to cutting the cord, though, is if you're someone who likes watching live sporting events. While there are legal online offerings for most of the major sports, at least for NFL and NBA there are major limitations.
For example, with the NFL you can purchase a service called NFL Sunday Ticket from DirectTV. While it allows you to watch live NFL games online through your TV or mobile devices, it's expensive at $60 per month, and it's limited - only covering out-of-market games.
So you can't watch your local team play online, and it also doesn't include Sunday Night or Monday Night Football games.
As a result, to watch live sports I often find myself heading to a friend's or the bar. I've even gone so far as to try and install an old fashioned TV antenna to catch local broadcasts to no avail because of the sturdy construction of my old house.
The challenge is these limitations aren't going away any time soon, and they may worsen before they get better. The reason for this is the old model of cable TV.
In addition to the money networks make off selling ad space, they get a monthly fee from cable TV companies. All these channels are owned by a few major corporations that know cable TV providers can't compete without offering major channels like ESPN. So each year TV networks raise their prices, and each year cable companies either push back, leading to ugly situations like Time Warner Cable cutting off CBS to its subscribers recently (they reached an agreement Sept. 2, ending a month-long blackout of the network's shows at several key markets) or they have to cut into their margins or pass the increased costs to their subscribers by raising rates.
This situation is even tougher for smaller cable TV providers that have less scale, so they pay higher prices plus they have less leverage in negotiations. It's gotten so bad that many smaller providers don't make money off cable; it's a loss leader to sell Internet and phone services.
So what's holding back the future of video online isn't technology, as technically we should already be there. The limiting factor is legacy business models for which a viable alternative has not been found. Because of this, we're unfortunately still a long way away from the future that we all want of being able to watch anything anywhere.
The upshot is that in a community like Lafayette we're already ahead of the curve because of the investment that we made in building the broadband infrastructure of the 21st century. We've already got the technological capacity to live in this future when the business models catch up.
And for a fiber provider like LUS Fiber, this transition to an all-online world is music to its ears, validating the need for the kind of high reliability, high capacity network it built while driving demand for the services it can actually make money on.
As someone on the front lines of the online video revolution, I don't think I can ever go back. The freedom of being able to watch what I want, when I want, and where I want (with some limitations) is addictive, and I don't miss channel surfing in any way, shape or form.
For the patient and adventurous viewer, the present is full of possibility, so I encourage you to give it a try. Just know that while the vision of the future of online video is clear, it will still be a while before we're watching whatever, wherever, whenever.
Geoff Daily is the executive director of the Lafayette General Foundation. Before moving to Lafayette from Washington, D.C. in 2010, he was a technology journalist writing for trade publications like StreamingMedia.com. While living in D.C., he maintained a blog called App-Rising.com, writing about the intersection of broadband networks, applications and policies.