By Dan Moren
July 14, 2015 7:28 AM PT
Comcast’s ‘cord-cutting’ plan is flailing
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Comcast seems to have taken the old adage to heart, as it said this week that it’s going to start rolling out a streaming television service this summer. For $15 a month, it’ll let its Internet-only customers—hey, that’s me!—stream a selection of channels over the net.
As some have already pointed out, this isn’t necessarily the best financial deal for cord cutters. I already pay around $65 per month for Internet alone; adding streaming would bring that up to $80. By comparison, a bundle of local channels (and HBO Go) is available for $75 ($45 if you’re a new customer). It’s unclear exactly which channels are available under the streaming deal—Comcast says “about a dozen” including broadcast—but I’d guess it’s a pretty similar line-up to its bundle deal.
There are also a few differences between what you can do with a TV plan and what you can do with the proposed streaming plan. For example, the streaming service includes a Cloud DVR for recording, but you can’t necessarily watch those shows on your TV without workarounds (like AirPlay, presumably).
Still, $15 per month isn’t a bad deal when you consider that it includes HBO, whose standalone service costs the exact same amount. It would certainly seem to put a lot of pressure on competitors like Sling TV, Hulu, and whatever plan Apple has up its sleeves.
But there are some intangibles, too, such as the downside of potentially having to deal with Comcast’s customer service, which isn’t exactly renowned for its helpfulness. And while Comcast touts the ability to sign up easily online, no technician visit required, it hasn’t been as explicit about how easy it is to cancel the service when you no longer want it. (One would hope you could cancel without dealing with a customer retention department, for example.)
The big (screen) picture
Taking a step back, though, it seems to me that this plan involves a certain degree of flailing on the part of Comcast. We’ve hit that point where the Titanic starts to tip upwards, inevitably to snap apart. The cable companies really don’t want to be turned into dumb pipes for bits, because they stand to make far less profit that way1. But with net neutrality pretty firmly in place, other companies will be able to offer streaming TV services, which means that Comcast is forced to compete. It no longer has a built-in advantage of being the only game in town.
This announcement has spurred more than a few comparison to the now defunct broadcast-TV-over-the-Internet service Aereo—of which I was a subscriber—and Comcast, having effectively help put them out of business, seems to be taking a page from their playbook.
I think the most important part of this move, though, is that it goes a long way towards separating the “hardware” and “software” of the TV market. Too long those two things—the infrastructure and the content that travels over them—have been conflated, despite the fact that there’s no fundamental or intrinsic reason that they should be in this day and age. And by hanging a $15-per-month price tag on its streaming service, Comcast has offered a tacit assessment of what customers should be paying for the “software.”2
Now, I’m exactly in the demographic here: a cord-cutter who uses Comcast Internet and lives in Boston, the first market that’ll get access to the service. So, yeah, I’m tempted. But as always, when it comes to the cable companies, the devil—and make no mistake, there’s always a devil—is in the details.
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