Over at Technologizer, Harry McCracken recently contemplated whether Comcast’s On Demand Online service was reason enough to stick with Comcast, if you are considering dropping your television service. On Demand Online is a Hulu-like service still in development that, once released, will allow Comcast subscribers to view shows and other content online. There are at least five reasons to root against Comcast’s On Demand Online. Even if Comcast isn’t your provider, or you live in a country with different online TV options, some of these reasons should apply to you, too.
1. It could kill off free internet TV like Hulu Right now, there are plenty of free television options, both legal (such as Hulu and abc.com in the U.S.) and not so legal (such as BitTorrent). My wife and I have watched entire seasons of Lost on abc.com, for nothing more than the cost of our internet connection (of course, this also inspired us to buy the boxed set of other seasons). What happens if Comcast’s service takes off? Will other cable operators follow Comcast’s example and start their own online services? And will Comcast be inspired to expand its online offerings? While at least one site reports that Comcast’s service will offer mostly new content that is not available at other sites, I wouldn’t expect it to stay that way if On Demand Online is a success. That could put it in direct competition with sites like Hulu, which would be bad news for the long term viability of Hulu. Worse yet, if Comcast succeeds, could the television networks rethink the free model of sites like Hulu, and pull their content?
2. It would fracture the online television viewing experience Even now, it can be a challenge at times to hunt down a show online, when you’re not sure which service carries it. The addition of one more streaming television site would further fracture the market, eliminating the possibility of a single-stop experience. While not the end of the world, this is less than ideal for consumers, especially the less tech-savvy ones.
3. It will drive up prices Many people would love to see the day when the cable television conglomerates become irrelevant, after years of price increases. With the advent of sites like Hulu, it seemed like those days might be on the distant horizon. But if cable providers preemptively use one area of market strength (traditional television) to muscle their way to dominance in the online world, what do you think will happen to prices? History has already told us the answer to that question. Some might argue that technology like BitTorrent provides an alternative that could keep prices in check, but the use of BitTorrent is a foreign concept to the average user.
4. You won’t get any breaks on your bandwidth My initial thought when I learned of the On Demand Online service, was that it might spell good news for bandwidth caps. Surely, Comcast could not impose its 250 GB monthly cap on users of this service? I was surprised to learn that Comcast will count On Demand Online traffic towards its 250 GB monthly bandwidth cap. Yes, you will have bandwidth concerns regardless of how you get your internet television content. At least with Hulu or other options, though, the bandwidth is your only additional cost. You aren’t paying a television subscription fee as well. With Comcast, it will be a double whammy, since you will still have to pay your cable television bill. In theory, Comcast could change its policy, and give its On Demand traffic special treatment so that it didn’t count against the cap. Or could it? Would that be similar to the traffic shaping practices for which Comcast has already gotten slapped by the FCC?
5. Your use of third party hardware will be restricted You may have heard about the whole Hulu/Boxee fiasco, where the Boxee media server platform provided for fairly seamless access to Hulu content, until Hulu blocked that access at the request of its content providers (presumably the television networks). What followed was a game of cat and mouse, with Boxee finding a workaround, and Hulu blocking access, back and forth. If you think that was bad, can you imagine what restrictions will be in place on a cable company sponsored service, especially if the cable companies drive Hulu out of business? A lack of competition stifles innovation, and fosters restrictions (just think of bandwidth caps). Ask TiVo about the headaches they’ve had getting cable companies to play nice without FCC involvement. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I predict that most cable companies will aim for a very controlled environment, with only authorized third party hardware able to play online content. And that is if we’re lucky. So, what do you think? Is traditional television going to die off? Or is the convergence of TV and internet never going to happen? Whether it is or not, will you be rooting for a service like Comcast On Demand Online?