Dan Gillmor has a report on amazing technology in Hong Kong that allows TV over broadband, real broadband, not the poky nonsense we have here in the U.S., but the system is also autocratic. Is this our future as well?
- If the future of television is taking shape here, our choices of programming appear to be nearly infinite. But whether we have flexibility and freedom in how we use those choices will be someone else’s decision.
If a new digital age of television is emerging, it may look a lot like “Now Broadband TV,” a service launched earlier this fall by PCCW, Hong Kong’s dominant telecommunications company. By year’s end, it should have more than 200,000 subscribers, and could have as many as half a million in 2004.
Hong Kong is probably the world’s most competitive telecommunications market, and Now Broadband TV is one of several television operations here looking to compete in the pay-TV arena. But this service has some distinct advantages, not least its backing by PCCW, which sees it as an add-on more than a stand-alone offering.
The PCCW broadband-TV service, one of the first in the world , doesn’t use cable-television lines. It uses the copper phone lines in people’s homes, most of which are capable of truly high-speed digital subscriber line (DSL) data connections. Unlike the United States, where DSL customers are limited to speeds well below a megabit per second, the vast majority of Hong Kong’s DSL subscribers have connections at 6 megabits per second.
That’s fast enough to devote 4.5 megabits to a TV channel and still leave ample Web-surfing capacity. That’s just what PCCW has done, guaranteeing TV-quality service for the channels it offers. The company reconfigured its own central offices and is requiring broadband-TV customers to install special set-top boxes.
In most of the world, cable systems have large numbers of customers and negotiate with programmers on an all-or-nothing basis. They’ve trained viewers to believe the best way to get programming is to pay a flat fee for a grab bag of channels chosen by the company.
A la carte
By contrast, the PCCW service, which launched with 23 channels including some U.S.-based programming (a few more have been added), is entirely a la carte. Customers don’t buy a package of channels for a monthly price. They buy whichever channels they want, and pay a monthly price for each.
Channels range in price from about $1.30 to $5 a month, and higher in a couple of cases. PCCW and its content providers share the revenues in a formula that isn’t disclosed.
….But for all the possibilities, PCCW’s service is burdened by some of the most stringent control-freakery I’ve seen in the TV world. If you want to tape one of the TV programs to watch later, forget it. You can’t. Period.
The set-top boxes, based on DVD technology (many contain DVD players), have digital and analog outputs. But because the providers of the programming have been so paranoid about copying, PCCW has turned off customers’ ability to make even personal copies, whether digital or analog, of anything on any of the channels.
“It was a significant factor with a number of the content providers in giving them increased security of intellectual property, particularly in this part of the world,” Butcher says.
High-profile programmers, including an MGM movie channel, said they wouldn’t do a deal if any copying was allowed. Maybe, with some future channel, the conditions won’t be so strict, Butcher says.
PCCW’s lockdown prompted a letter of complaint to the editor of the South China Morning Post. The correspondent wrote: “Recording is essential to many viewers as it is generally difficult for busy Hong Kong citizens to watch TV according to broadcast schedules.”
How do you respond if the only way to get the goodies is on the terms of the content providers?