Facing the Sundance reality

What's interesting to industry insiders isn't relevant to where the industry's going

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in every industry, if you define "interesting" as the kind of thing that a practitioner of the space will jump for joy at the prospect of reading.

Think of how much fun reading about PVC pipe trends is to plumbers, for example. The problem is that a lot of the stuff that's interesting to industry insiders isn't relevant to where the industry's going. The month that we've spent pouring over the questions of WiMAX that the Sprint/Clearwire deal raised might have been better spent talking about Sundance and Newsday.

No, not the Sundance Kid (though there's probably some larceny in networking's soul), Sundance the independent film company. Newsday is a New York-area newspaper. Both these deals were in the US$650 million range, both were made by Cablevision. Google sunk about US$500 million in Clearwire and it got a lot of attention, but neither of Cablevision's acquisitions seems to matter much. But they both do; they may light the direction the industry has to take.

Service providers tell me that their revenue per bit is sinking at 50 per cent per year. Bits are devaluing pretty fast, in other words. That doesn't stop us from getting excited about stuff that promises to create more bits, though. We're happy with 100G Ethernet, we're ecstatic about 4G, fiber to the home (FTTH) sends shivers up our spines, and 802.11n? Name your price! All this when the only solution to declining revenue per bit is to consume more bits doing stuff people are willing to pay for . . . like content.

Content sure has a different price trend than bits. The average Hollywood film probably costs about $50 million to make these days, which is more than four times what it was 10 years ago. Content in general is not getting cheaper, not commoditizing -- it's getting more expensive. So why is Sundance, a film company, not a great thing to talk about as an investment by a cable company? What do we expect from cable TV if not . . . well . . . vision? That's the second half of the word "television" after all. A cable company can't produce a bit that looks any different from anyone else's bit, but it can sure produce independent and unique content, providing it has the resources. Sundance provides those resources.

Then there's news, and sports, and stuff that newspapers cover. Cablevision outbid News Corp for Newsday, and probably only won because News Corp was afraid of the antitrust implications after having bought The Wall Street Journal. What's News Corp buying? Not bits, gang, content. There's no "Bit Corp" out there making headlines with profitability, so why are we so focused on bits? Outside of perhaps the fact that this is the networking industry we're in.

Perhaps we should think about our role differently; we're not in business to produce bits, we're in business to find things to consume them. Voice services are commoditizing fast, both wireline and mobile. Consumer Internet services aren't a license to print money even today, or VCs would be funding FTTH start-ups. In fact, they're letting FTTH start-ups go under, which should tell us something about what might be commoditizing down the line.

Video is the future of networking, so where does it come from? Do we believe that everybody is going to watch ads Google sticks on YouTube video and that this is going to fund the build-out of broadband Internet to everyone? If not, then who does the content? Cablevision thinks that Sundance can. Might a news organization, a company that gathers all that "Breaking News" stuff people read in papers, be able to generate something that people would watch? Could the ad sales process that sells space ads in newspapers sell ads for online services or commercials for TV shows?

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Thomas Nolle

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