T-Mobile, Layer3, and the uncarriering of TV

Last week, T-Mobile announced it will acquire Layer3. In his usual John Legere manner, T-Mobile CEO John Legere promised to end the “complete bullshit” of traditional TV by ushering in the uncarriering of TV. But Layer3 is a cable TV provider, except over the Internet. It’s not entirely clear how T-Mobile plans to improve things.

Unlike services like Sling, which offer smaller packages, Layer3’s offering is sized like traditional cable bundles. Reporting from Ars Technica suggests the pricing is sized like traditional cable bundles, too. Layer3 does not have an app, which means customers have to use individual channels’ apps to watch when on the go.

The Layer3 website is a little short on information, so it’s hard to tell what the value proposition is. It could be that it’s cheaper for large bundles or that it has a broader offering. It seems to be a good fit for T-Mobile in this sense: it’s geographically limited and possibly cheaper. And I say this as a T-Mobile customer (and minor shareholder). What could T-Mobile do to improve it?

My idea for the uncarriering of TV

This is hardly a novel concept, but I’d like to see a true à la carte offering. Let me choose the exact channels I want to subscribe to and pay whatever that amounts to. I have Sling TV now, and it mostly gives me all of the channels I want, but it still includes some I don’t. I would have to get the most expensive option in order to get all the channels. At that point, I’d do just as well getting TV from my fiber provider. I have no problem paying for the content I want, I just want to be able to get it from a single source.

What will probably happen

A more likely outcome is that T-Mobile fixes the price. Instead of the “introductory offer” dance that TV providers often do, they say “this is the price.” It almost certainly would be zero-rated for T-Mobile customers. Watch as much TV as you want on your T-Mobile phone, it won’t count.

I would be surprised to see unbundling of channels into an à la carte offering. With its “ONE” plan, T-Mobile has shown a clear preference for simple billing. Even if customers might prefer more flexibility, a simple plan with few options is easier to manage for both customer and provider. I don’t think John Legere particularly wants to get into the TV business, so there’s little benefit to T-Mobile for going the more complicated route.​

We’ll have to see what happens when the new service rolls out.

Severe weather outlooks on TV

At the end of October, the Storm Prediction Center changed the categories used in severe weather outlooks in order to more clearly communicate risk. These outlooks, like many NWS products, started as a way of communicating information to other meteorologists, emergency managers, et cetera. Though they weren’t designed with public consumption in mind, social science has helped to shape some of the changes. The Internet means that weather products are available to anyone who is looking for them.

What I’ve noticed since then is that not all of the local TV stations have gone along for the ride. A while ago, I asked one of the local meteorologists about this. His station discussed it internally and decided fewer categories made for less viewer confusion. I don’t have any reason to dispute that.

Severe weather outlook from the Storm Prediction Center.

Severe weather outlook from the Storm Prediction Center.

Severe weather outlook from NBC affiliate WXIN.

Severe weather outlook from NBC affiliate WXIN.

Severe weather outlook from CW affiliate WISH.

Severe weather outlook from CW affiliate WISH.

Severe weather outlook from Fox affiliate WXIN.

Severe weather outlook from Fox affiliate WXIN.

My main concern isn’t that the station doesn’t use the same categories as the SPC, but that different stations in the market use different categories. Of course, they should do what they think is in the best interests of their viewers. I’m certainly not suggesting there be mandatory unification. At the same time, I think stations having different risk categories is more confusing to the public than adding “marginal” and “enhanced” categories. Then again, TV weather seems to be one place that people have a specific and unwavering loyalty. Outside of weather weenies, I’m not sure there are too many people who would even notice differences between stations.

American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo

The Internet is abuzz with discussion in the wake of today’s ruling in American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo, but I can’t let it go by without offering my own opinion. As a “cord cutter” who lives an hour away from most of the over-the-air broadcasters, I have a personal interest in an Aereo-like service. I’d much rather pay $8/month to receive local television broadcasts over the Internet than to pay to install and maintain an aerial antenna. So it was with much dismay (but little surprise) that I read that the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against Aereo.

I won’t presume to say that I know the law better than six justices of the nation’s highest court. Indeed, I’m not convinced that the ruling is incorrect from a legal standpoint. It’s certainly true, as the majority held, that Congress acted in 1976 to prevent the retransmission of broadcasts by community antenna TV (CATV) systems. Aereo, according to the majority, is similar to the old CATV systems. The fact that the underlying technology is substantially different from CATV (particularly in that there’s a 1:1 correspondence between receiver and customer as opposed to the one-to-many of CATV) is irrelevant, only the customer-facing experience matters.

As Justice Scalia noted in his dissent, that’s a lousy argument. I’ll grant that Aereo was slavishly devoted to the strict letter of the law (a less generous description is “exploiting the hell out of loopholes”), but the technical implementation matters. Aereo subscribers have their own antenna (ephemerally-assigned, as I understand it) and their recordings are stored in their own account. It’s not much of a leap (except in the cost) to provide an antenna and run a coaxial cable directly from the antenna to the customer’s television. At that point, it would be very difficult to argue that the service provider is “performing”, even by the ludicrously broad definition in the 1976 update to the Copyright Act.

Even if the Court’s ruling today is technically correct for this specific case, I worry about the impact it will have on technological advances in general. While the majority took care to say that “those who act as owners or possessors of the relevant product”, you have to imagine that some enterprising entertainment lawyer is looking to step up the attack on services like Slingbox. Just as rulings against Napster, Grokster, and others have failed to end file sharing, consumers will still be able to find content they want online. It’s just a matter of whether or not the creators and distributors get paid for it. The content industry has shown to be remarkably out of tune with the consumer, and the Aereo ruling only delays the inevitable.

Of course, Aereo isn’t exactly being forced to shutter. They can stay in business by paying retransmission fees to the broadcasters (assuming such an option is economically viable for them). This is probably the outcome that would make the broadcasters happiest. The real money these days is in retransmission fees, not advertising, so broadening the viewer base without broadening the pool of people paying for content they’re entitled to (by virtue of living within the broadcast range of the station) isn’t nearly as lucrative. Alternately, if Aereo provided a specific antenna to each user (such that the user owned the antenna and Aereo just housed it), that might be sufficient to meet the conditions established in today’s ruling.

It’s unlikely that Aereo will do anything but shut down. Aereo’s CEO has said “there is no plan B”. While the Court’s ruling today may have been correct, it is wrong.

Hands-on with the Roku Streaming Stick

Two years ago, my wife and I decided that we didn’t really watch enough TV to justify a cable subscription. With a baby in the house, we tended to have the music channels on more than anything else. A Pandora subscription (that I already had) was more than a suitable replacement and Netflix could provide enough video to keep us entertained. So I bought a Boxee Box and we cut the cord. The Boxee Box was more expensive than other options, but it had the ability to stream from local media, which I thought would be a critical feature. As it turns out, we never used that.

It wasn’t too long after we bought the Boxee Box that Boxee decided to go in a different direction. The Boxee continued to work, but no more updates were coming. This meant not getting Netflix profiles. It meant that some streaming websites (particularly ESPN) no longer worked in the browser. And as I discovered at the beginning of baseball season, it meant no more MLB.tv.

That was the last straw. Since Roku had recently released their streaming stick, I decided to order one. At $50, it was far less than I had paid for the Boxee Box, and it supported everything we used on Boxee, plus additional content. I was pretty excited when I set it up. The excitement didn’t last long. I apparently got a lemon. Fortunately, the Roku technical support folks were helpful, and I had a replacement unit sent. The replacement has worked well for the last two weeks.

There was no particular reason I went for the streaming stick over other form factors. My TV can’t provide power directly, so I still have to plug it in to the wall. But it was cheap and relatively novel, so I figured “why not?” The streaming stick is a little under-powered; it takes considerably longer for Netflix to load than the Boxee Box did. It also lacks the QWERTY keyboard that was an excellent (albeit un-lit) feature of the Boxee Box’s remote. However, that’s the sum of my dislikes.

Roku has a large variety of apps, but unlike the Boxee, they aren’t all pre-installed. That means you only have to wade through the apps you want to use. Unlike Boxee’s apps, there are more than two that we use on the Roku. PBS and PBS Kids were immediate additions, as was NASA TV (my daughter is really into space right now). Weather Underground’s app is nice, when we bother to use it. The Pandora and Netflix apps work quite well. And, of course, MLB.tv allows me to get my fix of Orioles baseball. Since we got the Roku, the Boxee Box has remained off. This means no more loud fan noises, no more sudden jumps in Netflix volume, and no more having to manually shut it off when the shutdown menu doesn’t work. Clearly the Roku streaming stick was the right decision.

They don’t make TV like they used to

Last week the Internet greeted me with the news that Les Lye had died.  You may not know who Les Lye is, and I will admit that the name did not register when I first came upon it.  After reading the article, I was told that Les Lye was the sole adult on the hit Canadian show “You Can’t Do That on Television.” Way back when I was a youngster, Nickelodeon used to show episodes of “YCDTOTV” which I watched with great amusement.  I was too young to understand most of the jokes, but the slime was very appealing.

Friday night, I was just tooling around on YouTube and I found myself searching for episodes of YCDTOTV.  YouTube did not disappoint me — much.  They’re broken up into segments, and it seemed that a lot of the episodes were missing a segment or two.  It turns out that the website Blinkx has full episodes.  So I have a lot of catching up to do.

On Saturday, I decided to keep the nostalgia train rolling.  I discovered that Joost.com has episodes of the animated classic GI Joe!  Angie watched an episode with me, but she mostly laughed at me as I watched several more episodes while I was making dinner.  I LOVED GI Joe when I was a kid.  I cried when Duke was stabbed with that snake and went into a coma.  It was traumatic, don’t laugh.  Anyway, I don’t think I realized when I was a kid how hokey it was.  The Cheat Commandos was an over-the-top parody, according to my recollection.  It turns out that the parody is spot on.  Half of the enjoyment in watching the old GI Joe episodes is reliving the past, half is laughing at the plain goofiness of the show.

Eventually, I’ll have watched all of the episodes of these two shows that I can.  What next?  Well, I loved watching “Salute Your Shorts”, “Hey Dude” (I can still sing the entire theme song!), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, “Doug” (pre-Disney), and “Rugrats”.  Of course, there are toddler classics too: “Sesame Street”, “Reading Rainbow”, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, and “Shining Time Station.”  Man, I miss the 80s.