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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Arming Cable Against the Open Internet

Cable television companies are distressed about how quickly Internet and mobile viewing are stealing customers. Now, technology firms want to sell them ways to offer the personal choice of mobile, while justifying the goodies that come to someone who pays for a subscription.

Companies as diverse as Cisco Systems, known for enterprise networking equipment, and Adobe, with its origins in graphics, are working closely with cable companies and other broadcasters to deal with competition from Internet broadcasting. They don’t want people to stop watching video on their phones, or away from their living room boxes, but they do want to control it.

“All the cable companies recognize that there is a fundamental shift in video consumption, driven by device proliferation and broadband over the air,” said Jeremy Helfand, vice president for video at Adobe. “They have gone from a fear of cannibalizing their business to looking for opportunities for revenue growth.”

What the cable providers do not have is a strong background in managing people across many different devices, or creating an Internet experience that is attractive for the extras it offers subscribers.

“Our customers are all contending with the cloud,” said Marthin de Beer, the head of Cisco’s video and collaboration group. “Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Apple TV â€" all of these ‘over the top’ video companies don’t own a network, they ride on top of other people’s networks.”

As a result, he said, the cable companies, which count on subscriber income to sustain their networks, “are stepping up, delivering a lot of new experiences to slow down the cord-cutting.”

Cisco offers connections into the network, through devices like mobile phones or tablets, that enable cable customers to watch shows anywhere, record programs to watch when they return home or get extras not available with standard shows. People will still connect their mobile devices over the Internet, but with a separate log-in that will have access to the benefits.

Later this year Cox, the large cable provider, will offer its subscribers a mobile app with access to 40,000 hours of content from the Cox library. Subscribers to premium services like HBO will be able to open the HBO app within the Cox app, where they can get extras like maps of the lands in “Game of Thrones.” The idea is to keep viewers inside the Cox environment as much as possible. Cisco has to manage all the rights and security through its network.

“We’re interested in what customers are telling us is important,” said Len Barlik, Cox’s chief product officer. “It boils down to making the experience more personal, at home or outside. They view it as their content.”

Cox is also testing a high-speed wireless service over metropolitan areas, available to its Internet subscribers. Cisco hopes eventually to offer premium subscribers faster wireless speeds and better video quality, depending on what they pay.

Much of this is possible now for a number of reasons. Last year Cisco paid $5 billion for NDS, a maker of software for cable systems, which it has incorporated with its network security and authorization products. Perhaps more important, cable companies are feeling the heat like never before; Mr. de Beer said 10 million people watched the most recent Super Bowl on devices like personal computers, phones and tablets.

On Wednesday at the National Association of Broadcasters’ video trade show in Las Vegas, Adobe is introducing Adobe Primetime, a TV platform for programmers and cable companies. Comcast and NBC Sports have been working with Adobe on it.

Adobe entered the online marketing and Web analytics business with its acquisition of Omniture in 2009, and also provides the plumbing for lots of over-the-top video through its flash technology. Primetime is an effort to track online video viewing the way Web surfing is watched, and includes personalized ads.

“Cable proved that people will pay for video and tolerate ads,” Mr. Helfand said. On Internet videos, he said, “the ad experience of prerolls interferes with the experience.”

As with Cisco, Adobe’s most valuable offering to cable providers is management of all the different traffic, since different device configurations and operating systems, like Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, have different requirements. Like Cisco, Adobe offers a subscriber authentication system, as well as ways to segment audiences, and serve different ads in live, on-demand and streaming shows over mobile devices.