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We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the emptiness of the center hole that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
Maxwell Wessel makes the case that the status quo of today’s entrenched cartel of TV networks and cable companies could be disrupted by an alternative to cable internet: Wimax.
Maxwell Wessel, The Inevitable Disruption of Television
For about a year now, I’ve been warning producers that disruption is coming. And for about a year now, the conversation has ended the same way. Bundling good. Internet expensive. Studios infallible. If I can pull myself together before boarding a plane, I always respond with Rogers’ observation. The ecosystem will develop. But after this last trip, the standard response wasn’t enough. I felt compelled to not only to speak in generalities, but to find an actual solution. So I did.
As soon as I landed in Boston, I committed to finding a substitute for my bundled internet / television package. Something that would break away from the overpriced value chain. And in just one evening, I found my solution in the form of 4G wireless connectivity.
With a little bit of research, I found that I could subscribe to Clear — a disruptive internet service provider that leverages 4G technology instead of an expensive fiber-optic network — for just $49 a month. They would send me a small device (1/2 the size of a dollar bill) that would create a small wifi network wherever I took it. It would provide me with unlimited internet, allowing me to both cut the Comcast cord and reduce my monthly bill with my smartphone carrier. It wouldn’t be as fast as my Comcast subscription, promising about one third the speed of my existing connection, but it would theoretically be fast enough. So I ordered it.
In two days, I had a broadband connection and no Comcast bill. I can stream television shows wherever I am, take my high speed internet with me when I walk out of the door in the morning, and pay about half of what I did before (even including the cost of Hulu Plus).
For most people, this solution probably isn’t quite good enough. 4G internet speed is noticeably slower than wired broadband and there isn’t nearly as much content available through Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon as there is housed within a 150 channel Comcast bundle. But as compression technology improves, the 4G infrastructure is expanded, and the quality of internet video improves, my guess is the solution will appeal to more and more consumers. It’s disruption in its most basic form. And it doesn’t hurt my thesis that Time Warner, Comcast, Cox, and the Dish Network represent four of America’s 19 Most Hated Companies. People are primed to embrace disruption in telecommunications.
4G is not going to cut it for most people, even for me. I have 4G on my iPhone, and I used it as a connection when in transit or hotels that charge for internet access. But it’s too slow for watching Netflix, in general. LTE-Advanced, also called 4.5G, on the other hand is theoretically capable of up to 1 gigabit, around 10 times faster than 4G, but in practice it will only deliver 15 megabits per second, only a hair better than 4G’s normal 12 megabits.
But the thinking is right. Imagine a hypothetical 5G standard, which actually delivers 1 gigabit/second. I am predicting that we will see that come about in the next five years because the adoption of high performance mobile devices — smartphones and tablets — is where the action is today, and the benefits of always on connectivity are so great.
So, then we will see the end of the cable internet choke point, and the collapse of the old TV cartel. Yes, today you need the cable connection anyway, so forcing people to buy the triple-play of TV, internet and phone service seems to make sense. But everyone has a cell phone, and uses that preferentially, so the phone line via cable is superfluous. Once the internet via cable becomes superfluous the TV cartel will break down.
We will be getting our internet connection from our mobile devices, and pumping the video and audio stream to the dumb TV in the corner from there. No cable boxes. No cable companies. No cable bills. No cable TV networks.
I had a few moments at SxSW where I had to plug in my phone in a coffee shop or the back of a hotel ballroom because little provision is made for our energy consumption needs at most conferences, and certainly not at SxSW. In one case, I was several hundred feet from a friend doing a talk, so I could barely hear, because I needed to stay on line to try to connect with other friends.
But the deeper truth is that we are suffering the Spider’s Brain dilemma. A spider’s brain encircles its esophagus, and as the brain has evolved in size, spiders have progressive moved from solid food to drinking the fluid remnants of their prey after it is partially digested by injected digestive agents. So they have reached a limit — at least without evolving a very different shape for their exoskelton.
We are reaching the limits of power on mobile devices, especially if we are going to be using more apps that self-synchronize with the outside world, or run in the background, and also because 4G wireless will require more power.
My single biggest takeaway from SXSW was all the talk about battery life. Every single person. All the time. People changing plans because they needed to recharge their phones. People walking around with chargers. People who were chargers. Mophies galore. People uninstalling apps that would drain power. People putting phones into airplane mode in areas of weak signal. People borrowing other phones so they didn’t have to waste the power on their phone.
Power. Power. Power.
This talk is nothing new of course, but it’s ramping up. As we transition into an LTE world, it’s going to be more and more of an issue, as Farhad Manjoo points out today. One of the most impressive things about the new iPad is the fact that it maintains the 9 to 10 hour battery life even with the addition of LTE. The next question is if they can do that with the iPhone as well. We’ll see. It’s gonna need a bigger battery.
Manjoo is right that unlike the rest of the technology we use everyday, battery technology hasn’t evolved all that much over the past few decades. It’s constantly being refined and perfected, but it’s still largely the same. Want more battery life? Get a bigger battery.
If someone can truly disrupt this space, it will act as a lubricant that accelerates our already amazing pace of technological transformation.
Maybe wireless power sources that constantly charge and re-charge devices is the ultimate answer. But it just seems like battery technology is really ripe for disruption.
I agree. But with the proviso that the solution might come from a breakthrough in chips that might require significantly less power. Changing either side of the equation — or both — is the real opportunity.