In order to survive the internet era, cable TV providers underwent a vital transformation. Telco service providers might want to take some lessons from that experience.

TV as a service: the dawn of cable

Once upon a time, cable TV took over prime-time viewing. I remember the interface well: a plastic box, about the size of a sandwich, connected to my parents’ old TV. The device was very easy to operate, because it only had two buttons: A and B. The A button put the TV in antenna mode, which is the mode that all TVs had been in, all the time, before cable. The B button put the TV in cable mode, which meant that certain channels (very few at the time) would receive a signal over the cable. Channel 2B was HBO.

Apart from the excitement of receiving the content itself, there was something simple and intuitive about 2B. It was reliable. There was no need to adjust the antenna or to fine-tune the UHF/VHF dial. The viewer was, after all, meant to be a passive recipient of the service. Cable TV, often associated with a black box physically connected to the wall, also represented the collapse of the more complex nuances of TV viewership into a metaphorical black box. Finally, TV “just worked.” TV was not just a thing that you bought and took home with you. TV was a service that was provided.

The culture of cable: laying the foundation

At the same time, the cables themselves were symbols of a cultural commitment to a new media infrastructure. Kids at school would ask each other: “Do you have cable yet?” My parents’ house, constructed around 1980, was built with cable outlets in all the bedrooms, a feature that was considered extravagant and futuristic at the time. The idea that cable TV might fail, that all the streets had been torn up for no reason, that every middle-class home was equipped with a new and unnecessary hole in the side, that a new generation of TVs without antennae and with the A/B box built in were going to go unused… this is not something that anyone talked about. It was as if the entire marketplace had made a collective decision that cable TV was The Way.

But cable could have gone away just a few decades later, rendering its whole infrastructure an embarrassing historical blip. Here’s how: the cable companies could have failed to become internet service providers. As I write this, I’m sitting in my parents’ living room with a laptop, using a Wi-Fi network that connects back to the very same cables that brought the younger version of myself HBO over good old channel 2B. The biggest parts of the infrastructure are the same, but the service has changed.

Telcos, service providers, and digital transformation

But how could cable companies have failed to become internet service providers? It’s simple. They could have refused to recognize that their infrastructure needed to start carrying data in both directions, instead of just one. They could have continued to think of themselves as glorified broadcast networks. They had to undergo a digital transformation.

Service providers that want to take part in the future growth are approaching a similar crossroads. The internet used to be mostly about downstream communication: the loading of a web page in a user’s browser. Now, with the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT), the data is going both ways. Millions of remote devices will soon be collecting and analyzing data, uploading the results, and talking to each other (M2M) in accordance with data traffic patterns that are, at present, impossible to predict. All this is part of 5G, the new standard for digital communication.

Some service providers have already begun the process of going through the digital transformation that will prepare them for the reality of 5G. Others have not. Has yours? Or, if you are a service provider, what steps are you taking to be ready for 5G?

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Michael Bennett Cohn
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Michael Bennett Cohn

Michael Bennett Cohn is a digital content expert with a wide range of experience in online publishing and advertising. He was head of digital product and revenue operations at Condé Nast, and he oversaw the digital ad campaign that launched the first Amazon Kindle. His journalism has been published by Newsweek, Mashable, and The Forward. He lives in Brooklyn.