Cable Wises Up

Cable is tired of being the dumb pipe and has spent the past five years and $42 billion to prove it.

Cable is tired of being the dumb pipe and has spent the past five years and $42 billion to prove it.

Now, the challenge is coming up with two-way services that both exploit the sophisticated new digital cable networks and are worth paying for. The top of the list is sure to include a dizzying array of gee-whiz consumer services — video-on-demand with VCR functionality, shopping or multiplayer gaming. But Im not convinced those are the highest, best uses of the basic bandwidth that snakes its way past about 98 million homes in the U.S.

Call me a skeptic, but my guess is that even though there are something like 10 million digital cable customers in the U.S. at the moment, add-on services beyond video-on-demand are going to be a tough sell.

Yeah, its cool to be able to call up sports statistics as you watch NFL playoff games. But if the package includes being pelted with trivia questions about the truck commercial that just aired, is it really worth shelling out the extra $5? Like the Web that went before it, I suspect that cable will find a more solid niche in a business-to-business approach.

Which makes me think that The Cable Center has more than a few credit hours riding on a five-year pilot education program announced last week.

The Cable Center hasnt yet moved into its home near the University of Denver, but by next spring it expects to be offering two for-credit political communications courses from its new Distance Learning Studio.

The shorthand version of the program, underwritten by cable pioneer Amos B. Hostetter Jr., goes something like this: The center will offer the courses to University of Denver students, who will meet at the Distance Learning Studio. Recently retired University of Maryland professor John Splaine has been tapped to lead the program. He will teach the course from C-SPANs headquarters in Washington, D.C. Satellite and high-speed fiber lines and broadcast-quality cameras will be used to establish a live, two-way communications link.

The setup also will give students and Splaine access to C-SPANs on-location cameras and to the cable networks massive archive of political programming.

Though The Cable Centers mission keeps CEO James OBrien focused on the programs educational potential, he admits the project also serves as a test bed for applications with broader appeal.

"I think the message is that broadband cable technology really does work and can be used in many applications," OBrien explains. "This is one that we think makes good sense. Its not blue-sky technology.

"Say theres a corporation based in Denver that wants to link in with four or five of their business units around the U.S., or the world for that matter; we have the technology for live interface. It can save time and money by cutting down travel.

"We think theres a broader audience in the tech world, seeing how to use the technology for something other than technologys sake and delivering something tangible," OBrien says.

And frankly, as cable consumers, thats all were asking for.