TV carriers can move quickly to fend off Web competition

Advent of Web content for TVs from the likes of Apple and Google will put pressure on carriers, but they have the upper hand for now.

COMMUNICASIA, SINGAPORE--The advent of TV content from tech firms such as Apple and Google will put a squeeze on carriers' businesses, but the latter has deep footholds in the broadcasting arena that will give them the upper hand if they move quickly, says Irdeto executive.

Bengt Jonsson, vice president of sales, Asia-Pacific, for Irdeto, said in an interview with ZDNet Asia at CommunicAsia, pay TV operators today are wary of the impending competition from Internet players eyeing the same space.

"Many of the traditional pay TV operators come from a landscape where they're delivering linear content, and their competition [has been] other broadcasters," said Jonsson.

But the likes of Apple and Google are threatening to change the status quo, with these adding the choice of the Web to the ordinary TV experience, he said.

Apple has been offering its TV appliance for several years. Although not the runaway success Apple had hoped, reports surfaced in November last year of the company's intentions to strike deals with content owners to make shows available on a subscription basis to users.

This model apes the traditional TV model, where users pay per month, compared with previous Apple TV products which made content available on a pay-per-view basis.

More recently, Google came out to stake its claim on the TV space as well. It announced last month at its Google I/O event that it wants to bring the Web to TV via Android-based TVs and set-top boxes.

Underscoring the seriousness of its intentions was the panel of industry bigwigs it had invited to the showcase, which included CEOs from Intel, Sony, Best Buy and Adobe.

Irdeto vice president of technology, Werner Strydom, said consumers are starting to demand a more personalized experience in the living room. While in the past, people had to agree to watch the same programs on TV in the traditional, communal setting, the arrival of more screens--mobiles, tablets, portable players--means there are other ways of getting content. As such, consumers are getting used to controlling what they watch, he said.

But the ownership of the "central TV" still belongs to the broadcasters, he said. The idea of the TV is still different from watching content on a computer--users expect the former to be fuss-free, not requiring them to download or install any programs, and they return to the TV as a staple source of entertainment, Strydom explained.

For that reason, broadcasters should move quickly to add customization options and interactivity to existing set-top boxes in order to hold onto customers, he said. "Something as simple as being able to skin the interface, or the ability to add a recommendation engine for new shows to users, for example," said the executive.

Furthermore, a big part of carriers' abilities to deliver such services is also rooted in their existing investments with customers, Strydom noted.

Carriers typically have extensive customer record management systems primarily for billing purposes, but these can be tapped for customer insight just by adding a few extra parameters to the databases, he said. This information can be used to upsell well-tailored services to users or even targeted advertising campaigns, he said.

Jonsson added: "Broadcasters need to act now by building on their infrastructure strengths. This will prevent the competition from nibbling at the edges of their businesses."

Rehan Allahwala, who runs a streaming site delivering archives of TV content from Pakistan called TVPakistan.com, agreed that users are seeking TV content on demand.

Allahwala's site attempts to archive live, free-to-air content, which users can rewatch by visiting the site and streaming their clips of choice.

He was less optimistic about broadcasters' roles in future, in light of online alternatives.

"The carriers haven't figured out what to do with the online competition. They're so big, they don't take anyone seriously," he said to ZDNet Asia on the sidelines of the CommunicAsia tradeshow.

Allahwala said that a way for carriers to deal with the likes of Apple TV and Google could lie in striking deals with the Web players.

"Rather than compete, they could form exclusive partnerships to resell the [Apple or Google] appliances.

"I haven't watched live TV for years. Other than news, I don't care that my programs aren't live," said Allahwalla.

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