INTERACTIVE: BEHIND THE HYPE/COULD THE NET BE SPREAD BY CABLE?; Can cable technology attract more users to the Internet?

Mairi Clark sees that the CCA’s cable push could be the start of the spread of the Net via the telephone

Mairi Clark sees that the CCA’s cable push could be the start of the

spread of the Net via the telephone

Apart from the added programming choice and the absence of a dish, the

average consumer’s knowledge of cable is pretty limited. Certainly they

know that cable can help you cut phone bills, although you have to

change your phone number. But that’s about it.

Indeed, confusion still reigns among many about the difference between

cable and Sky and whet-her, if you get cable, you can also get Sky. And

as for the possibilities of using cable interactively and to get on to

the Internet...well, most have little conception of that.

All that may be about to change, however. At least that’s what the Cable

Communications Association hopes when it launches its first generic

campaign next week thro-ugh J. Walter Thompson. The basic brief is a

simple one: raise awareness and increase the number of subscribers. It’s

after that, though, that it gets more interesting for those involved in

interactive media, because one of the tasks of the campaign is to

convince customers that there’s more to cable than just programmes and

phones - for example, that it might offer a better alternative for

Internet users and, further down the road, for services such as video on

demand and home-based transactions. The big question then is: can cable

pull this off?

Mike Hayes, marketing director at the Cable Communications Association,

seems to think so. ‘Cable is growing faster than VCRs or CDs ever did.

We’re gaining 60,000 new subscribers a month. The whole campaign is

trying to make people realise that cable is much more than a programme

provider. We’re not saying subscribe to us for programmes, we’re saying

subscribe to us for programmes you want to watch. We offer what people

want. Nearly a quarter of homes have cable passing them. By the end of

the year that figure will almost double to 45 per cent. That’s why we’ve

only started advertising now. Not enough people had access to it

before,’ he explains.

But it’s the prospect of connecting to the Internet through the cable

company’s phone system that offers added value both to the consumer and

to the cable provider. Would consumers be more encouraged to connect to

the Internet via the cheaper cable phone systems, especially if the

apparent expense of going ‘online’ had been a hindrance in the past?

But, although using the Internet via cable might be cheaper, it wouldn’t

initially be any quicker - which is what most users want. Despite the

hype around fibre-optic cabling and cable modems, speedier access is

still a glint in the CCA’s eye.

This also raises questions about what, in the future, will be the prime

vehicle for interactivity. For example, will it be the PC - in which

case cable might be marginalised - or will it be the set-top box

through which the phone, TV and computer are all run?

Separately, some cable companies are currently conducting tests into

cable modems that can receive information 100 times faster than the

average modem, and fibre-optic cabling which can carry more information

than traditional copper wire.

The key to this is band-width. To connect to the Internet via these

means you need to have broadband access to speed up delivery. Current

telephones work on narrowband access. This broadband access requires

more technology and so will cost more money.

Andrew Curry, head of interactive television at Videotron, is sceptical

about the attractiveness of this. ‘I wouldn’t get too excited about

cable modems. We are a year to 18 months away from the accessibility of

that. Businesses will probably be more keen, as speed is what matters to

them. They do offer a very fast service but are also very expensive.’

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Mike Wood, the media director at the

CCA’s agency, JWT, is convinced that the future of cable will be every

bit as exciting as it’s promised to be.

‘Commentators are lacking vision. Technology is like the railway system.

People would build tracks almost to nowhere, yet towns and whole

industries grew around those tracks. The railways were a conduit for

industry; cable will be a conduit for interactivity.’

Although their usefulness to Internet users seems uncertain, the cable

modems will still be beneficial to other interactive services such as

home banking and home shopping. Wood thinks this is only four or five

years away. ‘Time Warner has set up a 21st-century cable system in

Orlando where people are using, on a day-to-day basis, interactive

services such as home banking, home shopping and are even ‘going’ to the

post office,’ he says. ‘Technology is becoming more and more important.

Cable will be better than the Internet. For a start, it will be much

faster. You’ll still need to plug into a computer somewhere to translate

the information on the Internet. So there’s a small technological jump

to be made.’

But, Wood adds, the key to it is entertainment. ‘People will pay for TV

entertainment. Nothing comes near to TV as the nation’s favourite

pastime. Cable offers everything the consumer needs: information,

banking, even things like ‘going’ to the doctor and buying a car. It’s

going to be huge.’

Andrew McIntosh, media intelligence manager at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO,

doesn’t share all Wood’s enthusiasm for cable but agrees that people

want entertainment. ‘There is a huge assumption that people want

interactive programming. People’s interaction with technology is very

low. They want entertainment and they don’t want to have to make

decisions about what comes next. I don’t think most people would bother

to choose.’

Nor does he believe that interactivity and connecting to the Internet is

a big plus for cable viewers. ‘A small minority of the audience may

embrace it,’ McIntosh says. ‘But it’s basically the difference between

ready-made furniture and stuff you have to build yourself. It is not

going to make a big difference to Internet users. People aren’t going to

start signing up in droves because of a few pence saving, not when they

have to fork out pounds 1,200-pounds 1,500 already. It’ll just make

things easier for current Internet users.’

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