Is cable dead? The problems with providers, competition, and access seem familiar.

Is cable dead? Respected technology writer Doc Searls thinks so. In his blogpost today he talks about the recent example of Al Jazeera restricting its online Al Jazeera English stream in the US when it began broadcasting its cable channel, Al Jazeera America, on August 20. Searls’ take is that Al Jazeera’s move to cable is a backwards one; he sees it as sacrificing the future for the past.

Cable may not be dead – yet. I think that Al Jazeera’s sacrificing a bit in the short term and playing the long game in order to have access to the American market. But what is interesting is Al Jazeera’s explanation for the move: “Due to copyright and distribution restrictions, not all viewers will be able to access all of our streaming video services.” It highlights the distinction between cable channel (content) and cable provider (access), and the power that providers currently have over what viewers can see.

Time Warner Cable, which owns CNN, immediately dropped Al Jazeera America from its lineup. (In other news, they have also blacked out CBS in several major markets during their fee negotiations but will undoubtedly reach an agreement before football season starts.) AT&T’s U-verse pay-TV service said it wouldn’t carry Al Jazeera America because of a contract dispute.

The customers served by these providers have no choice in the matter. They can’t see Al Jazeera America – yet.

In almost all US markets there is a monopoly on the provision of cable services. Susan Crawford, a communications policy expert and a professor at the Cardozo School of Law, warns in her recent book “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age” that a handful of cable companies have become monopolies that stifle competition and innovation. Crawford compares the cable company structure to that of the 19th century railroad and steel monopolies, which faced minimal competition Continue reading