On the impending death of broadcast TV…

Can guess the source of the screen image?
Can guess the source of the screen image?

According to this article in AllThingsD, Apple is pitching the idea of subscription-based TV via iTunes to content producers. I’m assuming the idea is “pay $30/month and see as much stuff on iTunes as you like”. I further assume that Apple’s business model will remain “we make money on hardware, you make money on content” (i.e. 30% for Apple to cover costs, 70% to … someone … for content). I’m certainly no expert, but from my random readings on the subject, Apple’s deals generally favor content-producers to a staggering degree compared to pretty much anyone else. (Amazon, purportedly, takes 70% of eBook revenues from the Kindle, which is quite a lot given the pretty much total lack of added value on their part. Similarly, Cable TV companies pay only a tiny fraction of subscriber fees to content producers.)

The main thing preventing iTunes from being the best deal for TV as things stand (aside from piracy, of course) is the lack of content. Only two-thirds of the TV shows I’d want to watch are available via iTunes, and many of those are available for free (with ads) from Hulu. The cost of buying all the TV shows I’d like to watch and/or buy each month (that aren’t available for free on Hulu or elsewhere) is significantly lower than the cost of digital cable (but not basic analog) if they were available.

$30/month is the same as the cost of 15 TV episodes on iTunes (or 10 HD episodes). A lot of people would do the arithmetic and figure — OK which episodes will I end up buying on DVD or similar? If you’re like me and end up buying about five seasons of TV per year ($150-250) and would be just as happy to have a digital copy (I, for one, would prefer to give up on DVDs which are fragile and easy to misplace) then you can figure in another $15-20/month. Who has time to watch 17-25 episodes of TV each month? TV via iTunes is already competitive with broadcast/cable/DVD in terms of price to viewers and, I suspect, return to content producers, but the question is whether everything you want to watch is available.

And the real problem is that if you want a good broadband connection in the US, you’re basically stuck with cable or DSL, both of which come bundled with TV in some way or another. So Apple has two problems — making more content available and overcoming the bundling of legacy TV content with broadband.

Brief Adventures in 3G

During my recent hospital visit I found myself desperately in need of internet connectivity. The hospital provided wireless internet in the main “food court” area, which was a significant hike (the hospital covers multiple city blocks joined by 2nd to 6th floor crosswalks) from my wife’s bedside, so I settled for daily email checks along with my morning coffee.

But if hospital is one thing, it’s boring, and my craving for internet connectivity eventually got the better of me.

My wife and I have been planning to get 2nd Generation iPhones as soon as our Verizon account expires and assuming Apple releases a second generation iPhone we like (preferably with 3G networking and SDHC support or a lot more internal storage) but in the meantime, what to do?

It turns out that Verizon offers several wireless broadband solutions via their 3G network. The options are: PC card modem, USB modem, or 3G cellphone. Since I didn’t want to buy a modem or get locked into a plan, I decided to try the 3G cellphone option.

Now, I’ve used the iPhone to browse the web via its EDGE network both in stores (after getting an Apple person to show me how to turn off WiFi) and using friends’ iPhones in random places, notably in the stadium with 110,000 people at a Crimson Tide home game (where I would say that EDGE was uselessly slow).

Well, I’ve tried Verizon 3G both through my Motorola RAZR v3 (c? m?) with varying levels of reception (we get full bars in our house) and the best results I could squeeze out of this “3G” “wireless broadband” network was roughly comparable to what we got out of EDGE at anything other than a Crimson Tide game. That is, for about two minutes, I was able to slowly view simple web pages. Aside from that, whether using my cellphone as a modem via USB or Bluetooth, or browsing directly on the phone, I got unbearably slow throughput. At the end of all my browsing attempts, the running totals on the bandwidth meter were all still zeroes.

They tell you “5GB is effectively unlimited”. I was concerned by the 5GB limit (since they charge you a ridiculous $0.50/MB over the limit) but I don’t think even a dedicated masochist with a point to prove could bear to suck 5GB per month down this particular straw even if it were theoretically possible. From my experience having managed to upload and download a total of less than 512kB (I’m assuming more would have rounded to something beyond “0”) I’d need to completely restart my connection and my phone (the latter a painfully slow process fraught with reminders that I’m a Verizon customer who will not be extending my service plan) about ten times per MB downloaded, which means to download 5GB I’d need to restart my phone 50,000 times. By back of envelope that’s about ten solid days of watching my phone’s shutdown and startup animations.

(I should add that separate tests at home where we get “more bars” produced scarcely better results.)

I’m sure that, in theory, 3G is pretty wonderful. In practice, however, the speed of Verizon’s 3G network in downtown Birmingham is atrocious (or is it the Motorola v3 (c? m?)), and it would be faster to walk to a WiFi hotspot to download a few web pages. Assuming you have WiFi support, which the iPhone does and most of its rivals do not.

Oh and when I cancelled the 3G data “feature” on my phone account, Verizon charged me pro-rata for the fraction of a month I kept it, even though I stopped using it after the second day and clearly got nothing out of it. Thanks Verizon.