A TALK GIVEN AT SESSION 80 CANADIAN INFORMATION PROCESSING SOCIETY ANNUAL MEETING
VICTORIA, B.C., MAY 13TH, 1980
I know the topic of this Session was supposed to be the Wired City, but many of the most exciting happenings in the communications field these days are in the wireless world.
As I will discuss, this does not mean that coaxial cable should be coiled up on the floor and forgotten. Far from it. But we are going through another major change in the communications field which can be as dramatic as the change from the old copper wires of the early telegraph system to Marconi’s first demonstration of wireless telegraphy.
At the very time the cable companies and the telcos are trying to position themselves as to who should provide what wired services to the home, the whole technology is moving to even more potentially exciting developments.
My own company, premier Communications Limited, recently recognised this change by altering its name from Premier Cablevision Limited, a name which I felt was unduly restrictive. The communications industry should be looked at from the broadest possible perspective and should include all the many new and old methods for transmitting information between or among people and organisations.
THE MULTI MEDIA REVOLUTION
While this term is not as catchy as The Wired City, it is more descriptive of what is happening. First, the new communications revolution is not restricted to cities. Greater attention is being paid every day to reaching rural or sparsely inhabited areas in Canada. There is also a growing realisation of the power of new communications media for developing countries on a world-wide basis. So the ‘city’ part of The Wired City is no longer an adequate description.
Secondly, the word ‘wired’ is also less than an adequate term. The telcos and the cable companies are in danger of being hobbled by their own wires if they do not realise that people everywhere are making new choices about how they obtain entertainment, communications and information services. In addition to the traditional methods such as print media, over-the-air or cable television, and standard telephone service, one only has to look at the recent revolution in over-the-air services to realise that the term ‘Wired City’ no longer describes the state-of-the-art.
The most obvious component of this revolution is of course direct satellite to home transmission. With several hundred illegal earth stations operating in Canada at the present time, it is becoming increasingly obvious that neither broadcasters, cable companies nor telcos can in any way restrict what people will watch. Nor should they.
If cable companies are going to survive as video carriers they will have to emphasise that cable is the best means of moving and bending signals around urban areas. Secondly, they will have to become innovative programmers providing a range of services that will only be available over cable. But more of that later.
The availability of satellite transmission has led to some unique approaches for in-the-home video communications. For example, Subscription Television (STV) is one way of providing over-the-air pay television to subscribers. A movie package is received from a satellite and broadcast on the UHF frequency in a scrambled mode. A de-scrambler is provided to the subscriber for a monthly charge and he or she can then view the desired entertainment.
Another method of over-the-air video is Multi-point Distribution Service (MDS). Here the entertainment package is again received from satellite, relayed to an omni-directional microwave broadcaster, who as a common carrier then broadcasts the signal in a limited, e.g. 30-50 km, area. The subscriber needs only an addition to his existing television antenna and a down converter to translate the signal into a regular TV video signal. This approach is proving particularly popular in the United States where many good off-air video signals are already available, and cabling is therefore an expensive approach if only pay television is desired as an additional service.
One only has to look at the explosive growth in CB radio to realise that wireless communication is increasing in popularity. It is interesting to note that at the moment the CB approach is mostly restricted to car radios, but a new use of cable might be in-the-home CB communications, as suggested by Dr. Joseph Halina of the Cable Telecommunications Research Institute. This approach would use a two-way audio channel allowing people in their homes to communicate with others who share similar interests.
Another growing over-the-air phenomenon is the use of mobile telephones, paging devices or other limited distance wireless communications approaches.
In summary, there are many approaches to delivering both video and audio signals over-the-air starting with the traditional broadcasting approach and continuing with the innovative approaches noted above.
However, even further alternatives now exist. WIRELESS ENTERTAINMENT
While the cable companies and others are fighting for pay television rights, video tape recorders and video discs are already providing an interesting alternative to uncensored and ‘ no commercial’ in-the-home entertainment. The subscriber rents or buys the appropriate disc or tape and the only wires involved are those bringing power to the still somewhat expensive recorder and, of course, the TV set.
Although the difference may be semantic, there are other means of carrying signals that are not ‘wires’ in the usual sense.
There are few who do not believe that fibre optics or some variant thereof will ultimately replace coaxial cable as being the best means for relaying video or other wide bandwidth signals. Fibre optics is not yet the perfect answer for extensive video transmission over long distances. There are still tests being run in areas such as the proper sheathing of fibres, e.g. they have a tendency to shatter under certain conditions. However, these problems will be solved as there is the added incentive of an impending world copper shortage in the decades to come.
Wave guides and other means of relaying signals may also play an important role for certain types of applications.
One might argue that fibre optics and wave guides are not really wires at all.
THE WIRELESS WORLD
All of this is enough to remind us that the communications companies of the 1980’s and 90’s will have to be broadminded as well as broadbanded about what is really most sensibly handled by new wired and unwired techniques. Now we should look at where cable will play a major role in the Multi Media Revolution.
THE NEW ROLE OF CABLE
I have emphasised that coaxial cable will play a role for many years to come. Direct satellite transmission to homes will not likely be attractive in urban areas. Even though TVRO’s will get less expensive and smaller they are not a universal answer. After years of gradually getting rid of unsightly antennas from roof tops, I doubt that many urbanites will want to clutter up their roofs or gardens with one metre bird baths. Also, unless the receivers are agile or omni-directional, they will not be able to look at all the satellites carrying all the desired signals.
For years to come the preferred approach will be to have large dishes, less subject to interference from storms or other atmospheric disturbances, which will receive the signals and relay these through the cables to the homes.
Direct satellite signals are also subject to blockage by buildings or other obstructions.
Finally, the electromagnetic spectrum is getting very crowded. Fortunately, the high channel capacity of a coaxial cable or a fibre optic cable allows many signals to be carried with no appreciable external radiation. In fact it may be that the concept of over-the-air broadcasting in urban areas will disappear entirely. For example, in an area such as Vancouver or Victoria where cable has over 90% penetration, it would be more sensible for the broadcasters to simply supply their signal directly to the cable headend and use the broadcast approach only for remote areas reached by lower power repeaters or satellite.
THE WIRED WORLD IN THE EIGHTIES
In addition to the technical reasons for believing cable will be the best urban approach for years to come, I mentioned that cable companies will have to become more active programmers, providing unique services not available any other way.
The basic concept will be that, in return for a license to wire an area, the cable company will provide for a basic fee a series of basic services. These would include the transmission of Canadian broadcast signals and a certain number of public service signals. There might still be some local U.S. channels provided, but the priority would continue to go to Canadian broadcast signals.
Beyond that there will be multiple tiers of service for which the customer will pay or not as his tastes dictate. This is already becoming common in the United States where several levels of Pay Cable are available in many urban centres. Examples of such services would be first run movie channels, such as provided by Home Box Office, Showtime or others; sports channels, such as Madison Square Gardens; special language channels, such as Galavision appealing to Spanish speaking groups, etc.
At the present time this type of charging for tiered services is not allowed in Canada, although the Federal Government is holding Hearings this year on the possibility of allowing a primitive form of Pay Television in this country. (In the meantime, we should remember that Northern Canadians who are illegally watching the growing number of such signals from American satellites are really the advantaged Canadians when it comes to television viewing – a strange anomaly considering that the urban TV viewers were for many years the privileged group.)
BEYOND PAY CABLE
The cable companies can however provide a range of services which are much more imaginative. For example:
Cable Mag. This would be true narrowcasting. In the same way that people now subscribe to hard copy magazines in their particular areas of interest, the cable companies could provide specialised programming on boating, bridge, gardening or any other subject in which they believe a group of people would be interested. Those wanting that information would pay a subscription fee as they would for a magazine. In addition, advertisers who want to reach these specialised markets could support the process by placing their advertising on these channels. The advertiser would benefit by knowing that the viewers were specifically interested in the products offered. The viewer would really appreciate the relevant advertising as opposed some moral distaste to such an approach, we should remember that such gambling has already been condoned by governments in nearly every part of the world. The cable would only make the whole process more efficient and convenient. One can also argue that the morality lies in the use of the monies so raised rather than in the process. That is a much more complex question.
OTHER CABLE SERVICES
There has been so much talk about other possible cable services that I have deliberately avoided them in this discussion. I have been delivering talks and papers for at least eight years on the advantages of in-the-home education, teleshopping, cable-monitored security services, interactive polling, etc. Undoubtedly these will form part of the Multi Media Revolution that will be carried on cable.
The fact that so many of these services have been so long in coming is partly the fault of our industry which has just not been aggressive enough in making a case as to why these are both desired and feasible. However, some of the blame must also go to the regulatory authorities who seem to be so fearful that they might upset the traditional broadcasters by fragmenting audiences that they prevent anything from happening.
I believe that the greatest contribution cable companies to the lowest common denominator advertising and programming now received on the regular networks.
There is no doubt that the traditional over-the-air broadcasters will object to this, but they will still be able to offer material and advertising of broad general interest.
Cable Mag is one reason that we believe the 50-100 channels so often talked about will become a necessity in the years to come.
Cable Audio. A unique suggestion by James Martin in “Future Developments in Telecommunications” is the use of one video channel to provide perhaps 100 channels of high fidelity stereo music. Each channel could be dedicated to a particular type of music, or indeed a particular composer, e.g. one could have a Beethoven channel, a Scott Joplin channel, or whatever. It might even be possible for people to place requests for music to be played at or near a specific time. As the price of vinyl for records escalates with the cost of oil, cable could provide a limitless substitute for records in the home.
Cable Games. This term is often taken to mean games that can be attached to your TV set. I believe a broader definition would be using cable for in-the-home betting on real or computer simulated sporting or other events. In-the-home lotteries or bingo games would be quite possible. While there may be can make in the future will be in providing an enormous variety of services from which the public can choose and for which the public will pay according to their own desires. Surely this is the real challenge of the Multi Media Revolution.
As long as the regulators are afraid of what might happen in Canada if the communications companies are given freedom to experiment, then nothing will happen. The problem is it is happening elsewhere and Canada is losing its lead as an innovator in the communications field.
HOW MANY WIRES
The telcos and some people in the federal government have been pushing the idea that a single wire run by one company is the answer. This I cannot accept.
First, I believe that there is more than enough potential for both the telcos and the cable companies in the years to come to absorb all their energies simply providing new services.
Secondly, their plants are so essentially different; the telcos providing a switched low capacity network and the cable companies providing a basically unswitched high capacity network, that they are really complementary in many ways. If they continue to bicker about who should do what, both could be upstaged by the new developments referred to earlier in this paper.
Thirdly, I am fundamentally against the idea of having only one supplier of anything. Canada years ago decided it would not have just a single airline or a single railway or a single radio broadcasting system. I am sure that those of you in the computer field would also believe that your field has benefitted by not just having IBM.
I believe that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission now believes this. This was demonstrated in their recent decision on the CNCP interconnect issue.
I believe the telcos and the cable companies can work together for some types of applications. However, I have no concern either about direct competition between the two where practical, e.g. security systems.
I also have no objection to the telcos becoming programmers if their programming operations are kept at arms length. The cable companies should do the same. This is the same argument that I presented years ago when Bell wanted to enter the computer services industry. The concept was accepted by the federal government. It made sense then and I believe it makes sense now. The cable companies welcome competition. Even now they are not monopolies as there is all the over-the-air competition I have talked about in this paper.
Cable companies are the other local loop. While it may not make sense to have dozens of local loops servicing a home, I am firmly of the belief that we should not have just one.
I hope we put this single wire concept to bed once and for all and realise there will be and should be many paths into the home, both over-the-air and through wires, in the Multi Media Revolution in the 80’s and beyond.