Thursday, February 13, 2014

QUBE evermore

You may not have given as much thought as you should to the news that Comcast is buying Time Warner.  Rest assured, if the deal goes through it will impact you in one way or another if you are a cable, internet or electronic communications user of any kind. If you think you aren't such a user, you just don't realize it.

The deal is a culmination of decades of competition in the cable industry, if it can even be legitimately be called just the cable industry any longer. Where once there were a host of small regional, (the Rigas are still in jail by the way) in some cases hyper-local cable companies, the industry saw the power of controlling national market shares. Thus began the franchise wars which are culminating in the deal just announced.  

Where did that competition begin. Some will argue the point, but that competition to control cable systems took a big leap forward in the bids to bring cable to the city of Pittsburgh in 1982.  Pittsburgh was one of the last major cities to have an installed cable infrastructure in the early 1980s. Thus the joke that nothing ever happens in Pittsburgh until it has been used elsewhere for a quarter century.  But the economies of scale then in play meant that only a single provider would be licensed for a new cable system in Pittsburgh.  The competition between the major cable companies at the time marked a feeding frenzy of side deals and what would only later be called "community benefits agreements" as companies sought to build coalitions of public support for their bids. It was in the end the most political of processes with city council having say over who eventually was awarded the license. It was pretty cutthroat since unlike many of our tempests, there was real money at stake. I don't think we saw the same dynamic again until the awarding of the casino license decades later.

So Warner Communications bought a small company that had developed (built) a unique cable system in Columbus called QUBE and used the new technology as its selling point to eventually win the Pittsburgh license. The information infrastructure put into Pittsburgh had a much larger bandwidth than most cable systems of the day. The wider bandwidth allowed for more channels, but also an innovative interactive/two-way service (remember this was a decade before the WWW and the Internet was still considered a bridge between other networks such as Bitnet and Arpanet among others). So there was an upstream data capacity you could subscribe to. I really want to say the bandwidth was on the order of bits per minute, but that might be an exaggeration, but it was potentially revolutionary. The business model didn't work (and in Pittsburgh I suspect few frugal Pittsburghers in the mid 1980s were paying for the premium two-way cable service to play some rather rudimentary games and what-not). 

Some of the legacies of that competition remain in play today. If you are a city resident and still see two coaxial cables in your home (I think most are gone, but not all).. technology limitations of the time required the 2nd coax was to support the higher bandwidth of the original QUBE system. Also the city's community access cable channel (Channel 21??) was funded by the cable operator as part of the initial license agreement. Likely it would not exist if not for the competition that took place back in the 1980s.  Also the local service center for Comcast in the West End was part of the deal as many constituencies wanted some local jobs created out of the whole deal. Also the continuing existence of the city commission regulating cable services in the city (Pittsburgh Cable Advisory Committee_, they used to air their meetings, surprisingly enough, on the city's cable channel.  Hey, who is being appointed to those spots? (I think the seats are mostly, but not entirely, appointed city council district actually, but that is from memory)

Readers have heard that from me before in various forms. I've gone over in previous posts, but also in legacy modes (that would be the oped). See: PG (2004) Fade to black, QUBE had city on the cutting edge in the 1980s. Interesting to look back now that we are reaching a certain culmination of the consolidation trends long underway in the industry. Looking forward we will likely have more of the issues pop up as the industry redefines both its technology and business models.

Remarkably, and the more I think about it, the analogy between QUBE and the awarding of the casino license is pretty strong. In both cases the final award went to an unexpected bidder who failed soon after the business was up and running. Both fractured a lot of local politics and left legacies that persisted decades into the future.


Anonymous MH said...

Thanks. I wondered why we had two cables.

Thursday, February 13, 2014 11:59:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

The second order impacts of that 2nd coax go beyond the whole QUBE thing. Since we then had a lot more bandwidth in the city, Pittsburgh dropped off any priority list for upgrades for years. Thus most all other big cities had fiber infrastructure put in through the 90s, but Pittsburgh did not. Thus you could not get a lot of high speed data services here until they finally got around to it. I wish I had data for prevalence of dial-up use by metro in 2000.

Friday, February 14, 2014 9:12:00 AM  
Anonymous MH said...

We have crappy bandwidth now, but I always assumed that was because of the ISP's war on Netflix. Now I suppose I'll have to consider that they are telling the truth.

Friday, February 14, 2014 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

QUBE games! I remember one involved selecting one one four boats to board. In each round, the more viewers who wound up in your boat, the more points you'd receive… unless your boat took on TOO MANY viewers, and it would capsize, yielding no points. That was the whole game. I think whoever "won" after a dozen rounds, their names would go on the screen.

We didn't have that giant box, we had a big chunky remote control with a cord. Might've been the last generation hardware before they disappeared.

Saturday, February 15, 2014 1:34:00 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

One minor correction. Warner did not buy a small Columbus cable system called Qube. They had an existing cable system in Columbus and began Qube as a way to grow the system with technology developed in conjunction with Pioneer into the nextgen of cable service.

The Columbus system was the template for pitches to major cities including not just Pittsburgh, but also Cincinnati and Houston, which were in the process of awarding cable franchises.

Qube eventually was shut down and reverted to a conventional cable system. It lives on though. Nickelodean, MTV and Showtime are among the channels that began with the original Columbus programming.

BTW, I worked at both the Columbus and Pittsburgh Qube systems.

Monday, February 17, 2014 5:12:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

Warner did not buy a small Columbus cable system called Qube

Noted. Thanks. Stripping of lead paint in my 100 year old home must be eroding my memory.

Monday, February 17, 2014 6:38:00 PM  
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