Roundtripping to the Cloud

meliesSunday I finally pulled the trigger on a move I’ve been contemplating for a very long time. If you’d asked me 5 or even 10 years ago whether I’d move back to Comcast for anything except virtual dominatrix sessions, I’d have made, and lost, a sizable bet. That’s what I did on Sunday, consolidated a lot of services round Comcast and its Triple Play suite of services.

Since some point in the last century when I threw over Comcast for satellite television, we’ve been customers of Dish Network and its parent Echostar. For the past few years, we’ve held out against HDTV, but an upsell by Comcast, whose broadband service we switched to from DSL two years ago, brought us a free HD DVR and most disruptively Comcast on demand channels for only some $20 a month more.

Once inside our perimeter, Comcast fanned out and attacked us in several key areas. The DVR and our only HD screen in the living room became the locus of the high value all-family shows we valued. But what I hadn’t immediately realized was that HD eats dramatically into the 20-hour recording time, forcing us to triage shows toward the more common denominator of the family and inexorably toward the on-demand cache.

Comcast on-demand is the frontier of media change, where pricing models vie not just with free and varied network strategies but also the computer and disruptors such as Hulu. NBC charges $.99 sense for the last 4 editions of 30 Rock, but you can watch that same range on Hulu for the price of watching some on-demand commercials. The list of free network shows is growing on CBS and ABC, including the delicious Damages on FX.

We’ve tapered off on the cable political shows, but with the Dish DVRs and their more plentiful 80 hours storage we could warehouse them. Olbermann and Maddow are now released on podcast, so switching to Comcast has become more doable. The basic come-on package that brought Comcast in only includes HBO for HD movies, so the combination of family consensus, limited recording time, and having to pay for all the Dish movie channels in POTS (plain old television stations) resolution began to grate.

Of course, these cable guys know exactly what is going on here, what they can charge and offer to get us to think about switching, and then how to push us over the edge. I’m convinced that they are behind the worldwide financial crisis, finally forcing us to actually add up the cost of all these services and then give us a “deal” that cost, in our case, $55 a month less.

Now we’re an all-Comcast household, with phone, broadband, and video. Somehow I’ve gone over to a world where we used to scream with hatred at unexplained outages that were rivaled only by hold times to have the privilege of informing them that service was interrupted. To be fair (can’t believe I’m being fair about Comcast) the pilot installation was remarkable for its stability; broadband service promised (and ultimately delivered) substantially higher speeds than the AT&T DSL service before it, but suffered for several months before settling down.

But the real reason I even entertained the notion of the switch was because of the new dynamics of the network. It’s not so much that Comcast has to maintain a reasonable standard of quality in the face of real competition from satellite, although that certainly has helped bring cable back with its bundled services and HD coverage. More importantly, Net services such as Netflix and Slingbox have made it possible to route around both cable and satellite for all but breaking news.

No, wait, breaking news is flipping too. CBS Interactive makes 60 Minutes available on its site soon after broadcast, and I listened to the ground to air chatter of the Flight that went into the Hudson from a Dan Farber Tweet hours before I saw it the next morning on the Today show.

Then there’s the loop back to the cloud, the upstream link. A week ago, we recorded a NewsGang Live discussion streamed live on Ustream. NewsGang combines a phone conference call with video from my MacBook Air, an open source free video switching tool called CamTwist, and another open source audio switching tool called Soundflower to create the video stream. Ustream has released an iPhone app that streams the show live where WiFi is available, but not yet over 3G.

In the process of getting all these services to route over the MacBook AIr, I’d somehow forgotten to turn on recording of the conference call audio, but luckily the video was recording to the Ustream server. When I stopped recording at the end of the conversation, a Save prompt offered an Upload to YouTube option. Two hours later the show was on YouTube, which sent an RSS item to FriendFeed, which forwarded it to Twitter. Clicking the Twitter link on the iPhone plays the show over 3G.

Even in these early days, two-way realtime media is now available. The former gatekeepers are now competing to provide services to enable this elastic network. You could call it cloud computing and you’d be right. As with PCs and consumer electronics, it’s not so much that costs drop as that capabilities grow. The dial, which used to be set on receive only, is now moving toward the center, where straight up, symmetrical services, is the new black.

Like voice in Triple Play, satellite needs to be bundled to survive. Not coincidentally, Echostar’s Charles Ergen has been buying up SIrius/XM notes in hopes of forcing a takeover either by him or, as now appears likely DIrectTV owner John Malone. Satellite has no play upstream, and a satellite consolidation will likely be just the first step in bundling the Net to complete the roundtrip.