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Cutting the Pay TV Cord
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Link-Up Digital

Recently, a friend wanted to change her "Triple Play" services from Comcast. Like many, she gets Internet, TV, and phone service now from the same company. She heavily uses Internet and phone, not TV, and wanted to drop to a less expensive TV package.

Comcast would let her do this only if she also dropped to less robust Internet and phone packages. So she dropped Comcast and went with a competitor.

Frustrated by cable, fiber, and satellite companies forcing you to subscribe to TV channels you don't watch and making channels you do watch part of expensive bundles, some people are going further by dropping pay TV completely. "Cutting the cord" is the name for the practice of severing the conventional pay TV connection for free or low-cost content.

Cord cutters have two main options. They can go forward in time, getting their TV content through their Internet connection. Or they can go backward in time, getting TV over the air through an antenna. A third approach is to combine both.

The advantages are price and control. Instead of paying in the triple digits every month for TV, you get your TV and movies for free or low cost, like your parents and grandparents did. Like a citizen of the Digital Age, you decide what content you want.

These moves are still in their early phases. Only 5% of broadband Internet users get their TV through the Internet, according to a recent survey by Fiber to the Home Council (www.ftthcouncil.org). As you would expect, younger people are at the vanguard. Fully 13% of people younger than 35 stream all of their TV. Half of these 13% have never purchased a pay-TV subscription.

Rabbit-ears TV, a related trend, is on the comeback. Countering the move over the past several decades toward pay cable, fiber, and satellite TV, the number of people taking advantage of free over-the-air broadcast TV has increased 38% over the past four years, according to a recent survey by GfK Media & Entertainment (www.gfk.com). These numbers are skewed more toward younger people, minorities, and lower-income families.

Recognizing the market opportunities presented by new technology as well as the frustration with pay television companies, computer companies are trying to horn in on the action. Apple (www.apple.com/appletv), Google (www.google.com/tv), Intel (www.intel.com), and Sony (www.sony.com) are all working on Internet-delivery TV platforms. None yet has the critical mass of content and subscribers to ensure long-term success.

The big players today are established Internet content delivery companies, in particular Youtube (www.youtube.com), Hulu (www.hulu.com), and Netflix (www.netflix.com).

You can stream movies, TV shows, and short video clips to your computer, tablet, smartphone, or gaming console, or you can stream them to a WiFi-enabled TV. Many new TVs have WiFi adapters built in, and with many more you can buy an optional WiFi adapter. One recommended solution is a Roku set top box (www.roku.com) hooked to a TV.

There's overlap among Youtube, Hulu, and Netflix, though Youtube is strongest with free short clips, Hulu with free and pay TV offerings, and Netflix with pay movies. There's no reason you can't use all three.

Then there's piracy. Some people obtain movies and TV illegally over the Internet. I interviewed one such copyright crook for this story. His method is to download entire movies and TV seasons overnight, store them on his laptop, then to hook a digital projector to his laptop and watch what he wants when he wants on the wall of his apartment.

He had been getting content from a US-based "BitTorrent" website, BitTorrent being a file-sharing protocol, but it was recently forced to shut down. Now he uses a BitTorrent site based in the Philippines. He personally has never gotten caught, but "It's always in the back of my mind," he says.

Penalties for such piracy in the US, according to reports, can range from a fine between $750 and $30,000 per illegally downloaded work to up to five years in prison. Often lawsuits are brought by a motion picture studio or association and settled out of court. When cases go to court, judges have a lot of discretion, with people making money off pirating content and consumers who filch a lot of material typically getting hit hardest.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that, relatively speaking, consumers of pirated content rarely get caught. But the threat of getting caught is always there, and this deterrent is primarily what television and movie companies rely on.

Free and low-cost content is out there, so why take the chance


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgoldsborough@gmail.com or reidgold.com.


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