The cable distributors, particularly Comcast, have been watching the wireless world carefully, not wanting to be left behind. In 2010, Comcast found a way to hang on to subscribers who wanted to watch television on their new tablets. It dumped the Comcast brand; relabeled its “TV Everywhere” service “Xfinity”; created apps for the iPad, iPhone, Kindle Fire, Xbox and whatever else came along; and told its pay-TV subscribers that they were getting a free app. The result: a seamless, Comcast-branded experience across TV, Internet and mobile.
Subscribers took to the Xfinity iPad application at once, with more than a million downloads in a few months. And if consumers eventually decide that the speed of a conventional wired cable Internet connection is not worth what Comcast charges for it and move to a wireless connection, Comcast can still be represented by its popular content. By early 2012, Comcast’s revenue per subscriber was up to an astonishing average of $143 a month, an increase of almost 140 percent over 10 years.
Now, the communications industry is at a point of equipoise. Each of the major actors is too big for any of the others to swallow or crush. Profits are climbing, allowing the companies to pay ever-higher dividends. Cash is piling up; investment in infrastructure is down, because there is no competitive pressure to increase it. Increasingly, poor and rural people are being left behind or relegated to second-best wireless substitutes for high-speed Internet access. But those zippy iPad apps look just great.
Susan Crawford is a contributor to Bloomberg View and a visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School. She is a former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy.