Who knows what the future will bring? In 2017 we saw the growing dominance of DIRECTV NOW, the coming of DIRECTV’s Genie 2 and Hopper 3, and we finally saw Apple try to take back some leadership. Will 2018 be another big year for consumer technology or will it be just another lurch forward toward the future? Here’s what I think, and if history is any indication, I’ll probably be fairly wrong.
It’s a no-brainer to say that traditional pay-TV will continue to shrink in 2018. That’s just sort of a given. However, I think we’ll see some real innovation from the major pay-TV players that give them the ability to offer more value to customers who want to pay under $100/month and still have traditional pay-TV. I think the big change in 2018 is that sports programming will start to leave the “basic tiers” of all pay-TV companies. This is a move that started with streaming and is gaining steam. It’s bad news for customers who love to watch live sports because they’ll probably pay more, but with about half of pay-TV watchers telling their companies they don’t care about televised sports, it’s easy pickings when you’re trying to get your rate down.
I have no doubt that we’ll see some company or other with a truly wild piece of hardware (think of TiVo’s “monster” DVR prototype from a few years ago, but that’s not where it’s going with pay TV. The buzzword for 2018 will be cost-saving, not high-tech. Today’s pay-TV equipment is advanced enough for 99% of people and so there’s not a lot of room to move.
It’s also a no-brainer to say that we’ll see some concrete answers on what DIRECTV will be doing when they turn off local standard-definition programming sometime in 2019. Will they keep a small number of SD national channels, or put more HD nationals on their 101 satellite? Marine, RV, and aviation customers await the answer.
The FCC surprised most of us (myself included) when they did an end run around Congress and said that ATSC 3.0 broadcasts could start immediately. I still think that’s probably not going to hold up if someone sues, but I don’t think anyone will. I think we’ll see some trial broadcasts throughout the year and a few stations going full-time with their ATSC 3.0 mirrors.
That means there’s going to be a big opening for a company that can supply ATSC 3.0 tuners for today’s TVs, and believe me our product department is working hard to fill that need. Unfortunately, they probably won’t be in the $50 range like they were last time, at least not right away.
We’ll also see the first phases of the “repack” that will move TV broadcasting off channels 38-51 so that new cell towers can start using those frequencies. If you’re an antenna TV watcher, rescan for channels every month or so to make sure you don’t miss anything.
You don’t need me to tell you that streaming is huge and it’s only going to get huger, if that’s even a word. What I don’t expect is anything really new in streaming this year. DIRECTV NOW and Sling TV will keep growing and adding features, while Netflix, Hulu and Amazon will continue to add original content. The real loser here is the person who likes to watch old movies, because those streaming giants don’t terribly care about old movies. You’ll be lucky if you find what you’re looking for on a commercial-laden free app, otherwise you’ll be renting from your app store of choice.
One trend that I’m really watching carefully are live streaming apps that don’t have broadcast ties. I’m talking about Comet and other apps that provide a single content stream for free, as if they were a TV channel. I think there’s a real possibility we’ll see some growth there. In the last decade we’ve seen networks like MeTV, GetTV, Buzzr! and such take up subchannels but with the channel repack they may be pushed off the air. The logical place for these boomer-friendly channels is streaming, where they can be offered for free with commercials.
On the hardware side, it’s hard to see where there’s any room for improvement. Every major streaming box maker has a 4K box now, and while Apple still lags behind in 4K audio, I’m not sure that makes a huge difference. Most likely we’ll continue to see drops in price for highly capable boxes and streaming sticks but I don’t think we’ll see truly high-end hardware at a truly high-end price in ’18.
Cellular and internet
In 2018, we’ll stop talking about cellular and home internet as if they were two different things. With the move toward 5G fixed wireless, they’ll be the same thing. Right now you pay twice, once for home internet and once for cell internet, but in the future (if not in 2018) there will be one bill and that’s it. Millennials already use their phones for all their internet needs at home, and soon you’ll use wireless too. There’s a big threat looming for wireline companies like Comcast and Spectrum, because wireless companies are gunning for the home market and they don’t need tons of underground wiring to do it.
This is going to be very similar to the 1990s where DIRECTV and DISH proved that you don’t have to be a slave to the local cable company… AT&T and others are poised to show you that you don’t have to pay one of those companies for internet either, and that’s very exciting.
A word about politics
This isn’t a political blog and I try to stay out of that stuff unless it has something to do with consumer electronics. However, I think politics in ’18 are going to be impossible to avoid. If you thought you were inundated in ’16, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. It’s going to politics-palooza, that’s what I’m thinking.
I guess the last thing to say… as a representative of an AT&T dealer I have stayed out of the matter of net neutrality this time. I don’t plan on changing that now, only to say that I don’t think things are completely settled, regardless of recent FCC statements and actions. I think we’ll see 2018 shaped by challenges and counter-challenges to any proposed rulemaking.